Cave of top secrets

An old Palmah training base now serves to educate the public about the birth of the IDF.

cave entrance 88 224 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
cave entrance 88 224
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
A large, natural underground cave situated in one of Israel's most thickly-forested areas is where special units of the Palmah - the strike force of the Hagana - trained in the 1940s. The Palmah Cave, on the lower slopes of the Menashe Hills, where the range drops toward the rim of the Jezreel Valley, is nowadays an educational center hosting large numbers of visitors curious to learn more about the predecessors of the Israel Defense Forces. The cave in which some of the most famous fighters in Israel in the 1940s holed up to plan, plot and train to defend the Jews of pre-state Palestine features a small exhibition of Palmah weaponry and other items from that time. A number of dark-green army tents and exercise equipment remain at the site and are used not infrequently by present-day IDF units training in the area, while educational activities for non-combatant guests include navigational exercises in the surrounding Menashe forest, cooking one's dinner outdoors - Palmah-style - and tackling the site's obstacle course. Visitors not only get to hear about the Palmahniks' battles from prize-winning instructor and guide Yesha Ekron, and through a film screened inside the cave, but also get to bask in the magnificent view of the Jezreel Valley sprawled out below. Some of the surrounding forests were planted by the founding members of Mishmar Ha'emek, most of whom hailed from Poland, where they had been active in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. During the Arab revolt of the late l930s, roving groups attempted to burn down the already-expansive woods covering the Menashe plateau behind the kibbutz. A similar attempt was made during the l987 Intifada, which destroyed a large portion of the area lying between Mishmar Ha'emek and Moshav Midrach Oz. When the Palmah was formed in 1941, the cave - located on the grounds of Mishmar Ha'emek - ceased to be a play area for the kibbutz children. Both the Palmah's Arab Platoon and German Platoon trained there before being sent out on their dangerous missions, as did Hannah Szenesh and Haviva Reik, young kibbutz women from Sdot Yam and Ma'anit, respectively, who were recruited by British Intelligence and trained as parachutists. After the War of Independence, the cave fell into disrepair. Until about 20 years ago, when disease felled much of the surrounding forest, the entrance was extremely difficult to find. But once rediscovered in the late 1980s, the kibbutz and a number of heritage organizations decided to work together to renovate the site. Southeast of the Palmah Cave, a hill of volcanic basalt rises above the kibbutz and neighboring Midrach Oz. The hill affords a view of a large section of the Carmel mountain range to the west and the hills of Nazareth, the round-topped Mount Tabor and Afula's Givat Hamoreh across the valley floor. The top of the hill is graced by a plain but powerful monument to the fallen combatants of Mishmar Ha'emek. Last year, another monument - in the form of an old concrete water tower and memorial wall - was unveiled on an adjacent hilltop to commemorate all fallen soldiers who hailed from Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim. The two monuments stand out starkly on the skyline, a deep valley separating them. Dozens of names are engraved on Mishmar Ha'emek's basalt rock monument. They honor those who died in skirmishes with Arab marauders in the l930s and '40s, or during attacks on the kibbutz during the War of Independence, as well as those who fell in the line of duty after the state was established. Those memorialized include pilots, commandos and navy personnel, a number of whom were killed in training accidents. Mishmar Ha'emek is famous for the 10-day battle of l948, in which ill-equipped kibbutz members fought off commander-in-chief of the Arab forces Fawzi al-Kaukji's sizeable and mortar-aided army, which sought to open up a route from Jenin to Haifa. Faced with stiff resistance from the fighting farmers, the aggressors retreated, leaving the rest to history - chapters of which are constantly re-read and re-enacted through visits to the Palmah Cave Heritage Center.