Degania is the first Kibbutz in Israel, founded in 1909. It had split into two kibbutzim, Degania Alef ("A") and Degania Bet ("B") by 1948. During the Israel War of Independence Degania was attacked by the Syrian army, though like Nirim, it was in the area allotted by the UN partition plan to the State of Israel. The heroic resistance of the Degania defenders against a regular army, like the stands of the defenders of Yad Mordechai, Nirim, Kfar Darom, Negba and others, gave the people of the young state a large morale boost. It also caused the Arab armies to reassess their earlier predictions of rapid and easy victory.
Tzemach, on the south shore of the sea of Galilee, had fallen on May 18. Degania settlers rushed to Tel Aviv to plead for weapons and reinforcements, but David Ben Gurion and Chief of Staff Yadin insisted that none were available and that the only thing to do was to confront the attackers at close quarters. After pleading by the head of operations, it was reluctantly agreed to allow Degania a few newly arrived artillery pieces that were then being assembled for a few hours, but the "artillery" did not arrive until after the battle started. Degania had about 70 defenders among the kibbutz members, a company of Palmach and a company made up of settlers from the area, plus a unit of the Golani brigade that had retreated from Tzemach. Their weapons consisted of single PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank) gun, Molotov cocktails and some small arms.
The Syrians advanced on Degania beginning at 4:30 AM on May 20, 1948 (Map #1), with the aim of reaching the bridge over the Jordan River north of Degania. Five tanks, armored cars and an infantry company managed to penetrate the outer defenses of the Kibbutz (Map #2). Two of the tanks were put out of commission by the PIAT gun and Molotov cocktails (Map #3).
Map: Battle of Degania
The Renault 35 tank which penetrated into the kibbutz was attacked by Molotov cocktails and hand grenades . It remains in the kibbutz till today as a monument.
The defenders remained at their posts despite heavy losses from artillery and mortar fire. Eventually, because Syrian infantry had not caught up, the Syrians were forced to withdraw. (Map # 4).
The Syrians then attacked Degania B with eight or nine tanks and two companies of infantry (Map #5), shelling the kibbutz with mortars tanks and armored cars approached the kibbutz. To avoid the Molotov cocktail defense, the tanks stopped 400 meters from the fence and shelled the defenders' positions. Again they were repulsed.
In the early afternoon, the first hastily assembled artillery of the IDF arrived. These were French 65 mm canon of pre-WWI vintage, without sights, the guns the Israelis dubbed "Napoleonchickim." The guns were set up on the Alumot-Poyiyya ridhge. (Map #6).
Gunners lobbed practice shells into the Sea of Galilee and then zeroed in on the Syrians. The introduction of artillery surprised the Syrians. They broke off the attack and withdrew from Tzemach, Mishmar Hagolan and Massada by May 26. leaving behind two tanks and other equipment in Tzemach. The Syrians did not attack again at the southern end of the Golan.
The battle of Degania along with a handful of others (eg: Yad Mordechai, Nirim, Kfar Darom. Negba and others) was a key battle not only because it stopped the Syrian defense, but because the successful defense against overwhelming force at the start of the invasion lifted the morale of the country at a time when Israelis were still very unsure of victory. These battles, along with the repeated failures of the IDF to take Latrun or to retake Mishmar Hayarden from the Syrians, are critical points in assessing the claim of new historians that Israel won the war because of an advantage in equipment and number of troops. Near the end of the war, in January 1949, Israel had about 100,000 "troops" on paper, but there were only 12 combat divisions, numbering some 30,000, while at the peak of the fighting, enemy forces had at least 55,000 troops in the field, not counting support personnel, according to the conservative estimate of Benny Morris, and not counting the 50,000 or so Palestinian villagers who engaged in "Faza" (levee) actions.
Herzog, Chaim and Gazit Shomo, The Arab Israeli Wars, Vintage Books, N.Y. 2005.
Morris, Benny, Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf, 1999.
Synonyms and alternate spellings:
Further Information: 1948 Israel War of Independence (Arab-Israeli war) Timeline (Chronology)
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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