A nightmare sprinkled with miracles

A child's-eye view of the battle at Mishmar Ha'emek

women soldiers 1948 224. (photo credit: )
women soldiers 1948 224.
(photo credit: )
The grandfather sitting on a porch with bright yellow walls on a kibbutz in the middle of an oasis has had a nightmare. With the cool breeze and the smell of orange blossoms in the air, the terrible story seems very far away. But he goes back in time so easily and with so much energy and clarity that it's hard to believe 60 years have passed. He is Avner Ayalon, and he was growing up on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek during the War of Independence. But he still has a boyish look and energy about him, aside from the gray mustache and hair. As a child in the Jezreel Valley, Ayalon recalls life was never particularly peaceful. The kibbutz abutted Arab villages (the closest being Rubiya a-Tahta and Rubiya a-Fuka), whose residents would cause trouble for the Jewish pioneers. "I remember it well, because my father worked in the orchard. A few times, when he would return from the orchards - for that half kilometer or kilometer - the Arabs in the nearby villages shot at him, and at us," Ayalon recalls rather nonchalantly. His parents, who both immigrated to Palestine from Eastern Europe in the early 1920s, were founders of Mishmar Ha'emek. "They shot at us at least once or twice every week or two." Palmah forces in the region would fight back, and even "erased" Rubiya a-Tahta, according to Ayalon. As tensions increased following the UN partition vote in November 1947, a sense of foreboding took over. "One day we were working near the fence [near the Haifa-Megiddo road]... on the grapevines - we would graft the shoots onto the stock - the bus stop was near the entrance to the kibbutz, and an Arab got off the bus wearing a big military coat. We were next to him, at a distance of 10 meters. He took off the coat and pulled out a rifle and went toward the village. We knew something was going to happen." Then came the big day: April 4, 1948. The Arabs had a force called the Army of Salvation, led by Fawzi el-Kawukji, a former Turkish officer who organized his troops in Lebanon and made his headquarters in Nazareth. They amassed themselves where Midrach Oz now stands. They had artillery - no one in Israel knew what that was at the time, recalls Ayalon. "Toward evening - I don't remember the time - maybe five or six in the afternoon, terrible shelling began. It was so awful, you couldn't hear anything. Boom, boom, boom." The kibbutz was struck. They weren't ready for it and there was nowhere to seek shelter but under the beds. They were being hit with 25-pound cannon left from World War II. "And the fear," shudders Ayalon. "It was incessant. You heard nothing. Just boom, boom, boom. It was a nightmare. And there was nowhere to hide." Ayalon couldn't remember what happened during the day, aside from being scared. But he remembers that in the afternoon of the next day, toward evening, more shelling started. It was terrible, he says. "The artillery was very close, about three kilometers away. You heard the sound of the shell leaving the barrel, then you heard the zhzhzhzhz, boom: it hit somewhere." The kibbutz is located between Jenin and Haifa, and the Arabs' plan was to conquer it, then another one, then Yokne'am and continue on in order to open an Arab road to Haifa. At the time, Ayalon's father was serving on the kibbutz's security team, and he was on the front. At some point during the fighting, he was patrolling various posts. He went into a room, and a shell bored through the wall and ricocheted around the building. His dad was slightly injured when half a wall fell on him. But he escaped "by a miracle. One more centimeter, he would have lost his leg. There were nonstop miracles," says Ayalon. There was another instance when a shell hit a bed, and a young child picked it up, not knowing what it was. But it was a dud, so he was unharmed. Also during the attack on the kibbutz, a shell came hurtling through a roof and landed on the bed beneath and destroyed it. Luckily, the child who had been there had been afraid and had just gone elsewhere before his hiding spot was obliterated. Even before the battle at Mishmar Ha'emek, miracles were becoming commonplace. "One afternoon, I was walking and I heard a shot. I saw one of the kibbutz members, a young guy, and he'd been shot [right next to his eye]. The bullet went in and stopped a millimeter from his brain. He's still alive, to this day," notes Ayalon. "I remember him calling, 'Dad, Dad, they shot me.'" But the kibbutznikim weren't willing to rely on miracles. The British helped institute a cease-fire. They approached Mordechai Ben-Tov (who would be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and was the father of one of the girls in Ayalon's class) and an agreement was reached to take a break in the fighting to evacuate the children. "After the third night, they transferred us, via the fields, to various Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutzim in the valley - Sarid, Mizra, Merhavia." Ayalon was in Sarid, and "we saw them bombing Mishmar Ha'emek every day, live." Palmah, Heyl Hasadeh (Field Soldiers from the Hagana) and Golani forces all took part in combating the encroaching Arab forces. After a while, the Mishmar Ha'emek evacuees were moved to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. Orphans from Gush Etzion were brought there, too. "I think the Declaration of Independence happened when we were at Gan Shmuel," says Ayalon. When things were a bit quieter, they went to visit Mishmar Ha'emek. "We went from Gan Shmuel via Wadi Milik - you couldn't go through Wadi Ara - and Golani had a base on the kibbutz. When we were near Mishmar Ha'emek - about four kilometers away - there was a siren and we saw they were attacking Mishmar Ha'emek from the air. We got down in the apricot orchard where we were. We sat and ate like pigs. When the attack was over, we went back. There was a huge pile of straw that had been burned, but there was hardly any damage." The battle at Mishmar Ha'emek was happening at the same time as Operation Nahshon, the push to take over the Jerusalem Corridor before the British left. This is why, according to Ayalon, it's less famous. Much later, during Hanukka 1949, Ayalon had already returned home. There was an air force base, Mishmar David, nearby. A siren went off, but they didn't hear it on the kibbutz. An Iraqi plane attacked the children's house. "I'll never forget that picture for the rest of my life... They also hit the dining hall and wounded some members. It was a two-story concrete building. A bed with blood, on the second floor. There was a kibbutz member who took photographs. I remember, we wanted to kill him. But he was a historian by nature. They were horrific photos. It was in the middle of the kibbutz," explains Ayalon. "The importance of the battle at Mishmar Ha'emek - aside from me being there and coming out alive, which is important to me personally - is that it was the first time during the War of Independence that the Palmah and the Field Soldiers conquered areas and didn't abandon them. Normally, when they wanted to open a route to get a convoy through, they would take up posts, let the convoy come through, and then let it go. They didn't have the strength [to maintain the posts]." Ayalon stayed on the kibbutz until 1962, when he moved to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, where he met his wife, now a retired nurse. His two children live on the kibbutz as well, along with his grandchildren. He's worked in just about every kibbutz job, including handling the dairy, growing roses for export, running the sport center, helping out in the guest house and coordinating security with local forces.