Rain and rain and rain. For the troops it was uncomfortable. Mud and slush and a shortage of raincoats and overcoats. Bitter cold at nights and impossible to huddle around warming fires if one were near the enemy. Lots of hail. Heavy, merciless stones pattering and pounding, sudden, white attackers.
The wet weather did not agree with my health and perforce I became a frequent visitor to the hospitals of the Army Medical Services. I came to know several of them fairly well and left them all with a deep sense of appreciation for the fine, sterling work of most doctors and the untiring, zealous effort and friendliness of the nurses.
The hospital in Jerusalem was gloomy and always lit by electricity. The windows were sand-bagged and sealed and little light trickled through. One never knew whether the sun was shining outside or not. One never could tell whether the skies were clear or misty of cloudy. Our light was artificial, depressing, tiring. Diverse patients, diverse nurses from all corners of the world. Many of the unqualified nurses were recent immigrants and could speak neither English or Hebrew. In trying to make oneself understood many a “faux pas” was made.
In Jerusalem there were three South African army nurses, Sylvia, Merle and Margaret, two Jewish girls and one gentile, all nursing sisters. Accustomed to modern, well-equipped hospitals they contented themselves with such deficiencies as existed in equipment and slaved away caring for the sick. Their hours of duty were long and their hours of leave few. Coming home to the little flat they shared they often fell asleep in sheer exhaustion as soon as they sat down. I firmly believe and maintain that nurses were the hardest working and the hardest worked members of the Israeli army. Understaffed, in over-crowded hospitals, they carried on tending the wounded and sick.
At Tel Litwinsky we had a big modern hospital left by the U.S.A. forces from the World War. Large, airy, clean, wards, freshly painted.
There the food was good, unlike in Jerusalem where we were fed mainly on little pieces of herring and olives.
Leaving Tel Litwinsky after a period in bed involved so complicated and exhausting a procedure for a patient, weak from lying in bed for days on end, that he was almost compelled to become a patient again.
Tel Litwinsky hospital covered a large area. A patient leaving had to walk to the office to get discharge papers, then to the store for his kit, then he had to carry it back. The sister endorsed the discharge, the librarian’s signature had to be obtained (irrespective of whether books had been borrowed) and also another storeman’s signature. Then back to the main office. This procedure occupied from one to two hours. And after all that he had to make his own way to Tel Aviv for no transport was provided.
On arrival in Tel Aviv he was almost in invalid again. Nurses agreed that the procedure was stupid. But nothing was done to remedy the situations.
If you went to a convalescent home it was different. The authorities were determined to fatten you. Generally they succeeded. Special rations, including eggs and milk and fruit, were provided at three main meals and two teas a day at which attendance was compulsory. In the afternoons there was a compulsory rest period and at night you had to be home early.
We discovered a “Burma Road”, however, enabling us to enter and leave without detection and many availed themselves of this entrance and exit. Twice a week we received free tickets to matinee cinema performances. In Haifa free tickets were given to floor-shows and also a chit for one free drink - but only one.
So you ate and rested and saw doctors regularly until one day the doctor considered you sufficiently convalesced and gave you a discharge.
In the early months of 1949 I spent most of my time in hospital or at a convalescent home. In Jerusalem I was in a ward with seven others, all recently returned from captivity in Transjordan. They had been captured in the Old City where they had lived and spoke a dialect of Hebrew which I did not understand. One old man had been in Palestine for more than thirty years and spoke a perfect English but no Hebrew.
When these Sephardi Jews could be persuaded to talk a language I could understand they had an interesting story to relate about their capture, as civilians, and their captivity. At visiting hours their numerous progeny came to see them and they jabbered away.
My health showed no sign of improvement. There was a deterioration. Doctors advised my discharge and the lengthy, involved process of securing this began. I faced inefficiency and masses of red tape. It was annoying and aggravating and made worse by the fact that I was often ill and unable to go to numerous offices to fill in the numerous forms. All this delayed matters considerably.
On leaving hospital one could only return to one’s unit via a transit camp and I repeated the process every time I was discharged as a patient.
