Seventy years ago this week, Israel could not hold back invading Arab masses and it’s border with Gaza was breached. The price in Jewish life was high, as the story of Kibbutz Nitzanim proves.
Located on the coastal plain 7 KM NE of Ashkelon and 30 minutes south of Tel Aviv, is Kibbutz Nitzanim. It was the location of one of the most costly battles of Israel’s Independence War in 1948.
Kibbutz Nitzanim was founded in 1943 on land the Jewish National Fund purchased from an Arab effendi in 1942. It covered an area of 400 acres and included the resident mansion located on site. The first residents comprised of new immigrants, some of whom were holocaust survivors.
With the advance of the Egyptian army from the south on May 15, 1948, the mothers and children of the kibbutz were evacuated on May 16, 1948 in what was known as operation “Tinok” (baby in Hebrew) that evacuated the women and children from areas under the assault of Arab armies.
Mira Ben Ari, the only wireless operator in the kibbutz, refused to leave. The Egyptian army by-passed Nitzanim, advanced northwards and on May 31, 1948 reached Ad Halom bridge, which lies to the south of Ashdod. During this respite, the kibbutz pleaded for reinforcements, additional weapons and ammunition, as well as a better wireless radio. The Givati brigade, who were in charge of this front, responded to the request, but only sent 70 untrained recruits to the kibbutz.
On June 6, 1948, the Egyptians returned and attacked the kibbutz from the north. During the attack, 37 of the kibbutz members, including 3 women were killed. Those that remained standing retreated into the mansion. With most of the defenders wounded, ammunition spent and the wireless no longer operable, the leader Avraham Schwartzstein decided to surrender.
With a white sheet attached to his gun and, accompanied by Mira Ben Ari, they approached the Egyptian command post. In response to this approach, the Egyptian officer shot Avraham in the shoulder. Mira responded by picking Avraham up and together continued walking towards the Egyptian officer who then shot and killed Avraham. Mira returned the gesture by shooting the officer, a move that cost her her own life in return. The remaining defenders were taken into captivity and only released 6 months later.
The surrender of the fighters in Kibbutz Nitzanim was a matter of much debate at the time, with prominent figures such as former Ghetto fighter Abba Kovner criticizing their actions.
A committee to investigate the matter formed by then chief of staff Yaakov Dori concluded that the Nitzanim defenders actions were heroic. Yitzhak Pundak, the local Givati commander at that time remained repentant throughout his life and on 27 August 2017 at the age of 104 years, was buried alongside the fallen on Kibbutz Nitzanim as per his request.
Mira Ben Ari and 2 other women are today recognized as heroin’s and are memorialized with a statue created by Shoshana Hefetz entitled “Fighting Women”.
Ron Traub is a certified Israeli tour guide and can be reached by email at rrdg
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