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The locale of the Collection Houses Museum may be one of Tel Aviv's most peculiar secrets. A stone's throw from the beach, it is wedged between industrial Jaffa and the bougainvillea of south Tel Aviv. A massive military museum, it documents the history of the Israel Defense Forces pre-Independence War up to the present time.
The museum is home to thousands of weapons from pistols and secret weapons to tanks and hand-built metallic monsters, many of which frame the skyline offering a rare view of the city. The large yard accommodates rows of artillery such as field guns, anti-tank guns, and anti-aircraft guns, while special enclosed pavilions highlight aspects of war and military life including mementos such as wartime stamps and drawings, letters from foreign dignitaries, and artwork depicting Israel's military heroes and leaders.
The entrance to the museum is off busy Rehov Eilat, yet nary a sign indicates the museum's whereabouts, making it easy to drive by and miss the entrance, which can be reached via Rehov Elifelet from the south or from Rehov Eilat if going westbound toward the sea.
"We know that few people know about the museum," says a clerk.
"It's nice to visit the museum alone anyway," she says.
Inside the museum you'll find a heavy metal haven where garden pathways are lined with cannons, tanks, and armored buses.
According to its brochure, the museum was set up to document the history of the Israel Defense Forces from the beginning of the struggle for statehood up to the present day. Filled with memoirs and curios from soldiers' private collections, the museum is a modest and serene attempt to do that, whether or not one cares for military hardware and its accompanying pomp and circumstance.
The tanks are the dominant attraction of the site, but there are also several days' worth of exploring through film, maps, models, historic documents, and authentic weapons. Covered gazebos offer shaded picnic areas for lunch.
Although many of the museum's pavilions look like they could have been put together by a soldier's loving grandmother, a tour mapped out by the brochure is quite organized, even if missing one of the newer sights - the Communications Pavilion. The guard who doubles as the audiovisual operator says it is a new display. Expect to find lots more glory bestowed on the carrier pigeons than up-to-date IDF stratagems.
The English commentary on the displays and equipment is patchy at best, leaving a lot to the imagination; but explanations and texts are also not entirely clear for Hebrew-speaking visitors, either.
In front of the ticket kiosk, where the recommended tour starts, is the War of Independence shed, full of homemade armor-plated vehicles used during pre-state conflicts. One such vehicle is the "monster," one of the better-known vehicles of the time, which was designed to break through stone barricades of enemies in the north.
Down the path and to the left is the Mortars Pavilion, a room full of portable mortars from past and present. Mortars are used to fire shells at low velocities and short ranges. They are considered relatively simple and easy to operate, and are usually used by infantry.
Directly across from the mortars is a room full of earlier IDF weaponry in service from the War of Independence to the Sinai War in 1956. These include somewhat ineffective flamethrowers - one circa 1940s is tacked to the wall - and the Davidka mortar, a noisy combination of cannon and mortar that was effective in convincing enemies that the Hagana had a secret weapon during the 1948 War of Independence. In this room, as in many others, there is an overwhelming amount of newspaper clippings and a hodgepodge of documents, mementos, stripes, tea sets, and trophies - resembling a cross between a shrine and a flea market. Somehow, it is charming.
The Ministers of Defense and Army Chiefs of Staff Pavilion is the most campy of all the displays. Past military figures such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, former chief of staff Yigael Yadin, and late premier Menachem Begin command separate sections on parts of the walls, paid homage to by wood carvings, photos, and plaques of valor. The most impressive and ominous is the wall built for war hero turned politician Moshe Dayan, his patch in pastel, oil, and bronze.
Outside, street cats and kittens play peek-a-boo among the artillery lineup. Down the path and around the corner to the right is a tank stripped of one of its walls, which allows visitors to see how mannequin soldiers operate tanks in combat. The sea breeze at this point is excellent. Though the machines are well preserved, the salty air is probably one of the reasons why layers of khaki paint are found dripping off the tanks and artillery.
For those into exotic guns, there is a Rifle and Machine Guns Pavilion - otherwise known as the Yom Kippur War Pavilion - which holds some 450 types of rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns, many of them donated by Diaspora Jews for the War of Independence. A couple of cute mannequins in fatigues play among the Uzis and rifles from France, Iran, and Spain to name a few.
In the nearby Tanks Shed is a collection of tanks, from the first Sherman used by the IDF to the Israeli-made Merkava. Behind the Tanks Shed, close to the ticket kiosk, two Ras Nazrani coastal guns are easy to miss. The Egyptians positioned the guns near the Tiran straits to block sea traffic to the Gulf of Eilat. Their positioning was reported to be one of the main causes of the Sinai War, also known as the Suez Operation, in 1956.
Near the museum's exit, a pistol pavilion boasts a handgun collection of about 550 types - some very rare - including pistols from Montenegro, Poland, and the US; air guns; sporting pistols; and special handguns from Finland. Like the rifles and machine guns, the pistols were sent to Israel by Jews from around the world on the eve of the War of Independence.
Many soldiers and students, says the security guard, come to the museum on organized tours to learn about the country's past.
"Not every day at the museum is as quiet as this one," he explains.