Meanwhile, on my sick-leaves and convalescences, I saw a great deal more of the country, particularly the Negev. So I had been from Dan to Beersheba. From Jerusalem I had already done several jeep-patrols in the large spaces of territory, which was often no-man’s –land, around Hebron, Bethlehem and Beit Jibrin. The area was fluid in its military dispositions but the lines were beginning to crystallise out.
In their spare time Mahal and Gahal were criss-crossing Israel, seeing the country that they had fought for and meeting its people. In Jerusalem I acted as an unofficial guide for many visitors, both military and civilian.
Visiting the settlements and the villages with their people friendly, sincere and quiet, was a welcome tonic to the noise and bustle and materialism of Tel Aviv. And new settlements were arising in strategic areas particularly in the Negev and along the “Burma Road.” The new macadamised road to Jerusalem had been dubbed the “Himalaya Road” but officially it was known as the “Road of Courage.” With time it cracked badly. Pot-holes and bumps made a trip uncomfortable. There had not been sufficient opportunity for the foundation to settle down before the asphalt had been laid. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem they jokingly said that it was called the “Road of Courage” because it required courage to travel over all the bumps.
Whatever its discomforts this road was many times superior to the dusty, uncertain “Burma Road.”
Once I went to visit some South Africans on a settlement near Nazareth. I caught the bus from Haifa to Nahalal and alighted at the cross-roads leading to Nazareth. An Arab, one of the passengers, joined me and we strode on together, in silence. Neither of us said a word. I knew no Arabic. After a few minutes he spoke. Apparently he asked a question. His voice indicated a query. I only understood the word,” “Nazareth?” “He had asked me whether I was going to Nazareth. I shook my head and pointed to the settlement. We walked on in silence. I peeled on orange and shared it with him. Our roads parted and we waved farewell. He was friendly.
The first elections for the first Israeli Parliament of the new State of Israel were held on January 25th, 1949 in an atmosphere of great enthusiasm and expectancy. The day of the actual polling was quiet. A public holiday had been proclaimed and all meetings and processions prohibited. So people voted in peace. The weeks before had witnessed propaganda and meetings and heated discussions. The walls and hoardings were plastered with party posters and little boys were constantly pasting on fresh ones. Each of the twenty parties had been given a letter of the alphabet as an identification and their supporters placed these letters everywhere, handed out little slips of popes with the letters and probably hoped that they had thereby convinced all and sundry to support their parties.
No election meetings were allowed in military camps but that did not imply that the soldiers were not interested in politics or the elections.
On the contrary. We had many a discussion and went to many a meeting. I attended meetings of almost every party but did not vote in the elections, although my status as a soldier entitled me to do so.
On February 14th. Dr Chaim Weizmann formally opened the “Knesset”, or Constituent Assembly, in Jerusalem. It was a gala occasion. I was in hospital but persuaded the doctor to grant me a few hours leave so that I could attend the ceremony. It was a moving event. The culmination of a dream and a mission and a hope.
The crowds stormed the barricades and brushed aside the policemen in the fervour of their rush to cheer Dr Weizmann.
Getting one’s discharge from the Israeli army, especially if one were a member of Mahal, was a complicated and tedious process and even doctor’s papers made only a little dent in the mass of red-tape.
The Mahal office in Tel Aviv, which had been especially set up to discharge Mahalites, was honeycombed with inefficiency and few had a good word for its organisation.
Obtaining a discharge involved the following procedure:
One had to receive leave to go to Tel Aviv to the Mahal offices to obtain discharge forms. Getting leave often involved days and weeks for “stand-bys” and “alerts” and “all leave cancelled” orders were issued with regularity and one had to wait.
