Editor’s Notes: The man who captured Gaza

By David Horovitz July 8, 2005

‘We didn’t fight that war to conquer territory,’ says Maj-Gen. (res.) Yeshayahu ‘Shaike’ Gavish, now 80, of the 1967 war. ‘We went to Gaza to save the state. That land is not ours, and we have to get out. We can’t rule another people. You can’t rule over a million, two million people’

When we arrive at the Palmach Museum, stressed because traffic on the Ayalon has made us late, a distinguished gentleman with ramrod posture is waiting to meet us. ‘My name is Gavish,’ he tells me, setting little bells ringing. ‘Go through the exhibit with your family, and we’ll talk afterwards.’

I know the name, but can’t immediately place it, and now the museum tour is starting so I put it out of my mind. We’ve been trying to get to see this place for at least two years, phoning up ahead of the kids’ various school holidays to see if there’s room and being constantly, albeit politely, told that there is not. This time, I’ve phoned from work and struck lucky.

For this is no conventional exhibit, sending a vast flow of human traffic through spacious halls to view static displays. Instead, after an introductory overview from a soldier, the museum propels small groups of only some 25 visitors into a series of ‘stations’ for an hour and a half. At the first such station, we are introduced on a video screen to a small group of young Israelis who have just volunteered to join the pre-state Palmach fighting force. We accompany them through years of training and fighting and sacrifice and loss as they play their part in establishing, and then defending, the fledgling Jewish state against the Arab armies that sought to strangle it at birth.

Strong-silent commander ‘Amnon,’ bespectacled ‘Ziggy,’ demure ‘Ofra’ and their colleagues are actually actors playing fictional characters – or, more accurately, they are composites of genuine Palmach members – but their experiences, as presented here, are absolutely those the Palmach actually went through. And because the museum pitches us physically into the midst of recreated three-dimensional scenes – one ‘station’ is the trainees’ tent camp, another the scene of a daring raid to blow up a British-held bridge (on the ‘night of the bridges,’ June 16, 1946) – and uses film, audio and life-sized models of exceptional sophistication, we are made to feel that we are undergoing a Palmach experience in their vibrant company. We sing ‘with them’ at the campfire early in their Palmach years. We mourn ‘with them’ later on by the grave of a fallen comrade.

The last station, which we also passed through on the way into the museum, is the inevitable silent, darkened hall, featuring the names of the 1,135 members of the Palmach who lost their lives between 1941, when the Palmach (Pelugot Hamahatz – Striking Force) was founded, and the end of the War of Independence and its absorption into the Israel Defense Forces.

As we emerge into the daylight, emotionally drained and close to tears, waiting for us as promised is the ramrod-postured Gavish – the very embodiment of that transformation of our fighting forces. For the man who had introduced himself with such self-effacing modesty is none other than Maj-Gen. (res.) Yeshayahu ‘Shaike’ Gavish, the one-time Palmachnik who, by 1967, had risen through the ranks of our developing army to become the general in charge of the southern command during the Six Day War.

GAVISH WAS a key member of the General Staff delegations which twice met with, and ultimately prevailed upon, prime minister Levi Eshkol in late May and early June 1967 to launch the preemptive attacks that secured Israel’s astonishing victory. The sabra Gavish, in the assessment of historian Michael Oren, commanded ‘a pretty much flawless operation’ on the southern front. ‘There were screw-ups in Jerusalem and screw-ups in the Golan,’ Oren, author of the best-selling Six Days of War told me this week, a few days after our museum visit, ‘but very few in the Sinai.’

Integral to Gavish’s central strategy, Oren explained, was a ‘brilliant’ maneuver that ‘transformed a strategic threat into an asset.’

Watching the Egyptians massing hundreds of tanks at Kuntilla, northwest of Eilat, poised for their intended ‘Operation Dawn’ onslaught against Israel, Gavish ‘created a fictitious brigade, complete with cardboard tanks’ which he ‘deployed’ facing the Egyptians while concealing the direction of his genuine thrust further north. Had the Egyptians dug in, said Oren, their forces could nonetheless have held firm. ‘But they didn’t. They ran away.’

