The Battle of Kibbutz Gesher - history

The stand of Kibbutz Gesher in the War of Independence would be described by military historian Meir Pa’il as more impressive than that of any of the settlements fending off attacks.

By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
May 8, 2019 20:10
An IDF soldier stands guard outside the kibbutz Gesher police station during the War of independence

An IDF soldier stands guard outside the kibbutz Gesher police station during the War of independence. . (photo credit: GPO)

It was in the reddish tint of the setting sun that Pnina saw the first indication of approaching battle – a long line of flashes descending the hills of Gilead across the Jordan River.

“Everything you see there will soon be here,” a member of Kibbutz Gesher who was standing near her said in an even tone. It was a moment before Pnina understood that the flashes were reflections from the windshields of an approaching convoy of enormous length. It was May 14, 1948, four hours after the announcement of Israel’s founding by David Ben-Gurion, and the Iraqi army was already at the gates.

The isolated kibbutz in the Jordan Valley had already undergone a grueling encounter with Jordan’s Arab Legion two weeks earlier. Gesher had evacuated its casualties and its children since then and strengthened its defenses. In all, the defenders numbered 120. Approaching were two Iraqi brigades – more than 3,000 soldiers supported by artillery and armored vehicles.

The stand of Kibbutz Gesher in the War of Independence would be described by military historian Meir Pa’il as more impressive than that of any of the settlements fending off attacks by the Egyptian army in the South, the Lebanese and Syrian armies in the North and Northeast and the Jordanian and Syrian armies in the East. Gesher’s story, however, would long remain almost unknown to the public, overshadowed by battles at Yad Mordecai, Negba, Deganya and other locales. As isolated in the national mythos as it had been in war, Gesher’s legacy was paradoxically retrieved by the peace treaty with Jordan 25 years ago that permitted access to the battle site, until then a closed border zone on the Jordan River.

Midway between Beit She’an and Tiberias, the kibbutz was revived in 1939 by Palestinian Jews and newcomers from Germany after being abandoned by two earlier settlement groups.

The climate at 230 meters below sea level made living conditions onerous. But the young pioneers generally had enough energy at the end of the workday to dance the hora to harmonica accompaniment. This era gave way abruptly in November 1947, with the UN decision to partition Palestine. Attacks by Bedouin and local Arabs on kibbutz shepherds as they took animals out to pasture were the first portent of things to come. As the Jewish Yishuv prepared for the coming confrontation, it was clear that the outer ring of settlements would bear the brunt of the invasion by Arab armies on May 15, when the British departed. Since the Hagana could not commit its limited forces to static defense, the fate of these border kibbutzim would rest largely on the shoulders of the settlers themselves, both men and women.

Some of the Gesher settlers had already been mobilized into Hagana brigades that were being formed. A Gesher man, Yitzhak Broshi, was commander of the Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion, whose area of responsibility included Gesher itself. In March, the Hagana dispatched engineer David Laskov to supervise construction of Gesher’s defenses. As with all kibbutzim, Gesher kept its weapons in slicks – hiding places designed to foil British searches. One was atop a palm tree next to the dining hall where a sack of hand grenades was stashed among the broad leaves. Only a handful of the members knew where the slicks were. “There was always a ladder outside the dining hall,” one would recall, “and the members assumed there was a slick on its roof. No one guessed it was in the tree.”

Three bridges crossed the Jordan adjacent to the kibbutz: an Ottoman railway bridge that had carried traffic between Haifa and Damascus, a vehicular bridge built during the British mandate and one dating to the medieval period. (Gesher is Hebrew for “bridge.”) To guard the bridges, the British had built a police fort just outside the fence of the kibbutz.
The settlers’ main concern was the kibbutz’s 50 children, all under the age of six. The kibbutz also hosted a group of teenagers who had been orphaned in the Holocaust.

THE OLD railway line, which stands close to Kibbutz Gesher. (Credit: GPO)

Despite the eve-of-war edginess, Gesher had decided to celebrate Passover that year as usual. But seats for the Seder were allocated, not by family, but so that husbands and wives could get to their respective fighting positions through the nearest door or window – the windows were kept open for this purpose – if sentries raised the alarm. The Passover decorations were still up when a visiting pianist named Portnoy arrived a few days later to give a concert. Before he started, the alert was sounded and kibbutz members scrambled to their positions. The sentries had seen trucks approaching from the South. The lights in the dining hall were turned off, but the kibbutznikim in the bunkers could hear Portnoy playing for them in the darkness. As the trucks drew closer, they turned toward the vehicular bridge and the cries of children could be heard. The flight of Arab refugees had begun.