With the forms one returned to the unit. The commanding officer was supposed to sign the forms and give an assurance that one could be spared from the army. Generally commanding officers referred the forms to regimental or even brigade H.Q. More delay. With completed, signed forms one returned to Tel Aviv, if leave could be obtained, handed in the forms to Mahal and one was them sent back to the unit. There one waited for a month or longer until summoned to Tel Aviv to appear before a board which either granted or refused a discharge, provisionally. Then back to the unit to wait again. If passed one’s paper went through normal army channels, to the manpower section. Again a long delay. Army clerks were notoriously slow. If the army agreed it went back to Mahal which informed the unit. Then the unit sent one to a transit camp to hand in some kit, then to another camp to hand in more kit and to obtain a discharge.
The Mahal office with its bureaucracy and inefficiency annoyed and embittered people who were always told, ”come back to-morrow,” or the following day or the following week, for the officials only worked for a few hours a day and often were not even to be found. Obtaining the necessary documents to leave the country was almost as complicated a process. And no knives could cut a quicker path. Being in hospital I found it difficult to make the regular trips up and down to fill in forms.
I was discharged towards the end of April.
To all intents and purposes the war seemed over. The army had discharged all soldiers over thirty and was considering reducing the age-level to twenty-five. The main topic of conversation amongst soldiers was “sichrur”, (the Hebrew for “discharge.”) Whenever one saw a military friend the first question asked was; “when are you getting your discharge?”
Discharged Mahal received a clothing grant of £15 which could only be spent at a particular shop whose prices were higher than the average. The money was not given but only a chit so the soldier had no option but to shop at the designated merchants.
We also received a gratuity of about £1-10 per month of service, based on a sliding scale, and £5 from Mahal.
The volunteers were deciding whether to settle in Israel or not. Some intended to go home for a brief visit but wanted to return to Israel to settle. Other wished to settle down straightaway and were going on to settlements, evolving schemes for co-operatives or finding employment in a private capacity. The government made every effort to encourage them to stay.
Generally those who had been in Hebrew-speaking units, especially the Palmach, and knew the language decided to remain in Israel.
Mahal felt its fighting role was over. The Arab armies had been decisively defeated and provided great powers did not stir them up peace could be foreseen. Israel was strong with a powerful army and air-force. The Arabs would think twice before provoking her.
Israeli forces had occupied the coast of Elat near the Gulf of Akaba. Israel had signed armistice agreements with Egypt, Transjordan and the Lebanon.
The young state could turn some of its energies to constructive work and to rehabilitating and settling its new immigrants pouring in at the rate of close on a thousand a day.
Speaking in January, 1949, at a ceremony to celebrate the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” the Prime Minister, Mr David Ben Gurion, read a list of more than 50 countries from which Jewish volunteers had come to join in Israel’s fight. He praised the contribution of foreign volunteers in all branches of the war effort.
The “Palestine Post”, the only English-language daily published in Israel carried an editorial headed “Mahal” in its issue of November 22nd, 1948. It said:
“The ‘Mahal’-the Volunteers from abroad - have come to fight for Israel because it is the birthright of every Jew to share in the venture, even if he wished to return to the country in which he was born and to live there after the fight is ended.
Although the services of some of these men, experts in their own fields, were very desperately needed, no bright inducements could be offered them if their own wish did not bring them here, for the Israel forces are now and poor, indifferently equipped and very short of all the comforts of life: and the pay is the pittance that a citizen army pays when almost every able-bodied man is in the service. They came, and they played a heroic and an invaluable part.
“There is not a unit of the Israel Army that is not proud of its Mahal men, and there is not a squadron of the Air Force where Mahal does not supply a significant part of both fliers and ground engineers.
There is no one part of the Army that was indispensable to victory, and that applies also to Mahal, but without the aid of these men and women the battle would have been longer and harder, and the losses much greater.
“Not all of these volunteers speak Hebrew and that has proved no barrier to their fighting prowess or military skill, but it had proved for some a barrier to the full comradeliness of an army in the field, and to the understanding of all that goes on about them.
“As a body, the Yishuv knows and values them, but it is a fact that as individuals many have felt homeless and unrecognized. It is for the Yishuv to remember that these of her soldiers are in need of a special welcome at all times because they have no homes here to which to return on leave, and to let them see Israel fully that they may come to know it as a country not just to die for, but to live in.”