My 1967 Israel war experience started off, literally, with a bang.
Since the end of January, or the very beginning of February that year, I had been living and working at Amatzia, a moshav shitufi affiliated with the Betar movement.
Founded as a Nahal outpost in 1955, it was abandoned by its garin and Betar took it over in 1956. My madrichim in Betar, who, like me, participated in the Jewish Agency’s Youth and Hechalutz Department Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz program, had also done their agricultural hachshara period at Amatzia for the previous few years.
At Amatzia we were five Betarim, two members of ZOA Youth and one other Belgian who somehow ended up with us later on. The location was right on the border with Jordan, opposite the villages of Beit-Awa and Idna. Amatzia had always been a target, first for the Fedayeen who operated from Egypt and Jordan in the early 1950s (the distance from Gaza to Amatzia was not that long) and starting in 1965, for the Fatah. Several times we were alerted to infiltration actions, some more successful than others.
During my stay at Amatzia, we had several incidents. Here’s a newspaper clip from Davar in February on the discovery of land mines:
In mid-April we were informed we would be leaving for the onion fields later than usual as the IDF had to defuse a bomb planted under a culvert just outside the moshav entrance. Another time, an explosive was placed on the gate (which was locked at night).
On the evening of Yom Haatzmaut, we listened on the radio to Shuli Natan singing Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” and after we had finally gone to bed, an explosion was heard. In a new area with houses under construction, we were informed, an infiltrator had placed an explosive under the building (all the houses were built raised off the ground). Here’s the front-page item the day after Yom Haatzmaut:
The next morning I traveled to Jerusalem to watch the parade and to participate in the Betar demonstration planned for the parade.
Due to pressure from various countries, foremost the United States and Great Britain, and the claim that the armistice agreements prohibited the presence of heavy military vehicles in Jerusalem a city they asserted that Israel was not really the sovereign power over the area, no tanks were to be included in the parade that would come from the area of Binyanei HaUmmah, down Jaffa Road and then turn right up King George Street. That was a demeaning demand and, as Betarim, that wasn’t going to pass without a protest but, since the Israel government had yielded, the demonstration was to be directed at their authority.
I made my way to the local Jerusalem clubhouse, what we called the Maoz, which was located on King George Street in a 19th century building called Talitha Kumi (it was taken down in 1980 for the project of the Rejwan Building and the Lev Yerushalayim hotel. The Maoz was under the Bank HaPoalim offices). There, inside, some two dozen Betarim were finishing off three or four “tanks” cut out of plywood and painted as a tank on one side and on the back, the slogan ‘We Are Here!’.
At the appropriate time, we walked out, trying to keep ourselves as unobtrusive as possible. In this picture, the building to the right of the red line was one side of a driveway which led into the forecourt in front of the former school and now a place of youth clubhouses and lawyers’ offices and where, in the dark corners outside, prostitutes would engage in their occupation. On the other side was also a building and so we did manage to sneak out to the sidewalk without problems.
The signal was given and we broke into the parade. I was in charge of photographing the event (as far as I know, no one else took pictures). Below are the “tanks” breaking in, some of us marching along, an altercation and the remains of the “tanks” after the police halted our protest.
Some of us then linked up with the “Chugim Leumiim” (Nationalist Cells). Dr. Israel Eldad, a member of the Lechi command council had launched, at the end of 1966, a monthly called HeHazit (The Front) and in the basement of the Ezry Gallery on the corner of Hess and King David Streets conducted weekly seminars and lectures which I attended during my Jerusalem period on the Machon.
In preparation for the parade, Eldad had thousands of small leaflets printed up with a picture of the Kotel and the caption of “The Wall Is Still in Captivity!”. While Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was speaking to the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva about the territories of Eretz-Yisrael we had lost in 1948, Eldad was doing the same. We spent the next two hours handing out the leaflets.
I returned eventually to Amatzia (in truth, I can’t recall if I slept over that evening in Jerusalem) and we continued our schedule of work which included: collecting eggs, weeding the onion fields (those were closer to Kiryat Gat) and riding herd for Amatzia had beef cattle.
If you look closely, you’ll notice a holster for my Uzi on the saddle. And that day we were informed that Nasser had begun moving troops into Sinai.
Life, at first, went on without too much of an immediate change but slowly, our lives were altered. Reservists started to arrive and their equipment came along. Foxholes were dug. We spent several evenings at Little Ben’s house at the end of May loading up ammunition for the semi-heavy machineguns (the MAGs). The atmosphere was just like back in New York at the Betar office on Nassau Street when I worked to get out the monthly newsletter and included chatting, coffee and, instead of paper to be folded and placed into envelopes, bullets were slipped into feed-belts.
