Israel’s newest general, 100 years old, finally heals his wounds

For two-thirds of his long life, Yitzhak Pundak battled to restore the reputation of the defenders of Kibbutz Nitzanim in the War of Independence. Finally, as he neared his centenary, he succeeded, and a promise by Moshe Dayan was honored at long last

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), slipping the general's rank on Pundak's left shoulder. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's blog)
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), slipping the general's rank on Pundak's left shoulder. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's blog)

Israel’s newest general, a 100-year-old man who received his longed-for promotion in August, was exasperated. Seated on the couch in his Kfar Yona home, beyond earshot of his in-house caretaker, he lamented the roller coaster of calm and crisis on Israel’s southwestern border. “Give me Gaza,” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yitzhak Pundak said, “and I’ll do just what I did back when I was the governor.”

That was in 1971. At the time, Pundak said, the locals would ask his permission to play soccer. They’d ask him to ref the matches. The border was quiet. The train ran daily from Gaza to Tel Aviv.

Terror, he went on, would be met with a firm hand. Here’s what he would not be doing: fortifying more Israeli homes and bombing tunnels. “People fire at you and you bomb their tunnels. “How nice,” he said in his broad Polish accent, stretching the Hebrew vowels. “How nice.”

No, he would open up the Strip and offer residents ample employment, and he would wage war each time a rocket was fired on Israel to force the Palestinians “to sit quietly.”

“But I’m 100 years and 2 months old. What do I know?”

Well, he knows that Israel has “no choice but to destroy what they have there” in Iran. He knows that it’s not certain that today’s IDF has the ability to prevail under the desperately strained conditions of the War of Independence — in his brigade of 2,000 soldiers, 675 were killed. And he knows that this year, in some ways, has been the best of his life.

In August, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of the IDF General Staff, awarded him the leaf-and-sword rank of general. Furthermore, after considerable searching, he found a man willing to write the full history of the battle of Kibbutz Nitzanim. It was there that soldiers under his command succumbed to a far superior enemy force during the War of Independence. And it was there that those soldiers returned, facing the unburied bones of their loved ones and the derision of a young nation.

“Pundak told me, ‘I’m 99 years old and I can’t die until the wrong is righted,'” Uri Milshtain, the author of the resulting book, “Left to Die,” said to this reporter.

For Milshtain, the story of Nitzanim is one of “political filth” and ideological bigotry. The Givati Brigade commander, Col. Shimon Avidan, was a communist, affiliated with the Hashomer Hatzair movement, and the members of Nitzanim were not. In consequence, the kibbutz was ill-prepared for the Egyptian onslaught and ill-spoken of after it.

Pundak, left, with Ben-Gurion in May 1956 (Photo credit: IDF Archive/ Ministry of Defense/ photographer unspecified)
Pundak, left, with Ben-Gurion in May 1956 (photo credit: IDF Archive/Ministry of Defense)

For Pundak, the story is personal.

In order to explain — and Gen. Pundak insisted on explaining properly — he began with the Russo-Japanese War. Pundak’s father, an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, had fought for the tsar. His direct commander during the war was Joseph Trumpeldor.

The first Jew to receive an officer’s commission in the Russian army, Trumpeldor lost his left arm in combat and went on to die defending the northern Galilee village of Tel Hai, becoming a sort of sad Paul Revere in Israeli lore. Pundak’s father lost two fingers during the war but returned to Bialystok with an understanding of what it means to be a Jew. Don’t die for the sanctification of God’s name, he told son Yitzhak. Live for it.

“And if you want to live, you have to know how to fight,” Pundak added.

He went to a regional grade school and, as one of four Jewish students, was ceremoniously pummeled every day. As a boy, he recalled lying on the ground, watching his own blood redden the snow, and vowing that he would not let that happen again. He crawled home, took a large metal key from his father’s shed and hid it in his pants. The next day, when the boys approached him, he beat them with the metal key.

“After that, we were friends,” he said. “They said: ‘You’re a Jew? You’re not a Jew. You’re one of us.'”

He joined the fire scouts and participated in paramilitary training. But in the end, he decided his place was in Israel. Immediately upon arrival, in 1933, he joined the Haganah.

The first wound

In 1947, David Ben-Gurion called Pundak to a meeting and appointed him to the post of battalion commander. Most of his training until that point had taken place in a schoolhouse in the hours between darkness and midnight. “I knew what it was to be a battalion commander?” he asked rhetorically.

He accepted the post nonetheless. His deputy was Zvi Zur, who became the commander of the IDF in 1961. Pundak was given three months to assemble the battalion and was told he could choose from among the youth of south Tel Aviv, an area settled by poor immigrants, many of whom, he said, “didn’t even have belts to keep up their pants.” It was not the pick of the Zionist litter.

They muddled their way through the early days of the war, some of his soldiers only learning to fire a weapon while in battle. Their only success was in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, he said.