On April 27, kibbutz members working in the fields near the police fort saw British trucks driving through its main gate and being loaded. The British were leaving the fort two weeks earlier than expected. Slicks were opened and weapons distributed. As the trucks drove off, kibbutz members raced into the fort and bolted the gates.

Although war had not yet been declared, Jordan’s King Abdullah decided to capture the fort in order to secure a bridgehead on the river’s western bank before the war got underway in earnest on May 15. Arab notables gathered on the river’s eastern bank to watch the event, including Abdullah’s son, Talal (father of Hussein, future king) and senior army officers.
The entire kibbutz, including the animal pens, was only 19 dunams (about five acres). It was in the worst possible tactical position, on a low-lying slope next to the river dominated by high ground.

Shells began to fall at dusk. Artillery on nearby hills fired over open sights directly into the kibbutz.  In the light of burning haystacks, the men in the fort could see sheep and cows which had escaped from their  pens running through the kibbutz until cut down.

A HOUSE on Kibbutz Gesher destroyed by the Syrian Army  during the War of Independence. (Credit: GPO)

THE OPENING of the battle by the British-officered Arab Legion – more than two weeks before the British mandate ended – created a situation the settlers had not prepared for: entrapment of the kibbutz children within the battle zone. The children were taken to the only secure space in the kibbutz – an underground command bunker. Into an area of 12 square meters, the 50 children and their metaplot (“nannies”) found places on the floor. The command staff tried to maintain contact with outposts amid what soon became bedlam.

During the night, 40 men from other kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley infiltrated Gesher from the North along with battalion commander Broshi, whose wife and children were in the kibbutz. The reinforcements had been rushed to Gesher from a battle at Tsemach, at the lower end of Lake Kinneret. They quickly fell asleep despite the racket. Broshi soon departed for his headquarters at Kibbutz Kinneret where he was directing the battle against Arab irregulars all through the valley and the lower Galilee.

Members of the youth group carried ammunition and messages to the fighting bunkers via trenches. Years later, one of the metaplot, Michal, would recall how, before the battle started, the children were preparing to leave the “children’s house,” where they lived together, for the afternoon meeting with their parents, the high point of the day. They were brought instead to the command bunker. With the outbreak of firing, the youngest began crying and calling for their mothers. “At nine,” said Michal, “we prepared them for sleep, but it was so crowded that if one child put out a foot another one had no place to put his head. And the crying did not stop.”

Idit, a mother serving in one of the firing positions, was dispatched to the command bunker during the night. “The shelling was terrible but the scene inside the bunker was much worse,” she would relate. “They were looking for one of the babies and found him under a bench. The exhausted metaplot were holding children on their knees. I picked up my daughter and she said ‘Oded started with me.’ Since Oded was always ‘starting with her,’ she attributed the situation she was now in to him. When I returned to my post, one of the men serving there (a future Knesset member) looked at me and gave me a cigarette. I kept silent in order not to burst into tears.”

During a halt in the firing, Michal made her way to the children’s house to fetch diapers and clothing. “When I entered I almost blacked out. The beds were destroyed. I found the sack of clothing we had prepared and got out of there.” Michal received permission to move with 15 of the children to a building that had been girded with sandbags during the night.

On the second night, a platoon of fighters reached the kibbutz with orders to bring out the children and wounded. The children were told they must be absolutely silent. No crying. No talking. Every child would give a hand to an adult. Babies would be carried. Then, for the first time in 32 hours, the children were taken out into the fresh air. There was some crying at first but it soon died away.

For Ziva Levy, then three-and-a-half, it would be her earliest memory. “I remember being frightened. They told me ‘Ziva, you’re a big girl. Your mother is a medic and is needed here. Your father is staying, too, like all the men. One of the grown-ups will take your hand.”

SOME OF the wounded were carried on stretchers. Also making the trek were elderly parents, including a man with one leg, and a 65-year-old woman, a retired doctor who had been treating wounded during the shelling.

There was a 400-meter-wide gap between the river bank and Arab irregulars on the high ground west of Gesher, and it was through this corridor that the column made its way. It had not been possible to find shoes for some of the children in the rush and they walked barefoot. Ziva would recall sliding down a steep slope on her backside but refraining from crying despite the nettles. It was close to midnight when they arrived at Ashdod Ya’acov, five kilometers to the north. The entire kibbutz was outside waiting for them. Welcoming hands reached out for the children.

Their departure eased the pressure on Gesher’s defenders enormously. Word of their safe arrival was flashed from Ashdod Ya’acov by signal lamp and passed to all positions.