With the increase in the level of security concerns, the windows came off to be replaced by blankets. Foxholes were dug between the homes. The boys were supplied with World War II ‘Czech’ rifles and we joined guard duty responsibilities. We were given World War II British army helmets which had only one strap. That being the case, more than often, the helmet was not tightly held in place, at least mine wasn’t, and would slip a bit when I walked. Once, at about 2 AM, after taking one step in my patrol near the fence, with the next one, the helmet would slip and, striking my glasses, would make a metallic sound which, at that time of the night, would carry for a bit.
I passed by one house, in fact, someone who knew me quite well, and I heard his wife loudly whisper, “I hear a strange sound outside. Maybe it’s a terrorist?” But her husband reassured her, saying “don’t worry, it’s only Winkie”.
On June 5, I took off to visit the group of Betarim, and some other youth movement members, you had been the first group of volunteers who flew in the previous week to assist Israel and its work force caught up in the third week of mobilized reservists. As it developed, they were the vanguard of thousands who came prior and during the summer. They were in Bar Giora (or Mevo Betar), a Betar moshav in the Jerusalem Corridor.
I made my way there and even got to participate in a first-aid course lecture. A bit ominously, it dealt with severe shrapnel wounds to the stomach that would cause heavy bleeding. That meant that everybody had to practice picking up another and carry him/her on one’s back to help stem the bleeding in addition to any bandaging we applied. After ten months without meeting close friends and some of my own madrichim, we spent time afterwards catching up.
The next morning, I left for Jerusalem on my way to Tel Aviv to pick up Chaim (Chuck) Hornstein who arrived to volunteer and who was waiting for me at the Metzudat Ze’ev movement headquarters on King George Street. Just as the bus was approaching Jerusalem, coming up the hill from Motza, the 8 AM radio news report came on and we all learned the intense fighting had broken out in the South. I alighted and reversed direction towards Tel Aviv. There I picked up Chuck and proceeded to the old Egged bus station.
The normal bustling atmosphere was significantly subdued and as it was, we caught the last bus headed for Kiryat Gat. After more than nine months in the country I was quite at ease with the fellow passengers, one of whom had a few chickens with him, live ones that is. Another was an Arab dressed traditionally and that seemed to unnerve Chuck a bit but after 90 minutes or so, he managed to overcome the fact that the reality of life in Israel is different from what one conceived in New York.
We made our way to Amatzia and were received accordingly which perhaps for the volunteer, was perhaps less than he expected. The routine of work and guard-duty continued. I recall one evening when we were given a lecture by an Army office explaining that if Jordanian tanks did manage to penetrate Amatzia’s perimeter, we should not lose courage but, with a blanket and Molotov cocktail in hand, we should carefully approach the vehicle, stuff its treads with the blanket and ignite it with the firebomb. I thought to myself, ‘am I in a Hollywood World War II movie?”
At another self-defense lecture, one of the wives and a mother as well, upon being told that if, indeed, there was a collapse of the perimeter defense, all the women and children were to go to the one underground shelter, piped up. “I demand we be supplied with Uzis.” She continued in a demanding tone, “we all served in the Nahal and we know how to use the gun and that’s what’s it for.”
The war came and we went into emergency procedures which were heightened awareness, extra guard-duty, windows covered with blankets after the panes removed and such. Some of the dried-up grass was purposely set aflame so that a clear view of the approach from the border was afforded as well as removing possible hiding protection for infiltrators.
We spent many hours in or near a fox-hole.
Me (left) and Yonel Charbit (right)
On the second, or perhaps, third day, our soldiers spotted tanks and an air force attack was called in. And, that was it. It really didn’t even last the full six days on our front. The war was over except for one incident a few days later when it was discovered that several score Egyptian commandos, believing that Jordan was still in control of the “West Bank”, had attempted to escape by crossing from Gaza and had been caught in the fields just west of Amatzia.
The day after Shavuot, we drove up to Jerusalem to participate in a ceremony honoring the Betar and Irgun members who, since 1930 and until 1947, had blown the shofar at the Western Wall as Yom Kippur finished. Giving in to the Muslim Waqf demand that the act of the shofar being blown was a violation of the status quo, a British White Paper in November 1928 proscribed it and it was made official in a recommendation of an International Commission in early 1930.
And the mandatory (no pun intended) Kotel picture:
From there, we traveled to Bethlehem and then on to Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs. Later on, there was an additional hike, led by Dr. Eldad, to Battir, site of the fortress Betar.
Another trip was to the Women’s Prison in Bethlehem where Geula Cohen, Rabbi Aryeh Levine and Dr. Eldad, among others, addressed dozens of former ‘residents’ of the Mandate-era jail.
I finished my service at Amatzia and returned to Jerusalem for the summation seminar of the Machon. There we were informed that the Jewish Agency had told our parents during the war that all was well with us as we had been placed “in the center of the country”.
I came back on Aliyah with my wife Batya in 1970, arriving by boat after a 12-day trip, and we moved into the Betar Students Hostel in the renewed Jewish Quarter on Plugat HaKotel Street.