The Palmach was established by the Hagana‘s High Command on May 14, 1941 to defend the Jewish community against potential Axis Powers invasion and threats, and to protect Jewish settlements from attacks by the Arab population once the British withdrew. Initially the group consisted of around one hundred men, but by the time of the War of Independence it had evolved into 3 combat brigades.
Yes, the Palmach marched in Syria
The history of the Palmach is fascinating. In 1941 they acted with the British in Lebanon and Syria against Vichy French forces. When in 1942 the British ordered the dismantling of Palmach after the allied victory at El Alamein, the organization went underground.
After the assassination of Lord Moyne, members of the Palmach were involved in the “Saison” Operation. In this capacity, they cooperated with the British in an attempt to crush the Irgun and Stern Gang.
With united forces
But when the war concluded, in October 1945, Ben Gurion decided to launch an armed struggle against the British, and the Palmach entered an alliance with the so-called dissident groups – “The Hebrew Resistance Movement“. In this framework, the Palmach, together with the Irgun, performed some famous operations, including a mass release of Jewish prisoners from British prisons, a blow-up of bridges and more.
But the alliance was never completely under the Hagana‘s control. The Irgun, on its own initiative, launched a series of evermore ruthless attacks against the British, culminating in the King David Hotel bombing. The attack was a response to a British crackdown on “Black Sabbath” (Operation Agatha) in June 1946. The Jewish civilian leadership’s outrage at the King David attack led Ben-Gurion to call off further Palmach operations, and they were renewed only ten months later.
Politics and de-politicizing
Israeli politics have always been a messy affair.
The Palmach was a broad spectrum left-wing nationalist organization, associated with socialist parties. Its members trained and lived in the communal Kibbutzim. The political leanings of its leaders were towards Mapam, a left-wing faction that split from Mapai, the dominant party headed by Ben Gurion, in 1944. The new party was inspired by Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union.
After 1948, Ben-Gurion had a series of confrontations with leaders of the Hagana and the Palmach. In his opinion, the justification for a separate organizational framework was made redundant by the founding of the IDF. An elite unit such as the Palmach would best contribute its strength to the country by assimilating into the umbrella of the national army. He treated any insubordination by commanders and troops in the Palmach severely.
Opponents of Ben Gurion maintained that his motives were political and that the quality of the Palmach‘s fighters and their fighting spirit justified its continued independent existence.
The rationale for dismantling the Palmach and the other underground militias was a policy of de-politicization of the army, a sacrosanct principle still held by the IDF today. Nonetheless, Ben Gurion’s actions were not devoid of political motives. In 1950, most of the Mapam officers resigned. Others were marginalized. The net effect of the “de-politicization” was that all senior army posts were then held by Mapai members or Ben-Gurion loyalists.
Acceptance and enduring resentment
Dismantling the Palmach was a process that took place between 1948 and 1949 during the War of Independence and its conclusion. Many people today still resent Ben Gurion’s ruthless dissolution of the Palmach after the war. According to the Palmach museum website, dismantling of the organization, was based in a mixture of motives, practical-operational and national but also political.
Ironically, even though dismantling the right-wing militias was carried out at the request of the Hagana and the Palmach, the organizations were not aware at the time that Ben Gurion was planning to give them a similar treatment, in an act that required considerable political courage.
Henkin writes: “The Tel Aviv Palmach activists who willingly executed the operation [Of dismantling the Etzel] had no idea that to Ben-Gurion’s mind, they posed a similar danger of insubordination.“
It is sad irony that the Palmach‘s last independent operation was again taken against the Irgun. The Altalena affair, in which a cannon was used to sink the ship, was commanded by Yigal Allon, with Yitzhak Rabin as his deputy.
Not taking orders
Ben-Gurion was well aware of Palmach’s crucial contribution to Israel’s victory in the War of Independence, but he also realized that the organization saw itself as an elite and refused to take orders from above. A week before Independence, poet Natan Alterman wrote that Palmach was an organization “that refused to leave any of the work to ‘outsiders,’… who write their own codes and have already set down their own version of history.” (“The Seventh Column,” Davar, 28 April 1948).
Adjusting to the new format
After the establishment of the Israeli army, the Palmach, like the Hagana, was reorganised and reframed as three IDF brigades—the Negev, Yiftach and Harel brigades. The Negev and Yiftah brigades fought in the Negev against the Egyptian army and managed to stop and later push it back into the Gaza Strip and Sinai. The Yiftah brigade later operated in the north. The Harel brigade focused on the Jerusalem area.
In total, the Palmach lost 1,187 fighters during the war of independence and in the years prior to Israel’s creation.
Some well-known Palmach figures are: Eliyahu Golomb, Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan, Rafael Eitan, Yitzhak Sade, Hayim Guri, Yehuda Amihai, Dan Ben Amotz, Moshe Shamir.