The pioneering spirit: A look back at Israel’s famed paratroopers

Even before the declaration of State of Israel, Jews had been parachuting into enemy territory.

An Israeli paratrooper takes part in a military exercise at the Palmahim air force base (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli paratrooper takes part in a military exercise at the Palmahim air force base
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In June 1967, an iconic photograph was taken of three Israeli paratroopers looking up in awe at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
It was day three of a bloody six-day war when a reserve brigade of paratroopers broke through the walls of the Old City at the Lions’ Gate, and 30 hours after their entrance to the Old City, Lt.-Gen. Motta Gur shouted, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”
Snapped by the legendary David Rubinger, the picture encapsulated the moment shared by thousands of Israelis and hundreds of thousands of Jews across the world who had for over two millennia dreamed of one day reuniting Jerusalem and restoring Jewish sovereignty.
While that moment changed the history of Israel and the region for years to come, the stories of the legendary paratroopers brigade didn’t begin there.
Even before the declaration of State of Israel, Jews had been parachuting into enemy territory. During World War II, 39 men and women from the British Mandate of Palestine parachuted into Nazi-occupied countries to assist in the rescue of Jews about to be deported to German death camps. Of those, seven were discovered and killed. Most prominent among them was Hanna Szenes, who was tortured and killed by the Gestapo in Hungary.
The brave actions of those pre-state paratroopers had a significant impact of the ethos of the IDF, and in June 1948, just one month after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, prime minister David Ben-Gurion summoned Yoel Palgi, who had been among the 39 who had parachuted into Europe and later escaped from Nazi captivity, to form the first paratroop unit. Israel sent 50 paratroopers to Czechoslovakia to train. They later jumped out of planes near the Tel Nof air base, becoming the first Israeli paratroopers.
In the summer of 1949, Lt.-Col. Yehuda Harari took command of Paratrooper Battalion 890, reorganizing it and instilling esprit de corps – personal courage, daring and pride – in the unit’s soldiers. In 1950, the 890th battalion was merged with the commando Unit 101, which was responsible for reprisal operations against Egyptian feyadeen who infiltrated into Israel to engage in sabotage or murder Israeli civilians.
The merging of the two units into a brigade-sized corps under the command of Ariel Sharon, who would later go on to become prime minister, saw the paratroopers become one of Israel’s most elite infantry brigades, playing central roles in all of Israel’s wars and playing a key role in several famed operations.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Uzi Eilam told The Jerusalem Post, “What was unique was that the paratroopers under the leadership of Ariel Sharon dared to cross the border and dared to execute operations behind enemy lines, whether it was in Gaza, Jordan or in the north with Syria.”
The paratroopers were the only unit that had been given permission to do these sorts of operations; it was only later “this pioneering spirit and way of managing war” was copied by other units of the IDF, Eilam said.
During the Sinai campaign in 1956, 495 paratroopers from the 890th battalion commanded by Maj. Rafael Eitan took off from Tel Nof and flew at 150 meters above ground level before reaching their target, to secure the Mitla Pass. A paratroop reconnaissance patrol which had entered the pass found itself trapped by the Egyptians who not only enjoyed topographical advantage but had an overwhelming number of troops compared to Israel. By nightfall, some 38 paratroopers lay dead and another 100 were wounded, but with the Egyptian losses more than seven times that of Israel, with an estimated 260 dead, the paratroopers had secured the Mitla Pass.
It was the largest paratroop drop ever carried out by the IDF and the last time a paratroop battalion jumped into combat. While Israel contemplated dropping paratroopers into Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War when it was firing missiles at Israel, many believe that they will never be called upon to jump behind enemy lines again.
“I don’t think there is a chance of big operational jumps in the future wars. I think now jumps are more for the morale and symbolism,” Eilam told the Post.
Eilam, who fought alongside Sharon, served as a company commander of paratroopers during the 1956 Sinai Campaign and battalion commander fighting in Jerusalem during the Six Day War, as well as the commander of a paratrooper brigade in the Jordan Valley from 1969 to 1970.
Even without jumping, the paratroopers have remained a key brigade in the IDF, leading the counterattack across the Suez Canal as well as the battle of the Chinese Farm during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and reaching the outskirts of Beirut during the First Lebanon War in 1982. The Paratrooper Brigade also played a role in several rescue operations, including the daring Entebbe operation in 1976, where along with the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, they rescued 102 of 106 hostage Jewish passengers of an Air France flight that had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.
“The morale of the paratroopers is bolstered by stories and history and examples of operations throughout the different wars,” Eilam said. “You cannot overstate the spirit of the paratroopers, even when the nature of the war is completely different from past wars. Nowadays the battlefield might be completely different, but the morale of the paratroopers remains the same.”
The legendary brigade first opened its doors to a woman more than 30 years ago when Ronit Burdette became the first female paratrooper instructor. Burdette, who served from 1981 to 1984, told the Post in a December interview that she chose to be an instructor in the Paratroopers Brigade out of love and admiration for the corps. Her main inspiration? The historic image of the paratroopers at the Western Wall.