A monumental tour

Traveling by SUV in the footsteps of the battles to open the Negev, which concluded 60 years ago last month, can be enlightening and enriching.

negev rocks 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
negev rocks 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
During the War of Independence, Jewish soldiers often composed farewell letters to their families and left them with friends. Sixty years ago last month, on the eve of a campaign meant to lift the Egyptian siege of the Negev, young Ya'acov Arnon wrote just such a note: "Dear Mother and Father," he began, "This evening I am taking part in a big operation meant to drive the Egyptian invaders from our country... I am going tonight, [certain] that we will succeed... I know that for soldiers the danger is great. After all, no one knows who Fate will choose as its victims. But... I go with full awareness; not thinking of myself... only of opening the road to the Negev... You taught me [the value] of making a sacrifice for Zionism... If something happens to me, forgive me for going. Better yet, don't forgive me, be proud. In the certainty and hope that I will return, my unbounded love, Ya'acov." Arnon did not make it home, and the Egyptian outpost on which he fell - Giva (Hill) 113 - today bears his name. I recently took a trip through Negev battlefields with Hanitai Alyagon, a tour guide who reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the IDF and participated with his armored units in the Sinai Campaign and the Yom Kippur War. Riding in his SUV to cut across empty fields and comfortably maneuver bumpy dirt roads, we moved from hilltop outposts to monuments, settlements and cemeteries. And at each stop Alyagon offered vivid descriptions of both successes and defeats, tales of terrible mishaps and extraordinary courage. In 1948, all roads to the Negev led through violently hostile Arab villages. Supplies rarely got through - and only by armored convoy. After the state was declared, on May 14, Egypt invaded Israel. Some of Egypt's well-equipped and heavily armed troops moved north toward Tel Aviv. Others attempted to strengthen the Arab hold on the Negev by fortifying strategic hilltop positions that controlled the roads and executing massive attacks on Jewish settlements. On June 7, 1948, enemy troops headed directly for Nitzanim, a kibbutz settled in 1943 and completely surrounded by Arab villages. The children and most of the mothers had been evacuated in good time, but several women crucial to the war effort remained at home to fight. Nearly 700 Egyptians attacked the settlement, which was defended by 56 farmers and 74 men from the Givati Brigade with a 22-year-old commander. Many of the Israeli soldiers were green troops from Tel Aviv, and they had fewer than 100 weapons. Fortifications at Nitzanim were carved out of the region's sandy dunes, so when Egyptian forces blasted the settlement with mortars and cannon fire, the defenses collapsed. Communications were down, the defenders' single machine gun quickly became inoperable and confusion reigned. Sometime before noon, Egyptian tanks - and then infantry - moved inside the settlement and took over the northern hill, observation point and three water towers that had belonged to an adjacent British army base. They then moved deeper into the kibbutz. The Israeli defenders retreated to the "palace" - a large Arab villa that the farmers had purchased. Since the radio didn't work and there was no way to contact headquarters, the defenders waited in vain for reinforcements to arrive. When the ammunition was gone, casualties mounted steadily and it was clear that the battle was lost; the young commander decided to surrender. He exited the "palace" with a makeshift white flag, accompanied by Miri Ben-Ari, the mother of a small son, who had remained in Nitzanim to operate the radio. When he came into view, the commander was shot and killed by an Egyptian officer. Ben-Ari immediately whipped out her weapon and killed the Egyptian - and then she, too, was hit by a fatal bullet. Everyone still alive was taken prisoner. After the surrender at Nitzanim, Givati's education officer - Abba Kovner - feared other settlements would give up as well. So he came out with a scathing official document that branded the defenders as traitors for surrendering to the enemy - relating not a whit to the actual situation that had faced them in the field. Incredibly, and perhaps as a result, the bodies of 33 fallen defenders lay exposed for almost a year in the fields of Old Nitzanim. Indeed, it was only after the prisoners returned in 1949 that they were given a proper burial. Kovner's stigma remained for decades, coloring history's view of the men and women who defended Nitzanim. Today they are generally considered heroes, especially the women who remained behind - including 22-year-old Shoshana Dorchin, the medic who tended the wounded until she was killed. Nitzanim's women fighters became the inspiration for a stunning Women of Valor sculpture near the "palace." In order to tell the story, my guide moved between the ruins of Old Nitzanim that had been situated next to a British army base, and the "palace," today a Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel field school with adjacent picnic grounds. Our last Nitzanim stop was at the kibbutz cemetery, which is surrounded by a unique sculpted fence whose ironworks detail different phases in the life of the kibbutz. Hidden within the design is a little clock, whose