On March 1, 1948, two-and-a-half months before Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, his brigade commander ordered him down to the south. His battalion consisted of 450 soldiers, who were asked to hold a 45-kilometer-long line.

Their first operation, on March 13, ended tragically. Men under his command, traveling in a convoy of armored vehicles, took fire from the Arab village of Falluja and, without any radio equipment and amid the confusion of the night, opened fire on an oncoming force, killing seven men and wounding 13, all of them Israeli, who had come out to their aid.

Pundak, third from right, with, from right: Eli Zeira, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Jibli, Moshe Dayan and Zvi Zamir (Photo credit: IDF Archive/ Ministry of Defense/ photographer unspecified)
Pundak, third from right, with, from right: Eli Zeira, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Jibli, Moshe Dayan and Zvi Zamir (photo credit: IDF Archive/Ministry of Defense)

This was during the first stage of the war, he explained, which was fought on the roads and within the small towns. In May, the second stage of the war began, with the invasion of the Arab armies and the fight taken to the three main Israeli cities.

During a break in the battles, in June, Pundak met with the families of the dead soldiers. They met in Kibbutz Gat. He told them exactly what had happened and answered their questions. “I told them how our battalion killed their sons.” Then he unfolded a letter of resignation and showed it to them. “You say the word and I’ll sign it,” he recalled telling them. They spoke for four hours. They cried, they hugged. None demanded that he put his signature on the letter. “That was the first of my wounds,” he said. “And I was able to heal it then.”

The other two took 65 more years.

‘A singular act of heroism’

The one that has defined his life since is Nitzanim — one of the kibbutzim that fell during the War of Independence and the only one to have been openly derided.

The settlement was founded on the eighth night of Hanukkah, in December 1943, on a plot of land situated perhaps halfway between Gaza and Jaffa. The Arab villages of Isdud [Ashdod] and Majdal [Ashkelon] flanked it to the north and south and it was topographically inferior to all its surroundings, save the sea. The nearest Jewish village, Be’er Tuvia, was 12 kilometers away.

During the spring of 1948, as the Egyptian army advanced, Nitzanim came under siege. The road was inaccessible. Supplies came rarely, either by foot or dumped out of an airplane. Sniper fire into the kibbutz and ambushes on the road were daily occurrences. Worse, despite the fact that the kibbutz was situated in the middle of the coastal road linking Gaza to Tel Aviv, and was the sole Hebrew settlement on the coastal route all the way to Ayanot, near Tel Aviv, the Haganah, and the commander of the brigade, Col. Shimon Avidan, decided not to fortify the kibbutz. Instead, Pundak said, Avidan focused on the inland route north and fortified the villages there.

On April 20, the kibbutz came under Egyptian attack. The assault lasted 20 hours and Nitzanim nearly fell. Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood companies, along with hundreds of local Palestinian militia, attacked the kibbutz, crawling up to the perimeter under the cover of machine gun fire and mortar shells.

A photo of Kibbutz Nitzanim after the bombardments (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
Kibbutz Nitzanim after the bombardments (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pundak came to the aid of the kibbutz, attacking a nearby Arab village and drawing the Egyptian fighters away, but lost 12 men. Four of them, he told Milshtain, fell into enemy hands. They were decapitated; their heads were displayed on posts in Majdal.

One month later, on May 16, with the Egyptian army camped nearby, the command, after considerable deliberation, ordered the transport of the children out of the kibbutz, Milshtain wrote. None of the 33 kids were over 4. At night, the men and women of the kibbutz, after giving the children a sleeping pill, walked six miles through the fields with the children on their shoulders. It may have been the only such transport during the war. Members of Kibbutz Be’er Tuvia met them in the fields one mile outside their kibbutz and received their children. In exchange, they handed mines to the adults.

On June 2, despite the protestations of many members, the women were ordered to leave. All but 10 complied. This left 57 male kibbutz members, 10 female members, 30 of Pundak’s soldiers and 44 inductees, who had been drafted one week earlier. They had 78 rifles, few of which worked reliably, four machine guns, one mortar and one improvised radio, which managed to send a total of three broadcasts during the battle.

After days of mortar fire, on June 7, an Egyptian battalion [which included a young company commander by the  name of Gamal Abdel Nasser], along with a rifle company, a demolitions platoon, four tanks, 13 armored half-tracks, several mortar and machinegun squads, all covered by aerial support and artillery cannons, launched a final attack on the kibbutz.

Egyptian aircraft and artillery pounded the kibbutz from midnight until daybreak. In the morning, the tanks and infantry advanced on all sides, further thinning the ranks of those on the perimeter and squeezing the remaining soldiers and kibbutz members to “the Castle,” an old Arab house made of stone. By 3 p.m., after the northern perimeter finally fell, the company commander, Avraham Schwartzmann, ordered all troops into the Castle. The plan was to break out to the open sands to the south. The first two groups that tried to cross the open ground were gunned down. Schwartzmann, with little ammunition, dozens of dead and many wounded, and realizing that it was either death or surrender, decided to wave the white flag.

