Life & Culture

The enduring legacy of Israel's first fighting force

The Palmach set down a tradition of military might even before the country was born


This year marks 70 years since the founding of the Palmach, a force of Jewish fighters consisting of both men and women, who showed the world that even in their darkest hour Jews could still fight.

The word Palmach is a combination of the Hebrew words plugot mahatz meaning "strike companies". They were the first effective fighting force of Jews, the spearhead of the Haganah, soldiers in an army that did not yet exist and citizens of a state that had not yet been declared. Their job was to protect the Jews of Palestine against Arab attack if the British retreated, and to prevent a potential Nazi-led invasion of Palestine.

Veterans of the Palmach made a huge impact on Israel, both during the War of Independence and in the years afterwards. From generals and politicians to poets and professors, they rose to the top of their chosen fields, and went on to inspire further generations of Israelis with their example of courage and self-sacrifice.

One man for whom the Palmach cast a profound influence is former National Security Adviser Major General Uzi Dayan. Uzi, the nephew of perhaps Israel's most famous fighter, Moshe Dayan, says that the he felt the influence of the Palmach while leading his soldiers throughout his own military career in the IDF. Uzi's father, Zorik, was killed in one of the first battles of the War of Independence while fighting in the Palmach. "Whenever I led my soldiers I remembered the code of the Palmach, especially that of leading by example. For 17 years I served in Israeli Special Forces and we lived by the same operational code laid down by the fighters in the Palmach - in short you don't have to salute or shave but your weapon better be clean!" Uzi says.

Veteran Jacob Gat vividly recalls his experience as a member of one of the strike companies. "I grew up in Tel Aviv and left home at the age of 14. By the age of 16 I was a soldier in the Palmach. We trained at Kibbutz Ramat David in the Sharon area. We worked our jobs on the kibbutz and in between we would train. We had so little ammunition that throughout all of my training I never fired a single shot."

That all changed once training was completed and his small team was sent to the area around Safad to take on the irregular armed forces of the guerrilla general Kaukji who had crossed into Palestine in early 1948 and directed attacks on Jewish communities settled there.

"We fought around Ein Zeitim, in the Safad area. I remember following my officer to storm a hill overlooking the whole area. It was held by Kaukji's men and we had to take it. One unit created a diversion while we took them by surprise from the other direction. My officer was called Dov. I heard him shout the order to attack after we had sneaked up the hill and we rushed the enemy, taking their position. I would have followed Dov anywhere," he says.

Not everyone was a fan of the Palmach. Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, was particularly wary of this charismatic group of fighters, a significant proportion of whom were drawn from left-wing kibbutzim. According to professor of history at Ben-Gurion University, Benny Morris: "Ben-Gurion was worried about the Palmachniks and prevented them from rising within the establishment. That's why you don't see much of the famous members such as David Elazar, Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Bar-Lev during the 1950s. In the 1960s and onwards the Palmach veterans were making their influence felt."

It was during this time that a wave of former Palmach commanders took their place at the helm of the Israeli military and political establishment. Rabin, who commanded the Palmach's Harel Brigade in the War of Independence, was appointed chief of staff in 1964.

Another veteran, Zvi Zamir, headed the Mossad from 1968, and Haim Bar Lev became chief of staff in that same year, with Moshe Dayan taking the role of Defence Minister in the run-up to the Six-Day War in 1967.

Today, 70 years after being founded, the rule book that the Palmach wrote is still followed by the IDF, which was formed from the infrastructure of the Palmach and the Haganah after the 1948 war was won.

"In the good units of the IDF their ethos can still be felt today" Morris says. The motto of the Israeli paratroopers is "follow me", after the Palmach doctrine of dugma ishit (leadership by example), a principle also adopted by many Zionist youth movements."

And he adds that the Palmach's pre-state experience was fundamental to Israel's later military success.

"They provided the shield behind which the county mobilised for war seven years later."

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