by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
A number of common threads run through the chronicles of the wars Israel fought in her infancy years. The first three decades of the newly reborn state’s existence alone saw her forced into three major wars—each fought from a desperate, back-against-the-wall, outmanned and outgunned, slim-chance-of-victory position. All three brought a ganged up, multiple-army enemy boasting superior manpower and superior firepower baying to Israel’s borders. The ultimate objective of each was not military occupation, national identity or land, but rather total annihilation, to finish what the Nazis started. And in each, the tiny newborn nation managed to beat back the enemy—thanks in part to a secret weapon, a rare defense few others can lay claim to.
Ninety-one-year-old Michael Netzer, a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence, remembers the crucial role the secret weapon played in Israel’s unlikely victory during this—and subsequent—conflicts.
Netzer was 18 years old and fresh out of high school when the opening shots of the War of Independence were fired. The United Nations Partition Plan to divide the tiny strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into two countries where Jews and Arabs could live side-by-side had already been suggested—only to be embraced by the Jews and shot down by the Arabs. Simmering tensions between Jews and Arabs had been erupting with alarming frequency. And with the Mandate drawing to a close and the British on their way out, history was swiftly coming to a crossroads.
The temporary Jewish government headed by David Ben-Gurion was faced with a hard choice. After nearly 2,000 years, the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine set for May 14, 1948, presented the best opportunity for the Jews to fulfill their longing—and God’s promise—for a return to Zion. Yet declaring independence and the rebirth of a Jewish state spelled certain war with an uncertain outcome. And with mere weeks to go before the British left, the tiny community of Jews were anything but ready for the fight.
“Our situation was bad,” Netzer remembers. “We had nothing. No money. No supplies. No uniforms. No weapons.”
Training and experience also topped the list of things the Jews did not have and desperately needed. In the years and months leading up to the war, the British prevented the Jews from establishing defense organizations, conducting military training and arming themselves—while turning a blind eye to the Arab preparations for war.
The Haganah, the “illegally” established Jewish defense organization, was forced to train in secret and undercover. Training, however, entailed practicing to “shoot” using sticks and learning how to assemble and disassemble the precious pistols and small guns the Jews did manage to obtain. “I could do that with my eyes closed,” Netzer said with a laugh. “But we never shot, because we had almost no bullets.”
Six weeks before the declaration of independence—and the erupting war—an arms shipment from Czechoslovakia docked in the Jaffa port. “Now everyone had their own weapon,” Netzer explains. “And we could each shoot five bullets to get used to handling it.”
Jews from around the world made a valiant effort to help the fighting force of the would-be nation find its feet. “South Africa sent us these cans of tinned cheese. That’s what we ate.” Australian Jewry sent secondhand Australian army uniforms in bulk. The British left behind a storeroom stacked with the shorts its police force wore. And so the army of Israel went to the battlefield fed on a ration of tinned cheese, dressed in mismatched surplus British police shorts and cast-off Australian army uniforms and having fired all of five bullets from secondhand guns that Czechoslovakia no longer wanted.
Israel’s enemies had no such problems. The five Arab armies came armed to the teeth, experienced, organized and equipped for war, boasting functioning air forces, tanks, artillery, battle strategies and seasoned commanders.
“This will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre…” the Arab League Secretary-General crowed as the enemies of Israel amassed for what was supposed to be an easy victory.
Yet Israel triumphed. “We had no choice but to win,” Netzer holds. “And that is our secret weapon. Ain brera—no choice. We knew that if we didn’t win, it would be the end for us. It would be a continuation of the Shoah [Holocaust]. We fought for our lives, our existence.”
“War is terrible and must be avoided at all costs,” he continues. “But when war is imposed on us, we must win at all costs. For Jewish people more than others.”
Netzer explains. During the First World War, Germany, the instigator, lost the war. However, the victors soon helped the Germans rebuild their country and restore normal life, economy and industry. The result was the Second World War. Yet once the war ended, the victors once again helped the Germans pick up the pieces. While this is usually the case after most wars are won and lost, “this will never be the case for us,” he points out. “If we lose, we are lost.” Not only in 1948, he adds, but in every other war too. “We can never lose. We win or we disappear.”
Much has changed since Israel’s infancy years. The newly reborn nation that fought each of its first wars from a desperate, back-against-the-wall, outmanned and outgunned, slim-chance-of-victory position grew up, matured and became a force to be reckoned with. Today, Israel boasts a flourishing economy, one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East, an astounding reputation as the “Start-up Nation” and a sterling character of blessing the nations. Yet certain things have not changed. The same common thread that ran through the chronicles of the wars Israel fought in her infancy years still run through all the Jewish state’s conflicts today. And the tiny nation continues to beat back the enemy, thanks in part to a secret weapon.
“We are still being threatened by enemies all around us. And our strategy is still ‘no choice,’” Netzer explains. “The reality of ain brera—no choice—is always there, it is always our truth. If we lose once, we are finished.”
Israel does not go to war willingly. When Israel engages in conflict, it is always as a last resort, because there is no other alternative. Israel also does not fight for an ideology, religious conviction, more land or superiority. The tiny nation’s battle is for survival, for its people, at the gates of their homes. Israel fights because it has no choice. And it wins for that same reason.
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