Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Pundak, a career military officer, civil servant and diplomat, died on Sunday at the age of 104.
Pundak served in the IDF from its start. He created the 53rd battalion of the Givati Brigade during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, founded the IDF’s Nahal unit and served as its first commander, and led the IDF Armored Corps in the 1950s.
In 2013, at the age of 100, Pundak was named a major general by then-IDF chief Benny Gantz, fulfilling a promise made nearly 60 years before by then-IDF chief Moshe Dayan.
Pundak, who lived in the community of Kfar Yona, near Netanya, died of unspecified causes on Sunday. He was set to be buried Monday at 5 p.m. in Kibbutz Nitzanim.
In addition to his military career, Pundak served as the administrator of the Arad Regional Council in 1962-1965, followed by one year as the head of the Arad local council. In 1965, he was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Tanzania, and in the 1970s was the head of the Jewish Agency delegation to Argentina.
In 1971, Pundak briefly returned to the IDF, with the rank of brigadier general, when he accepted an appointment by Dayan, who was the defense minister at the time, to the post of governor for the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip.
During that period, he was often at odds with another future defense minister and prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who was then the head of the IDF’s Southern Command. Pundak retired for the last time from military service in 1973, months before the Yom Kippur War.
Before his death, he asked to be buried next to his wife in the military plot of the Kibbutz Nitzanim cemetery, north of Ashkelon.
During the Independence War, Nitzanim fell to an overwhelming Egyptian military force. The fighters there, made up of soldiers from Pundak’s unit and the kibbutz’s residents, were outgunned, outnumbered and out of contact with the rest of the military, as their jury-rigged radio barely functioned throughout the battle.
The Israeli fighters at Nitzanim were armed with constantly malfunctioning rifles, four machine guns and one mortar against Egyptian tanks, artillery and air support.
They held off for as long as they could before ultimately surrendering to the Egyptians.
The day after the battle, the Givati Brigade commander published a letter from its 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.
In the years that followed, Pundak worked to rehabilitate Nitzanim’s name. In 1959, he ordered the military to reinvestigate the battle, to show that his fighters and the kibbutz members fought valiantly. In 1993, he established a monument to female heroism in the rebuilt kibbutz.
In 2001, he buried his wife in the kibbutz’s cemetery and asked that he be buried alongside her upon his death.
Pundak is survived by his three children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mitch Ginsburg and Asher Zieger contributed to this report.