Gavish makes no mention of such glorious specifics when he sits my family down to talk with him in some comfortable chairs in a spacious room just off the main museum, filled with rows and rows of large white photo albums assembled over recent years from the ex-fighters’ own collections to immortalize the Palmach family. Indeed, he volunteers only that he is the head of the Palmach Veterans Association.

Pressed for a fuller personal history, he talks briefly of his service in the Palmach, as a battalion commander in 1948 deployed in Malkiye (south of Metulla), Lydda and Ramle, and almost as briefly of the 1967 success. He recalls that David Ben-Gurion, by now four years out of politics and watching with anti-war frustration from the unfamiliar sidelines, summoned him to a meeting in Beersheba to try and persuade him against a preemptive strike – out of concern that the IDF would be outgunned and defeated. ‘The Egyptians had 400 tanks 50 kilometers away,’ Gavish says, in much the same tone he must have used with Ben-Gurion. ‘There was no choice but to fight.’

GAVISH DOES speak a little more about the escalating internal debate this summer over the fate of the Gaza Strip. He, of all people, could hardly avoid the subject: It was Gavish who sent the army into Gaza in the first place – in breach, Oren noted incidentally, of the formal guidelines for the war. ‘He violated the initial commands, which were not to go into Gaza and not to go to Suez,’ said Oren. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ‘had anticipated that Gaza would surrender, that the Egyptians would surrender without a fight [there].’ But Gavish’s forces were coming under fire from Gaza and, having secured Dayan’s approval, ‘Gavish went in and took it over.’

‘We didn’t fight that war to conquer territory,’ the retired general, now 80, tells us. ‘We went there to save the state. That land is not ours, and we have to get out. We can’t rule another people. You can’t rule over a million, two million people.’

But what about the dangers of vindicating terror? ‘They said that about Lebanon, too,’ he fires back, ‘and that we’d be losing our deterrence. Well our deterrence didn’t stop the Arabs going to war with us time after time. If the Arabs want to attack, they will. Do we need Gaza in order to defend ourselves and hit back? Will our having Gaza prevent them attacking? No. Do we have the strength to defend ourselves and hit back? Yes.’

Gavish, who commanded Ariel Sharon in 1967, goes on to remark that ‘Arik was an extremist’ until recently. He recalls the prime minister’s assertion as late as 2002 that Gaza’s Netzarim settlement was as important as Tel Aviv. Now ‘Arik has changed’ – but not enough, Gavish believes, to oversee the similar pullback he regards as vital in the West Bank.

THOUGH prepared to talk politics, Gavish is plainly much happier discussing his museum – a rare instance, he says lightly, of an exhibit that was planned ‘before work started on the building.’ There were three years of planning, in fact, and, with work still continuing, $16 million has been invested in the museum so far. A true Palmach family effort, it’s been funded in part by donations from the 4,500 or so surviving ex-Palmachniks, each of whom was invited to ‘buy’ a NIS 500 brick.

In the four and a half years it has been open, Gavish notes, 450,000 people have shared the highs and lows of the Palmach experience with Amnon, Ziggy, Ofra and Co.

With the overwhelming majority of each year’s visitors being students and soldiers, the twin aims of the exhibit are to tell the Palmach story and to highlight its values – including, he says, the volunteer spirit, the readiness to serve and endure hardship, the pioneering aspect of an organization whose military bases were all at kibbutzim and whose volunteers combined training with farming, its sense of rootedness, and the mutual respect and social cohesion it embodied.

But for all the violence, arrogance and intolerance that too often characterize modern Israeli society, this is no cantankerous old man recalling the good old days while bemoaning the present. ‘We have a great young generation,’ he enthuses. ‘We have healthy roots.’

In 1948, he recalls, the nascent state’s 650,000 Jews had little perceived chance of national survival as far as the watching world was concerned. So the threats of today and those of the future don’t trouble him unduly. ‘We have to show ourselves that we are not a gang of thugs,’ he says. ‘That attempted lynching…’ He trails off, shaking his head, then brightens. ‘If we have legitimacy, internal and international legitimacy,’ he says, ‘there’s a good chance we’ll still exist 100 years from now.’

Then the ex-general escorts us to the door, still limping slightly from the leg injury he sustained in the 1948 fighting at Malkiye – which, needless to say, he has chosen not to mention.

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