After a quiet night, the third day of battle opened with a deep-throated roar as the Legion used its heavier artillery  for the first time. The 25-pound shells punched holes in the police fortress and smashed into the kibbutz. At 9:30 a.m., the firing suddenly ceased. In the eerie silence, a small green car appeared from the direction of the bridges and passed serenely in front of the kibbutz positions, a hand projecting from the driver’s window holding a white flag. The car stopped in front of the fort and an impeccably dressed British major emerged. Ephraim “Dubi” Bar, one of the kibbutz leaders, came out of the front gate to meet him.

“I want to speak to the commanding officer of the police post,” said the officer.

“You’re speaking to him,” said Bar.

The officer scanned the grimy, unshaven figure in work clothes and took in the Schmeisser submachine gun he was holding.
“We have to stop this foolish waste of ammunition,” said the Englishman.

“[It was] not we have begun it and not we [who] can stop it,” said Bar.

The officer wanted to pass through the kibbutz roadblock to meet with the Jewish district officer in the Jezreel Valley, an old acquaintance, to negotiate a ceasefire. (Communication between the fort and the “camp” was usually by flags signaling in Morse code but sometimes messages were shouted in Yiddish, a language that presumably would not be understood by the Arab irregulars within earshot.)

Above: AN AERIAL view of where Kibbutz Gesher stands today.  (Credit: Gesher)

Another car, driven by the Jewish manager of the nearby Naharayim hydro-electric plant, Avraham Daskal, appeared later in the day. The plant was a Jewish enterprise on Jordanian soil, and Daskal, whose electricity served both Jews and Arabs, had friendly relations with King Abdullah. He came bearing an ultimatum from the king to surrender in half an hour or see the kibbutz “destroyed to its foundations.” The kibbutz leaders told Daskal to tell the king that consultation with a higher authority was necessary. The ultimatum was eventually extended until noon the next day.

That night, in a heated discussion, it was decided to evacuate the remaining women, except for a few with vital skills like medics and signalers. Husbands of the women remaining would be evacuated to ensure that their children would not lose both parents. One man did not agree. “At what point,” he asked, “is a female comrade who fought exactly as we did declared a non-combatant?” At least one woman agreed with him, “Dubi” Bar’s sister, Eli. “I was the commander of a bunker,” she would recall, “and felt it was wrong to save my life when it was clear that those remaining could not hold out more than a day and that the Legion attack would not leave anyone alive in Gesher.”

With the radio no longer functioning, the only communication with the outside world was by signal lamps to Ashdod Ya’acov, which was in direct line-of-sight. The signalers at Ashdod Ya’acov were teenagers who passed on Gesher’s messages to Kibbutz Afikim further north, from where it was flashed to battalion headquarters in Kibbutz Kinneret, more northerly still. The women signalers at Gesher became targets for Arab guns the moment they flashed the lamp from atop a tower.

On this night it fell to Sima Mittleman, a nanny in quieter times, to pass on a message describing the dire situation and asking for reinforcements before dawn. After transmitting her message, she had to wait patiently for it to pass up the line to battalion headquarters and then for the reply to make its way back. If the young Ashdod Ya’acov signalers erred in a word, she would signal for clarification. Every time she flashed, the Arabs opened fire. The strain on nerves and eyes mounted. At one point, the Ashdod Ya’acov signalers could not read part of Mittleman’s message and asked for a repeat. Mittleman boiled the message down to one stark sentence: “No strength to hang on anymore.”

The reply that came back from Broshi contained 155 words, a length which brought curses from signalers along the way. Addressing the members of his own kibbutz, the battalion commander assured them that help was on the way. Mittleman wrote down the message as she deciphered the flashes in the distance. When she descended after three hours, she fainted.
The Legion’s ground attack did not come. The British had warned Abdullah to call off the attack, since the Mandatory government still ruled in Palestine and would for two more weeks.

Two nights later, the kibbutznikim gathered in the battered dining hall. The youth group was invited to join them. In the light of a dim lamp, they shared their feelings about what they had been through and what they could expect. The remains of years of labor lay in ruins around them. Many of their comrades were casualties, and their wives and children were refugees. Despondency was balanced, however, by pride over their stand.

The defenders had suffered five dead and 20 wounded, a low figure considering the pounding the kibbutz had taken. It was attributable mainly to the stoutness of Laskov’s defenses, uncompleted though they were. But the real war would come soon enough.

The plan drawn up by the Arab high command for the invasion of Palestine called for a four-pronged thrust. The Egyptian army would feint toward Tel Aviv to draw off Hagana forces. The Syrians would come down through Lebanon and push for Nazareth and Afula. The Jordanians would head for Afula via Beit She’an. The Iraqis would cross the river at Gesher and likewise drive for Afula. From there, the combined armies would probably head for Haifa.

