The tragedy and triumph of the Palmach, on the 75th anniversary of its founding
This week, as we do every year, we remembered May 15 as the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel (per the Gregorian calendar). May 15 should also be remembered for another important event on that day in 1941: The Haganah formed nine Plugot Mahatz — loosely translated, “strike companies” — that would comprise full time recruits under arms at all times, to be known by the acronym “Palmach.”
A few days later, while the Palmach existed only on paper, the Haganah lost 23 of its best fighters during an attempted raid on Vichy French military targets in Lebanon. Many of the fallen were slated for leadership positions in the new force. Thus, the Palmach’s first commander, the legendary Yitzchak Sadeh, heart-broken over the loss of so many young men he had nurtured and trained personally, chose new commanders to act as his deputies: Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon.
The Palmach’s first mission was reconnaissance, supporting British operations against pro-Nazi, Vichy-controlled Lebanon. During this campaign, Moshe Dayan became the first battle casualty of the Palmach when he lost his eye in combat.
True to its socialist orientation the Palmach recruited women as well as men, some who served in combat. Although it had a command structure, all “comrades,” as they called themselves, lived and worked together. Distinctions based on rank were minimal compared to regular armies. Nevertheless, Sadeh and Allon, succeeded in molding the Palmach into a nimble and highly effective guerrilla army.
The Palmach led the struggle against British rule. It carried out a series of spectacular raids, culminating with “The Night of the Bridges” during which Palmach commandos destroyed bridges linking Palestine to its neighbors. Palmach operatives likewise helped smuggle Jewish refugees over land and sea. Unlike the right-wing underground militias also fighting the British, the Palmach tried to avoid harming British personnel, inflicting only a handful of British casualties in their operations.
In 1947, Britain announced it would quit Palestine in 1948. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly proposed to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. The Arab side rejected the proposal and on the very next day, Israel’s War of Independence began, when Arab armed gangs attacked Jewish targets across Palestine. While the Haganah scrambled to convert it’s large militia into a full time fighting force, only the Palmach was ready to immediately to resist Arab aggression and provide security to beleaguered Jewish villages and transportation lines. When the Jewish side went over to the offensive in March, 1948, Palmach units spearheaded the attacks on Arab strongholds and strategic positions.
On May 15,1948, seven years to the day from when the Palmach came into existence, the State of Israel declared its independence and several Arab regular armies invaded the country. For the first month of the war, the most dangerous in Israel’s history, Palmach units bore the brunt on all fronts, fighting desperately with nothing but light arms against mechanized units, artillery and aircraft. Palmach units stopped the Lebanese army in the north, helped stop the Syrians in the east, blunted the Egyptian thrust northward towards Tel Aviv and fought pitched battles against the superior, British-led Arab Legion in and around Jerusalem.
During the first of three truces, the Israel Defense forces (IDF), established on May 26, 1948, began the daunting task of organizing from the disparate underground military organizations into a cohesive, modern army. The Palmach would soon cease to exist on paper, but when the fighting resumed, Palmach units continued to operate independently and would do so until the end of the war with great valor and success. A famous picture shows the Palmach’s Avraham “Bren” Adan raising a home-made Israeli flag over what would become Eilat as the last act of the war.
Adan, Allon, Dayan and future Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin were just a few of well-known Palmach veterans who would go one to be key leaders in the IDF and the government. So many Palmach veterans became leaders in the ‘60s and ‘70s that it is almost easier to recount who did not have service time in the Palmach. Such is its legacy and one that should be honored in at this time of its auspicious anniversary.
David Shayne is an attorney living in Seattle, Washington, who has been researching the Palmach for the the last seven years, and is in the midst of writing a history of the Palmach in English. David can be reached at email@example.com.