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Battle of Yad Mordechai, 1948

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Yad Mordechai is a Kibbutz of the left-wing Kibbutz Artzi Hashomer Hatzair federation, founded in December 1943, about 10 KM south of Ashkelon, just north of Gaza (see map at right. The Kibbutz was founded by members of Hashomer Hatzair who had come on Aliya (immigrated) between 1933 and 1938 on land purchased from Arabs of the village of Brayr.

The kibbutz was named for Mordechai Anielewicz,  a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, who in the spring of 1943 had led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis, despite hopeless odds. Inspired by his bravery, they named the Kibbutz after him. In the spring of 1948, in the Israel War of Independence, the members of Yad Mordechai were to write their own chapter of brave resistance against overwhelming force. This time however, their valor was not in vain.

In 1948, the kibbutz had about 110-130 members. Morris, 1999, p 228 notes 110 adults reinforced by two Palmach squads. Size of the squads unspecified - can be 10-20. Others give other numbers. Some adults (women and wounded) were evacuated at different times. Following UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, which partitioned the territory of the Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, Arab violence increased. Yad Mordechai was due to be incorporated into the Arab state according to the partition maps. Travel between Tel Aviv and Yad Mordechai became hazardous and subject to attacks and Arab roadblocks.  It became obvious that the kibbutz was in danger, as it was a strategic point controlling the road from Gaza to Tel-Aviv. It was also obvious that the kibbutz could be an important defensive point, that could block the advance of an enemy army on Tel Aviv. By Passover, 1948, the road to the kibbutz from the north was effectively closed. A Haganah convoy arrived just before Passover, bringing Matzot and 7 Czech rifles. The Kibbutz became a fortress. It was divided into ten strategic areas. Kibbutz members dug communications trenches, prepared fortified and sandbagged firing positions including a pillbox, and mined the perimeter fence.  On the eve of battle, Yad Mordechai had the following arms: 37 rifles and semi-automatic rifles, a PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) gun, two light mortars and two machine guns.

The battle of Yad Mordechai in the Israel War of Independence was one of several that became paradigmatic of the valor and obstinacy with which Israelis defend our country (see also Battle of Nirim, Battle of Degania Battle of Negba). On May 15, the Egyptians  attacked Nirim and Kfar Darom in succession with battalion forces backed by artillery and air support. They were repulsed. They decided to abandon these efforts, but they could not avoid Yad Mordechai in their northward advance.

On May 18 one of the two commanders at Yad Mordechai joined a Red Cross jeep that attempted to get to Kfar Darom to evacuate wounded. Large concentrations of Egyptian troops were in evidence, ready to march northward. From conversations, it developed that Yad Mordechai was to be attacked in few hours. Kibbutz members quickly prepared for an attack. Palmach forces arrived at night and evacuated the children and some of the women.

Yad Mordechai was attacked by the Egyptian first battalion, with air and artillery support. At a later stage, the Egyptian 7th battalion attacked as well. The small band of defenders held off about a thousand Egyptian troops, artillery, tanks and aircraft for 5 days.

On the morning of May 19th, an Egyptian air and artillery bombardment began (Box 1 in Map #1). The water tower was hit, and all the water lost, as it was perforated by numerous bullet holes. Cows and other animals were hit and broke loose and fled. Fuel supplies and hay ricks caught fire. 

 

Map 1: Initial stage of Battle of Yad Mordechai

The pillbox, a forward position in the southwest corner of the kibbutz outside the perimeter fence, withstood several attacks, but had to be evacuated following a direct hit (#2 in map #1). At night, Kibbutz members collected rifles and ammunition from dead Egyptians left in the field. After taking the pillbox, the Egyptians mounted about 8 unsuccessful assaults from the south with the first and seventh brigades on the 19th and 20th (Box #3 in map #1) with the first and seventh brigades. By the end of the day, the defenders had at least 12 dead and 24 wounded (this account) or 16 dead and 20 wounded (this account) . On the 20th at least four assaults were beaten off.

From May 20-22, from positions in the east and on the pillbox, the Egyptians rained artillery and tank fire on Yad Mordechai, hitting all positions with many casualties (Box #4 in map #1), but on the 21st and 22nd did not attempt an assault on the kibbutz. On May 21, a Palmach squad brought ammunition and a PIAT before dawn (Box #5 in map #1). The squad also brought a bit of fighting manpower - probably about 30 troops. By May 22, the Egyptians could move some forces northward along the main road to Tel-Aviv under the cover of heavy artillery barrages (Box #6 in map #1).

On May 23, after a diversionary attack (Box #1 in Map 2) the Egyptians assaulted positions #1 and #2. Position #1 was captured but retaken by the defenders (Box #2 in Map 2). An Egyptian tank also managed to enter the defense perimeter but was neutralized. (Box #3 in Map 2). According to Haganah records, and the Yad Mordechai history, on the night of May 24, a force of "Negev Beasts" of the Palmach Negev brigade managed to get three armored cars within 300 meters of the Kibbutz and evacuate wounded and some women (Box #4 in Map 2). Others who tried to escape on foot to Gvaram through Bror Hayil were not so lucky - Egyptians caught two stretcher bearers and a wounded defender and killed them. (Box #5 in Map 2). By this time about 26 people had died in all, including the three escapees who were murdered.