In the end, Abdullah decided to push for Jerusalem rather than Afula; the Egyptians decided that their drive towards Tel Aviv was more than a feint; and the Syrians decided to enter Palestine south of Lake Kinneret. Only the Iraqis would adhere to the original plan – a breakthrough via Gesher. At the kibbutz, the members exploited the two weeks until May 15 by strengthening emplacements under Laskov’s direction, The Hagana sent 100 men down from Tiberias every day to help.

(Laskov would serve in the Israeli army into his 80s, as head of a special unit designing innovative weapons and equipment. Among his prolific efforts was the pre-assembled “roller bridge” laid across the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, 25 years after the battle for Gesher.)

Members of other kibbutzim came to assist, and some remained as reinforcements. Pnina was the only woman among 12 members from Kibbutz Beit Zera dispatched to Gesher on May 2. Having completed a five-day crash course in first aid, she was assigned as a medic. An elderly doctor at Gesher taught her and the other new medics how to give injections – first by practicing on oranges and then by letting them inject him.

“I hadn’t even known that Gesher had been in a battle,” she would recall. “I found the atmosphere inviting, even though it was clear that they were expecting a major attack.”

The Golani Brigade sent one of its crack platoons, commanded by Meir Kochinsky of Kibbutz Ein Gev, to man the fort. Kochinsky was a colorful character with a mustache, sparkling eyes and a quip for every occasion. When things became tense, he would play his harmonica. He routinely ended his telephone conversations with the Gesher command post by asking if there was anything “to sip.” If there was, he would dash over for a quick, sociable visit.

The kibbutz now had an anti-tank weapon and an 81-mm mortar that provided a punch previously lacking. Their four light machine guns were augmented by one more and by a medium machine gun with 5,000 bullets that was mounted on the fort.
On May 12, in the midst of the frenzied digging, few paid attention to an elderly looking Arab couple – the woman wearing black Arabic dress and veil and the man with an Arab headdress – being escorted through the kibbutz and crossing the bridge into Naharayim. It was Golda Meir and an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer on their way to a secret meeting with King Abdullah in Amman, in a last attempt by the Yishuv leadership to head off war with Jordan.

The couple was picked up across the bridge by Abdullah’s aide and driven to an innocuous house in the Jordanian capital. The meeting with the king was cordial, but it became clear that war was inevitable. On the way back before dawn, the driver had an attack of nerves as they approached the front and dropped them off two miles from the river. As they approached the bridges on foot, they were met by a Jewish scout who had been sent to look for them.

Two days later, at 4 p.m., the kibbutz members gathered around a radio to hear David Ben-Gurion proclaim establishment of the Jewish state. As the sun began to set, they saw the Iraqi column descending the hills opposite. A telephone linked to battalion headquarters rang shortly afterwards. “Tonight,” said the caller.

KIBBUTZ GESHER in ruins after it was destroyed by the Syrian Army. (Credit: GPO)

PREPARATIONS HAD been made to blow up the bridges, but the timing was left open in case the Jewish employees at the power plant wanted to escape across them. None crossed the bridges, but some forded the river downstream. Others went into captivity. Hagana sappers had placed 400 kilograms of explosives on the medieval and highway bridges. Working in stockinged feet to reduce the chances of being heard, they connected the explosives to a detonator in a kibbutz bunker. Sapper Emil Brigg, from the Golani Brigade, pushed the plunger, but nothing happened. An officer at battalion headquarters telephoned to ask why they heard no blast.

“Back in a minute,” said Brigg. He ran out to the bridges and inserted new fuses into the explosives, which he lit from a cigarette before dashing back. The phone rang again. As the commander in Gesher lifted the receiver, the ground shook and the air was rent by a powerful explosion. The battalion officer on the other end hung up without having to ask his question.
The battalion had not previously considered blowing up the railway bridge because the Iraqis could not move vehicles across it. It was decided now to do the third bridge as well that night. A hasty search was made for more explosives and 150 kilograms assembled. Close to midnight, another explosion severed the last link across this part of the Jordan River. For his action at the Gesher bridges and elsewhere, Brigg would be one of the 12 soldiers awarded Israel’s highest medal for valor in the War of Independence.

With morning, Gesher’s defenders were greeted with the familiar sound of exploding shells. It was, however, merely harassing fire. The main body of Iraqi troops had turned south to cross the river on a pontoon bridge three kilometers downstream. The Hagana opened the dam at Deganya to send water surging into the Jordan from Lake Kinneret, but it did little to impede the Iraqi crossing.