hands point to the very hour and minute at which Nitzanim fell to Egyptian forces: 4:28. After Nitzanim fell, Givati commander Shimon Avidan ordered a regiment to take Giva (Hill) 69, located only a few kilometers from the tiny Kfar Warburg and Be'er Tuvia settlements. Named for their altitude above sea level, Giva 69 and other such hills situated above the region's plains offered an enormous strategic advantage. Soon after Givati took control, Egypt combined ground, tank and artillery forces in a massive attack. The Jews' newly dug communication tunnels collapsed and chaos reigned supreme. The commander ordered his troops to pull back. But instead of an organized withdrawal with one group remaining to cover those in retreat, everyone simply ran. The Egyptians raced up the hill and shot them in the back. Among the heroes at Giva 69 was 21-year-old medic Aharon Perlmutter. He crawled 300 meters under fire in an attempt to help a critically wounded comrade - but was killed before reaching his side. Now another of Kovner's official statements appeared. Apparently frantic in his desire to prevent yet another defeat, this time he declared that anyone who ran from the enemy should be considered a traitor to the homeland - and should be shot on the spot! While the battles at Nitzanim and Giva 69 are fairly well known, Alyagon didn't stop there. Continuing southward, we stopped at sites I'd never been to and he told me tales that I'd never heard before. First on the route was a brand-new monument dedicated to the Nitzanim Convoy. It stands along Road 232 south of Nitzanim and across from the abandoned British army camp called Hasa. On March 21, 1948, a convoy full of supplies was sent from Kfar Warburg to the besieged settlement of Nitzanim. When it reached Hasa, Arabs holed up inside the camp ambushed the convoy. While most of the vehicles made it to Nitzanim, when a bomb went off under one of the other cars it slid into a muddy ditch. A second vehicle intending to help also sank in the mud. For hours, Arabs shot at the vehicles and the soldiers inside shot back. As soon as he heard, regiment commander Yitzhak Pundak sent troops back to Hasa, although he feared that by the time they arrived there would be no one left alive to rescue. Although four soldiers were killed during the battle, the rest not only survived but managed to kill at least 10 of their attackers. Next we visited Ibdis, once part of a ring of Arab villages surrounding Kibbutz Negba. Soldiers who took part in the fight for Ibdis claim it was the worst battle of the entire war. For four days and nights in the stifling heat of July, Israeli infantry and one jeep platoon stood fast against Egyptian planes, artillery, tanks and mortars. Well-known left-wing writer Uri Avnery, who was wounded at Ibdis, described the land as "shaking" from shells, calling Ibdis a site at which Satan danced. Yet the small force of 120 men held strong, despite heavy casualties. Marked with a small monument, nearby Hill 105 overlooking the entire southern region was occupied by the Egyptians. A few days after conquering Ibdis, Israeli jeeps broke through enemy lines and took Hill 105 in hand-to-hand fighting so fierce that Kovner named the platoon "Samson's Foxes" (Shualei Shimshon), a nickname that has remained to this day. Then the army decided to take Beit Afa, another of the hostile Egyptian-occupied villages that overlooked Negba. Again, Samson's Foxes were sent in, led by beloved platoon commander Arie Kotzer. This time, however, they were trapped in the village, and Kotzer, severely wounded, in a calm, cool voice told his men to hightail it to Negba. They moved in an orderly fashion, bullets flying overhead. Kotzer stayed with the last jeep but when everyone reached safety, a strange vehicle appeared. It was Kotzer's jeep - with no back wheels and no commander. Kotzer had been thrown off the jeep when the back collapsed: his body was later recovered by his soldiers. Thirty-seven men were killed on that awful day. Givat Arnon, a.k.a. Hill 113, controlled a major crossroads that led to and from the Negev. Egyptian forces took control of the hill in July and used it a base from which to attack Kibbutz Negba, directly below. It was captured on October 16 by the 51st Regiment in the framework of the Yoav Campaign. It was in this fierce hand-to-hand battle that Arnon lost his life. Situated on the road between the Hodaya and Givati junctions, it hosts a monument dedicated to all of the regiment's fallen soldiers. Egyptian positions on a main junction about a kilometer away were captured by survivors of the same regiment that had hastily withdrawn from Giva 69. This time, Kovner had nicer things to say about its soldiers - no longer traitors to the homeland, but "lifted to new heights" and known from that time on as "The Junction Platoon." Soon afterward, Givati troops conquered the village of Hulikat and its many Egyptian outposts. Ten days after the Yoav Campaign commenced, the road to the Negev was completely open and, on another front, Beersheba was in Israeli hands. When my riveting Negev trip came to an end, we headed back up North. And I couldn't help wondering, as we passed restaurants, green fields, shopping centers, thriving settlements and flourishing towns: Could any of those young, idealistic soldiers fighting for the Negev have imagined what it would look like today?n Hanitai Alyagon can be reached at ahanitai@zahav.net.il or 052-422-6626. His Web site is http://tourisraelwithhanitai.org