For Memorial Day, tales of heroism and sacrifice, and the places that honor them
The stories of some of the 40 Israelis to have been awarded the military’s Medal of Valor, and of the battles in which they defended the state
Iraq Suwaydan was an Arab village located north of Gaza. One of a line of well-fortified citadels built in the 1930s by the British as a defense against dangerous Arab gangs, it controlled the main road to the Negev in the south. On May 12, 1948, two days before Israel became a state, the British handed the fort over to the Egyptian army.
Israeli forces made eight disastrous attempts to capture the fort. During the final, successful attack on October 9, 1948, 22-year-old Siman-Tov Ganeh was driving an armored personnel carrier. A cannon shell hit the vehicle and Ganeh’s legs were so severely damaged that they later had to be amputated.
After two more APCs were put out of action, the order was given to retreat. Despite Ganeh’s critical condition, and from a position on his knees, he used his machine gun to cover the evacuation. He himself remained in his vehicle on the battlefield for the next six hours together with other injured soldiers, giving them first aid and water. Eventually, he was able to make contact with another crew, describe his position and ask for help. Ganeh survived and was fitted with prosthetic legs, and went on to marry and raise a family.
On July 17, 1949, 12 soldiers who had fought in the War of Independence received Israel’s only military award at the time: Hero of Israel. Ganeh was among the proud recipients.
At the time, and for the next 21 years, soldiers received awards for acts of heroism based on recommendations of their commanders and the General Staff. Then in 1970, the Israeli parliament passed the Decorations Law, which sets out specific requirements for recipients of military awards.
Since then, Israel’s highest military honor has been the Medal of Valor, presented for supremely brave acts performed during battles and military operations while facing the enemy and risking one’s own life. Heroes that had previously been awarded certain military awards, like Ganeh, were automatically granted the Medal of Valor.
So far, 40 soldiers have received the prestigious Medal of Valor. Here are just a few of their stories.
2nd Lt. Zerubavel (“Bavel”) Horowitz – Gush Etzion
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two separate countries. The Jews were jubilant, but Arabs in Palestine and the surrounding Arab countries categorically refused to accept the Partition Plan.
At the time, the only byway between Jerusalem and the coastal cities was a narrow, two-lane road surrounded on both sides by the steep Jerusalem hills. Anxious to keep Jerusalem from getting any supplies, villagers would swoop down from the hills whenever Jewish vehicles neared appeared on the road. They then blockaded the road and hid among the trees.
The lead vehicle would have to stop at the roadblock, forcing the other vehicles to halt. That’s when the Arabs would attack, indiscriminately shooting men, women and children. Finally, it became impossible to travel between Jerusalem and the coast without an armored convoy – and even then the occupants were often killed or wounded.
By February of 1948, Jerusalem was under siege. So was the Etzion Bloc — four Jewish settlements that were surrounded by Arab villages and completely cut off from the rest of Jewish Palestine. They soon lacked food, medical supplies and weapons.
In late March, the Haganah — the Zionist paramilitary organization that would go on to become the Israel Defense Forces — sent a convoy of 51 vehicles to the Bloc to bring supplies, evacuate wounded defenders and load up several farm animals on the verge of starvation. But the animals refused to budge, causing such a serious delay that Arab forces had time to call for additional troops and set up a massive roadblock.
Jewish forces were ambushed at Nebi Daniel, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. When the lead vehicle was disabled by a mine, the convoy had to stop and face fierce enemy fire. Most of the vehicles were put out of action: less than a dozen managed to return to the Etzion Bloc.
The vehicle commanded by 24-year-old Zerubavel Horowitz was trapped and isolated from the rest of the convoy. Hit by Molotov cocktails that caused it to burn, it remained in the fight for five more terrible hours.
When hope was gone, Horowitz ordered the three uninjured men with him to flee. And to prevent his wounded soldiers from ending up alive in Arab hands, Horowitz blew up the vehicle and died along with them.
Cpt. Nahum Arieli – Jerusalem
By April of 1948, Jerusalem’s 100,000 Jews had run out of water and were reduced to eating plants.
The situation was so critical that the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, was ordered to capture the most vicious of the hillside villages and their fortified post: the notorious Kastel.
On April 3, 1948, a Palmach force arrived from its base in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. Heavy fighting ensued, continuing non-stop until almost all of the Jewish soldiers were either wounded or dead.
When 21-year-old Nahum Arieli arrived with reinforcements, his contingent found it impossible to overpower the hordes of enemy fighters storming the hills. Retreat under heavy fire was the only option. Arieli commanded his officers to cover an orderly evacuation of the lowest-ranking soldiers before retreating themselves. During the final descent, Arieli and almost all of the officers were killed by enemy guns. The Kastel was taken by Jewish forces the next day.
Pvt. Yizhar Armoni – Nabi Yusha
Sitting in the Upper Galilee at 375 meters (about 1,200 feet) above sea level with thick concrete walls, narrow windows, and a fortified courtyard topped by a six-sided tower, the British-built Yusha Fort controlled two major strategic axes: the north-to-south Rosh Pina-Metulla highway, and the route from east to west between the northern road and the Naphtali mountain settlements.
Gaining control of the fortress was crucial to the defense of the Jewish state-in-the-making, for without it the Arabs could easily cut off the entire Upper Galilee. Yet when they left in mid-April, 1948, the British handed the fortress over to the local Arab villagers.