Heavy shelling began the next morning, Sunday, May 16. A mortar shell landed in the fort’s courtyard and fatally wounded one of Kochinsky’s men. In the afternoon, the shelling abruptly halted, signaling an imminent attack. Iraqi troops were deployed on the kibbutz’s southern perimeter and on the “Gamal” (Camel) ridge to the west. The defenders held their fire.

The attack began from the high ground. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers descended the slope in skirmish lines. Confronting them were 20 defenders on the one piece of relatively high ground within the kibbutz itself. Although the Gamal was considerably higher, the defenders enjoyed tactical superiority, since the attackers had to descend an open slope and then come up a rise before they could reach the Israeli fence. The defenders waited until the infantry force was 100 meters away before opening fire with two machine guns, a mortar and small arms. Within moments, the Iraqis were in full retreat, leaving behind dozens of bodies.

The next day, lookouts reported the glint of armor to the south. A line of 24 armored cars bearing two-pound cannons took position 100 meters from the fort. Simultaneously, the Iraqis launched another infantry attack from the Gamal, almost exactly like the day before. Sunday’s scenario repeated itself. This time, the tinder-dry brush on the Gamal’s slope was set afire and a number of wounded Iraqis perished in the flames.

The day’s fighting had only begun. Iraqi light bombers attacked the kibbutz while an Israeli Piper dropped explosive devices on the Iraqi lines, but neither effort achieved anything. With dusk, the armored vehicles surrounded the fort.

Their cannon and armor-piercing bullets punched through the concrete walls.

With the Iraqi gunners aiming at the fort’s gun towers and upper firing slits, the defenders made use of firing holes opened at ground level during the previous two weeks.

A Piat anti-tank weapon knocked out at least four of the armored vehicles. (In crawling from the kibbutz to the fort after dark with the Piat in response to Kochinsky’s call, a kibbutznik named Gazit lost a rubber shock absorber designed to cushion the weapon’s kick. The subsequent recoil dislodged his shoulder and he was treated by Pnina, the visiting medic, whom he hadn’t yet met. They would marry a few months later.)

As the armored cars drew closer to the fort, the defenders resorted to grenades and Molotov cocktails. At 3 a.m., Kochinsky looked out of a firing slit and saw figures below in the moonlight. “Arabs at the gate,” he shouted. The gate was blown open and an armored car pushed its way through but was stopped by a Molotov cocktail.

From his bunker in the kibbutz, “Dubi” Bar could see something the men in the fort could not. The train tracks leading to the railway bridge were in a trench-like cutting which passed 30 meters from the fort. The shouts of Iraqi officers could be heard urging their men forward. From time to time, rows of soldiers began lifting themselves over the lip of the cutting to charge. Each time, the kibbutznikim laid down withering fire and the Iraqis pulled back. The shouts of the Iraqi officers changed from commands to curses. Unable to mount a sustained attack, the armored cars pulled back at dawn and there was silence in the cutting.

The turning point came after a week. An Iraqi company climbed the slope of Ramat Kochba, site of the Crusader fortress of Belvoir, an ideal vantage point. Just below the crest, the soldiers paused for breakfast and were mauled by a Golani Brigade unit which had reached the heights the day before and were lying in ambush. The brigade had received the first two field artillery pieces to arrive in Israel – small 65 mm “Napoleonchiks,” as they were dubbed – which had been used effectively at Deganya. Two days later, they were transferred to Ramat Kochba. Although the guns had arrived without sights, one of their first shells set a fuel truck ablaze. This persuaded the Iraqis to pull back across the river. The casualty figure in both attacks, including non-kibbutznikim, was six dead and 45 wounded.

The kibbutz, almost entirely destroyed in the battle, was rebuilt half a mile to the west, the old location becoming a heritage site drawing thousands of visitors. The kibbutz itself recalls the events of 1948 every year by retelling the story of the nighttime evacuation to its children on its anniversary.

The writer, a former Jerusalem Post reporter, is author of The Yom  Kippur War, The Boats of Cherbourg and The Battle for Jerusalem.

The story of ‘Old Gesher’

“Old Gesher,”, as the original location is called, became a heritage site dedicated to the history of the kibbutz. A replica of the command bunker, dining hall and other elements were reconstructed after ministers and others told the kibbutz members “You have a story here,” one that should be shared with the public. Visitors can see a film, with versions in several languages. There is also a working model of the adjacent Naharayim power station, which first brought electricity to the country and shared the pioneering ethos of the kibbutz itself. It has become a tradition for the tale of the nighttime evacuation to be related every year to the children of Gesher on the anniversary of the event.


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