Pundak received only two of the three messages sent from within the Castle. The first, at 10 a.m., was an SOS, which he didn’t get; the second, at around 3 p.m, said “the Egyptians are at the gate and ammunition is running low”; and the third, at 4 p.m., revealed the beginning of a drama that Pundak characterized as “a singular act of heroism.”

Mira Ben-Ari with son, Dani (Photo credit: wikicommons)
Mira Ben-Ari with son, Dani (Photo credit: wikicommons)

Mira Ben-Ari, a radio operator and a mother, who had parted with her young son weeks earlier and tucked a note into his pocket, sent word over the radio — the third message — that the Egyptians had broken into the kibbutz and that she was destroying the radio and going out to fight. She joined Schwarzmann. At first, he tried to surrender from afar but was shot. Then he removed his white undershirt and waded out in the yard. He told Ben-Ari to remain behind but she insisted on accompanying him. The two approached a group of three Egyptian officers, Pundak said. One shot Schwartzmann dead, dropping him at Ben-Ari’s feet and leaving her alone against the three. The Berlin-born woman dragged her commanding officer toward the Egyptians, drew her sidearm and killed the shooter at point-blank range. The other two killed her.

The remaining members of the kibbutz were taken prisoner. They were paraded through Majdal and Gaza and finally housed in the notorious Abassiya Prison in Egypt. They were incarcerated for nine months. In the beginning it was awful, then it got better. There was even a final party together with the guards before returning home. But none of them had any idea what had happened in their absence.

On the day after the battle, the brigade commander, Avidan, published a letter from Givati’s education officer, Abba Kovner, the partisan and poet. Under the title “Failure,” he wrote: “Surrender — so long as the body lives and the last bullet in the magazine yet breathes — is a disgrace! Departing to the captivity of the invader — is a disgrace and death!” The letter was distributed far and wide.

Though Kovner had acknowledged that “not all of the details have reached our hands,” even Pundak believed the underlying message of the letter: that the kibbutz had meekly folded. The word Nitzanim became synonymous with surrender and capitulation. Few came out to receive the POWs when they returned in March 1949. The bodies of their fallen comrades, Pundak said, had been left for the animals.

One man, whose son spoke to this reporter, told his family that he had returned from captivity, taken a bus to his parents’ Tel Aviv apartment and found a draft notice waiting on his table. Chaim Graniewitz, who had enlisted as a 16-year-old, went on to serve three more years in the IDF. In 1957, he moved to England. He became a cantor at the Dean Street Synagogue. “My dad was an Olympic talker, a great raconteur,” David Graniewitz said, “but he never spoke about this.” The shame, coupled with the guilt of surviving, silenced him.

In a photo taken of the Israeli POWs, Chaim Graniewitz is top right (Photo credit: Courtesy: David Graniewitz)
In a photo taken of the Israeli POWs, Chaim Graniewitz is top right (Photo credit: Courtesy: David Graniewitz)

In 2006, David, an English teacher in Jerusalem, hosted his father at his home for Passover. Praying at the Western Wall, his father bumped into a man named Avraham Habshush, who had served along with him in Nitzanim. Habshush told Chaim that Pundak gathered the veterans together every Remembrance Day in Nitzanim. When he came back from that first meeting, “at age 75, he finally started to talk,” David said.

Pundak has spent years trying to rehabilitate the kibbutz’s good name. In 1959, he forced the army to re-investigate the battle and to publish its findings. In 1993, he established a monument to female heroism in the rebuilt kibbutz, marking the bravery of Ben-Ari and two other women who were killed. In 2001, he buried his wife there, alongside the mass grave for the 33 fallen during the war, and has set aside a patch for himself beside her. And this year he witnessed the publication of Milshtain’s book. “When I was 99 years old I decided that a book had to be written about the battle for Nitzanim,” Pundak said. “Because before I go the way of all man, I must see this truth spread among the masses.”

And finally…

Several months later, the last of the old wounds was healed. Pundak has for years kept a letter from Moshe Dayan promising that he would be promoted to general. This was in 1954, when Dayan was chief of the General Staff and just before the Lavon Affair became public. In the aftermath, Lavon, the defense minister, did not promote him to general and neither did anyone else.

In recent years he sent requests to three chiefs of the General Staff and two defense ministers. Nothing. Then came Gantz. “All of a sudden I get a call from the secretary of the chief of the General Staff, telling me I’ve been awarded general’s rank,” he said.

He asked what he could do. They told him to stay put, that a tailor would be arriving shortly to provide him with a new uniform.

When I asked to see it, he called to his caretaker in English and told him “the dress uniform.” The man brought it out on a hanger and Pundak, seated on the couch, held it to his chest.

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