An immediate attempt by Jewish forces to take the fortress failed miserably.
A few days later, the Jews tried again. This time there were so many mishaps that the troops were easily detected. Arabs fired continually from the windows of the fortress and threw grenades at the Jewish forces that caused numerous casualties.
Any evacuation of the wounded had to be done in daylight while descending a steep slope on barren terrain, under unremitting enemy fire. Three soldiers with machine guns were charged with covering the retreat. One of them was 19-year-old Yizhar Amrani, considered the best machine gunner in the Galilee. Alone with the task when other machine guns failed, he continued firing until he himself was cut down by a bullet.
The fortress was finally taken during a bloody third battle on the night of May 16.
Pvt. Yehuda Ken-Dror – Sinai Campaign
On October 29, 1956, paratroopers were dropped into the Sinai Peninsula.
It took 100 hours and hundreds of lives, but at the end of what is known as the Sinai Campaign, terrorists no longer infiltrated into Israel by way of the Egyptian border, and the Suez Canal, blockaded by the Egyptians, reopened to Israeli ships.
Yehuda Ken-Dror, 20 years old, was one of the paratroopers who landed in Sinai. Soon afterward, his commander asked for a volunteer to divert Arab guns while searching out hidden enemy positions inside a nearby gully. Ken-Dror immediately took off in an open jeep, drawing enemy fire from an assortment of weapons and all the while spotting Egyptian forces in the slopes and ridges of the gully. Eventually hit in the stomach, legs and arms, he lost control of the wheel.
The jeep kept on going. When it finally came to a stop, Ken-Dror managed to crawl into a ditch. He was discovered there late at night by comrades who were certain he had been killed. He died on January 3, 1957, after months of pain and suffering.
Pvt. Moshe Drimer and Pvt. David Shirazi – Tel Faher
For years the Syrian army had been terrorizing Israeli settlements from military positions on the peaks of the Golan Heights, especially from the base on Tel Faher.
On June 9, 1967, the fourth day of the Six Day War, Israel decided to stop the Syrian guns once and for all. The Golani brigade, which had been positioned across from the Golan Heights since 1948, was chosen for the task.
Due to a mistake in navigation, most of the men climbed up to Tel Faher directly into waiting Syrian guns. But company sapper Moshe Drimer, 20 years old and the company scout, advanced up the hill in an armored carrier. When the vehicle suffered a direct hit and burst into flames, everyone was commanded to leave. And they did — all but Drimer. He remained inside, firing his machine gun as cover for the other men until he burned to death in the vehicle.
Over half the attack force had been killed or wounded, making their way up the hill to Tel Faher.
Remaining troops advanced to the nine-meter-wide (30 feet) barbed-wire fence and placed explosives which failed to detonate.
Nineteen-year-old Pvt. David Shirazi jumped atop the barbed wire, enabling the rest of the force to cross over on his back.
Afterward, he grabbed a machine gun from one of the injured soldiers and continued firing until he was cut down by Syrian bullets.
Lt. Col. Avigdor Kahalani – Valley of Tears
On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise assault on Israel known as the Yom Kippur War. Syrian tanks penetrated Israel’s front lines on the first day and raced across the Golan Heights. Israeli reservists who had been rushed into battle succeeded in blocking the Syrian advance on the second and third days of the war. Syria then intensified its efforts to break through Israeli lines.
On the fourth day of the war, the Syrians launched a formidable attack on the Golan Heights, planning to move south through the Golan, then penetrate deep into Israel. After a bloody day-long battle between Syrian’s massive armored forces and a handful of Israeli tanks, the situation seemed hopeless.
Battalion commander Avigdor Kahalani was sent to the valley in a last-ditch effort to stem the Syrian advance.
Calling his men to join him in a rush toward the enemy he was shocked to find that he was moving forward alone. Physically and emotionally at the end of their rope, the men had simply not responded.
Kahalani and his crew battled courageously on their own until other Israeli troops finally rallied to their support.
In the end, the Syrians retreated, leaving behind over 500 destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Later to become a member of the Israeli parliament and a government minister, Kahalani has been given the honor of lighting a torch at this year’s Independence Day opening ceremonies.
The battleground on which Kahalani fought is known as the Valley of Tears, and features an unusual memorial for fallen soldiers of his 77th Brigade. Tel Faher is now a living memorial to fallen Golani troops, with trenches, explanations and an unforgettable view; the Golani Museum slightly west of Tiberias tells the story of the Golani Brigade. Kiryat Anavim’s military cemetery features a stunning monument to Palmach soldiers who fell near Jerusalem in 1948.
Black Arrow, a heritage site in the Negev, is a unique monument to paratroopers who conducted reprisal operations in response to enemy infiltrations from Egypt in the mid-1950s. Paratroopers are also remembered at an impressive central memorial near Gedera. Adjacent to the fortress at Nabi Yusha are memorials, a fascinating museum, and a lovely forest trail.
Each of these beautifully designed and often heartbreaking memorial sites boast at least one of Israel’s exceptional audio information guides (there are five at the Golani Museum, four at Black Arrow, and two at Tel Faher). Called masbiranim for the Hebrew word “to explain” and unique to Israel, these audio guides enhance any visit to these and 400 other sites by providing clear and exciting information and stories, in Hebrew, English and other languages as well.
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