Maurice Ostroff  writes: The book South Africa's 800 [Ra'anana : South African Zionist Federation, 2003] describes how one of my MACHAL friends the late Ronnie ie Chaskelson, who had joined the Palmach:

...acting temporarily as an ambulance driver, drove out at night to bring in Yad Mordechai's wounded.  Joseph Jedeiken also lived through the last hours of Yad Mordechai. Israel Carmi, Palmach commander, had assigned him to take two jeeps and two trucks and rescue as many of the kibbutz's remnant defenders as he could. He left at midnight under instructions not to return enemy fire but to concentrate on rescue. In the darkness he managed to find some survivors, young men and women, all in a pitiful state of shock and exhaustion. The return trip became hazardous when one of the trucks bogged in the sand. Jedeikin ex-S.A. Army driver, managed to get the truck moving again. Bullets whistled round the convoy. At Ruchama, it was found that two of the survivors had been killed in the firing.

With over half the defenders incapacitated or dead, and no possibility of reinforcement, it was decided to evacuate the kibbutz, which had held out for five precious days, tying down a major portion of the Egyptian attack force. 

 

Map 2: Final stages of Battle of Yad Mordechai

The defense of Yad Mordechai bought 5 precious days for the defense of Tel Aviv. The Egyptians had some 300-400 casualties. By the time the Egyptians began advancing toward Yavne on the road to Tel Aviv, four Avia S199 (Messerschmitt 109 aircraft) had arrived from Czechoslovakia and had been hastily assembled by the Israelis. An aerial bombardment of the Egyptians on the 29th stopped their advance at "Gesher Ad Halom" ("Until here" bridge), though it did little real damage and two planes were lost (see Debut of Israel's Air Force).  On June 2-3, the IDF counterattacked in Operation Paleshet (Philistia). The main attack is sometimes called the "Battle of Isdood." About 2,000 Givati Brigade soldiers faced about 2,500 or more Egyptians. The attack was poorly organized and wasn't a great success. However, the Egyptian army had been bloodied sufficiently by the battles of the Kibbutzim, and was alarmed by the air attack and the Givati brigade counterattack. Kamal Ismail ash Sharif, an Arab chronicler, noted:

[T]he Jewish attack...was a turning point... from this point on the Egyptian command was forced to change its plans. Instead of continuing to chase after the Zionist gangs, the command decided to limit itself to severing the Negev from the rest of the country." (quoted by Morris, p 130)

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was recaptured in Operation Yoav.

The children's house is shown in the photo below. A veritable military target! But no-one complained of human rights violations or war crimes.

Children's house at Yad Mordechai after
Egyptian bombardment,1948.

Photo copyright by, and courtesy of, Maurice Ostroff

When the kibbutz members arrived, they found that the damaged water tower was still standing on its rickety legs.

MACHAL volunteer M. Fine and collapsed
water tower in 1948.
Photo copyright by, and courtesy of, Maurice Ostroff

The water tower soon collapsed.

The water tower was rebuilt, and next to it a statue of Mordechai Anielewicz was erected.

A museum and battle re-creation at Yad Mordechai are favorite tourist attractions. Except for the numerous tourists, Yad Mordechai lives the life of a normal kibbutz today. It is known for its apiary and honey products.

The desperate defense of Yad Mordechai and that of Nirim, Degania, Kfar Darom and other kibbutzim and villages, against enormous odds, bears witness against the "interpretation" of history by certain "new historians," who insist that the Israeli War of Independence was a planned campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in which Jewish forces had the upper hand from the start, and who claim that the outcome was never in doubt. These settlers were attacked by  regular armies, and they were outmanned and outgunned.

Likewise, the various claims about Israeli behavior towards prisoners of war must be weighed against the actual and verified murder of a wounded soldier and his stretcher bearers. There is little doubt that any defenders who had remained in Yad Mordechai would have been murdered as well. Had the Arab side won the war, it is unlikely that any Jews would remain alive in Israel, as no Jews remained in any of the areas conquered by the Arabs, and none were allowed to return. A large scale genocide was prevented only by the Israeli victory.

Ami Isseroff

References:

Haganah Web Site: Battle of Yad Mordechai (Hebrew)

Herzog, Chaim and Gazit Shomo, The Arab Israeli Wars, Vintage Books, N.Y. 2005.

History of Yad Mordechai (Hebrew) 

Morris, Benny, Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf, 1999.

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Haganah Web Site: Battle of Yad Mordechai (Hebrew)


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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This work is copyright 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. This entry is copyright 2008. Quoted materials may be copyright by their authors and must not be used in commercial publications without permission.  Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

 

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