There is a kibbutz just north of the Gaza strip called “Yad Mordechai.” It fought valiantly during the War of Independence, and its tenacious fighting for six days was able to significantly delay the Egyptian invasion. The kibbutz was on the main road between Cairo and Tel Aviv. If not for that delay, the Egyptian army could have quickly reached Tel Aviv and the other important cities in the north.
In 1965, Margaret Larkin wrote a book about the kibbutz. The book is titled “The Six Days of Yad-Mordechai.” I am going to summarize it here.
Two groups of pioneers from Poland (members of Hashomer Hatzair) came together to found this kibbutz in 1936. It was originally in an area near Netanya. They called it “Mitzpeh Ha-Yam,” because by looking out to the sea they could watch for the coming of the comrades they had left behind.
After several years the membership grew. They were 140 adults and 43 children, and the few acres of land they had were not enough to support them. With the help of the Jewish National Fund, they found a new site five miles north of the Arab town of Gaza. Here there would be 400 acres of land and both grain and oranges could be grown. As Larkin writes, “Rarely did the Jews move onto fertile land in Palestine. Nearly always they had to reclaim the soil from years or centuries of neglect. In some places they drained the malarial swamps; here, sand would be the enemy.” They moved to this new site in December 1943.
The new name for the kibbutz would be “Yad Mordechai.” It was named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He fell in a battle in May 1943. The meaning of the name: “A Memorial to Mordechai.” (I will discuss this meaning of “yad” in another column.)
A few years later came the Nov. 1947 partition plan. As Larkin writes: “The foundation of a Jewish state had been their dream and hope since their youth. For this they had severed their ties with their families and with their native land. For this they had remade themselves…into farmers. With their own sweat and energy they had extracted wealth from ruined soil; with high idealism they had created a unique way of life. And now that their efforts were about to be crowned by the establishment of their own state, it seemed that they were not to be a part of it. The new borders, as defined by a Commission of the United Nations, put Yad Mordechai in the Arab state.”
When independence was declared in May, they rejoiced, but with sorrow. Many of the members thought of Moshe: he saw the Promised Land from afar, but after all his years in the desert, he could not enter it.
The “good news” was that since the Arab leaders announced that they would not respect the U.N. decision anyway, the exact partition plan line did not matter much. The Arabs were going to fight all the Jewish settlements. Everyone understood that the settlements must provide centers of resistance and must hold out until final borders or armistice lines were established.
Interestingly, there was a widespread belief at the time that the kibbutz would not have to face the Egyptian army. Egypt’s opposition to the invasion plans of the other Arab countries was known. It was assumed that the kibbutz would only have to hold out against Arab bands of irregulars. In a meeting of the Arab League on April 30, the Egyptians had refused to commit themselves to the use of their army. Their Minister of Defense had stated: “We shall allow our men and officers to volunteer for service in Palestine and we shall give them weapons but no more.” (The reality was that their army was not prepared for war.)
But a few days later his government changed its mind. Larkin writes that “the fears of the politicians that a triumphant Trans-Jordan, engorged with the lands of Palestine, would emerge as the leading power in the Middle East had proved stronger than caution.” Egypt was fighting in Palestine mainly to prevent King Abdullah from taking more than his share.
Thereafter, one of the members of the kibbutz was able to get into Gaza while pretending he was a Red Cross driver. He spoke to an Egyptian major. The major told him that the next day there would be an attack on Yad Mordechai.
What to do next? Whom to evacuate? The kibbutz had not been thinking this way, as they had been assuming that there would be no invasion of the Egyptian army. “Nothing lowers the spirit of a fighter so much as when he sees first steps in evacuation,” a Palmach commander once wrote. The kibbutz hastily decided to evacuate the children, the nursing mothers, and the few other women who were more sensitive than most. Some made a point of giving their children their photograph albums (in case the worst happened). The children were evacuated to a nearby settlement 10 miles to the east.
On May 19, the Egyptian planes came. Larkin writes that “within 15 minutes they had destroyed much of what had taken the settlers years to build.”
When the battle began, the defenders numbered only 113 men and boys; only slightly over half had guns. They were fighting an Egyptian army of about 2,000. What happens during the fighting? The phone lines are cut, the kibbutz members cannot communicate with one another. They have to risk their lives and run amidst gunfire to send messages to one another, as they are scattered in different (barely) fortified places in the kibbutz. They have very little ammunition. (Sometimes they obtain new ammunition by taking it from dead Egyptian soldiers.) They did not have enough mines. Instead they put up signs to scare the Egyptian invaders: “Warning: Mines.”
They hoped that the Haganah, recognizing the strategic importance of the kibbutz, would send reinforcements and strike or bomb the Egyptian army from the outside. But the Haganah was too overwhelmed. There were too many other isolated points that needed help.
The end result was that after a few days, after suffering 23 dead and 40 wounded, the defenders had to retreat and abandon the kibbutz. During the following days, they tried to convince the Haganah that with more men they could recapture the kibbutz. But the Haganah had other priorities at the time.
But a few months later, on Nov. 5, Israel was finally able to recapture the kibbutz.
In that initial time in May, the Egyptian army had expected to take the kibbutz within a few hours. Instead, they lost their momentum and had to change their battle plans. The Haganah benefited greatly because of the delay and were able to fortify other areas.
Today, there is a memorial statue to Anielewicz next to the destroyed water tower at the kibbutz. He is depicted standing heroically and holding a grenade. There is also a Holocaust museum at the kibbutz: “From Holocaust to Revival Museum.” The kibbutz is known for producing honey and olive oil, and supplies about 50% of all the honey consumed in Israel.
I have left out so many details and I highly recommend that you read this book!
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website rootsandrituals.org.