Known soldiers

The just-identified 1948 volunteers posthumously remind us of what that war was really about.

1948 soldiers 298 (photo credit: IDF )
1948 soldiers 298
(photo credit: IDF )
Abroad, there's a plethora of stately monuments to the Unknown Soldier - one whose remains were interred in a grand tomb that is turned into a symbolic pilgrimage site for visiting dignitaries. Israel, significantly, never constructed such a shrine. Indeed, considering all the wars fought in this small country, there are relatively few anonymous fallen here. This is testament to the unstinting and relentless efforts poured into matching a name and a face to every unrecognizable or unclaimed battlefield casualty. Just how far Israeli persistence will go was underscored Monday when it was announced that five of the fallen soldiers in the battle for the Tel Arish "Pillbox" fortress over 59 years ago - little more than two weeks before Israel was declared independent - were finally identified. Their place of burial was never in question. They were laid to rest at the Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery, but the remains had been so hideously desecrated by the Arabs that it was impossible even for the closest of kin to identify them, even though the men were of different stature, appearance and extraction. Only state-of-the-art DNA tests performed half-a-world-away in America solved the mystery, but not all of it - two of the dead are still unaccounted for and tests are still ongoing. This was no easy process even in the age of genetic hi-tech, as, after decades, the graves no longer yielded quality DNA. Besides somewhat alleviating the heartache of the naturally diminishing number of surviving relatives, this accomplishment might cause today's Israel to dwell, even if only briefly, on its roots. The war in which the five and their comrades fought is hardly taught in our schools anymore, is maddeningly distorted and used to demonize Israel rather than to highlight the unimaginable dangers that engulfed the newborn state and the selfless sacrifice that barely kept it alive. Israel's Independence War is misrepresented as an original sin of imperialist conquest. It would serve us well to recall that on April 28, 1948, when Givati Brigade's Battalion 52 set out to take Tel Arish, the IDF was not yet born. Its fighters were not conscripts. One of the fallen (Yehoshua Lustig), in fact, chased down his unit on his own motorcycle at his own initiative to take part in the mission. The site of combat is equally instructive. Far from seeking territorial bounty, Battalion 52 literally fought for home. Tel Arish is today situated at an almost mundanely familiar site within Holon city limits, right across the road from the country's largest Motor Vehicle Bureau. Holon, nearby Bat Yam and Tel Aviv were imperiled by Tel Arish and a string of other hamlets around Jaffa. Not only were predations on Tel Aviv launched from Jaffa, but the road to Jerusalem was blockaded almost at its outset, near the Mikveh Yisrael Agricultural School. If ever there were a war of self-defense, this was it. No distinction existed between the frontlines and the hinterland. The "battlefields" were mainly where Jews lived, and where they fought for their lives and the existence of their state. The struggle was waged clearly in the beleaguered heartland, a fact too often overlooked these days. It, moreover, was a desperate struggle. Battalion 52 took over Tel Arish but lost it two hours later, when local Arabs were reinforced while the outnumbered and ill-equipped Israelis ran out of ammunition. Nineteen men were lost pre-dawn that morning and many bodies couldn't be recovered. The Arabs at some point surrendered three decapitated corpses and the British, who throughout abetted the Arabs, later added more unrecognizable remains. The knoll where they fell is today known as Tel Giborim - Heroes Hill - named after the 19. The then-menacing "Pillbox" is now the centerpiece of a memorial park. An old saying asserts that "soldiers never die until they are forgotten." Israel has just proved that nearly 60 years on, it hasn't forgotten. Yet part of doing right by the fallen is not to debase their sacrifice with politicized distortions of history aimed less at establishing what happened then at undermining Israel's legitimacy. History, particularly of an ongoing conflict, often becomes a battlefield itself. Perhaps, however, the just-identified 1948 volunteers will have performed their last service to the nation for which they gave their young lives by posthumously reminding us of what that war really was about: defending Jewish lives and restoring, against all odds and after 2,000 years, a Jewish place among the nations.