War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty—Carl von Clausewitz
by Roy Tov
Why should one waste time reading an article celebrating the 100-birthday of a brigadier general? If he had been a full general that could be understood, but a mere tat-aluf in the IDF?
Yet, faithful readers continuously praise my unusual choice of topics. That means harsh, painful sacrifices like reading the abovementioned celebration. A few pearls hid within the words of Yitzhak Pundak, who on June 13, 2013 celebrated his birthday.
Allow me the little joy of beginning from his last words in the interview: “I am proud up to the roof. I love my country.” These words are a joy because in the process of describing his unlikely source of pride, he nuked his beloved country twice.
The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited
1948 Arab–Israeli War
“During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, unclear targets were hit by unknown forces; but maybe not,” is the only authoritative summary of that war. Different sources portray different colors of the fog of war, but invariably, this sticky, though ethereal, substance is all over the books, binding unrelated pages while covering others in such a dense manner that not even one letter can be read. Thus, testimonies of people like Brig. Gen. Pundak are of importance, especially regarding his accounts about the Palestinians.
Raising the Ink Flag at Umm Rashrash (Eilat)
Marked the end of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War
1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
The better way of illustrating this is by quoting the outrageous words of the original Iron Lady, the woman who got the title years before Margaret Thatcher, and who had been described by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion “the best man in the government.” Golda Meir said: “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”*
I dislike spoiling the irrational feasts of violent leaders, but just let me point a tiny, secondary, yet relevant fact: also the State of Israel never existed. The State of Israel is not the Kingdom of Israel. Sorry Golda, you need additional lessons from Goebbels.
Years later, I attended a high-school in a Jordan Valley kibbutz. Following groundbreaking advances in the historical research conducted by the Zionists, I was told that Palestinians existed, though only a few thousands of them escaped in 1948. How many thousands? Less than one hundred, our “coach” said authoritatively.
“Every soul is worth an entire world,” I quoted my Jewish teachers.
“No, you fool,” the coach countered, “that is only for Jews, why do you turn around everything?”
In the late eighties, things changed. More than once, Israel’s demographic data proved inaccurate. Until the mid 1980s, Israel systematically reported very wrong statistics regarding the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Roughly at the time of the First Intifada, official numbers were doubled overnight. Following this sudden apparition of the Palestinian people, Israel couldn’t deny anymore the Palestinian exodus. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, written by Benny Morris in 1988 was one of the first formal sources acknowledging that around 750,000 Palestinians had escaped the Holy Land in 1948, a number slightly higher than the 711,000 quoted by the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1951.
Yet, until today many non-Israeli sources claim that the number was much higher. From today, there is also an Israeli source claiming that.
Palestine: “Thank you, Pundak!”
Jokingly, I made fun of Mr. Pundak’s military rank. Yet, the IDF hierarchy is different from the one used by most armies. “Tat-Aluf” is translated as a mere Brigadier General, but it is one of the IDF highest ranks. Above it, are only Aluf (major-general) and Rav-Aluf (lieutenant-general). There is only one rav-aluf in active service at any moment, and he leads the army. Major generals are almost as scarce. Ranks open a bit for brigadier generals, but there are only a bit over one hundred of them in active service. Thus, Brig. Gen. Pundak was a very high-ranked officer. Moreover, he was a prominent one.
He is best known for his role in the 1948 War, when he commanded the Givati Brigade’s 53rd Battalion. The most prominent operation he led was the defense of Nitzanim. The Battle of Nitzanim was the first major Egyptian victory during this war. In August 1948, he was appointed the Oded Brigade Commander and participated in Operation Yoav and Operation Hiram. In 1951, he founded the Nahal unit, closely related to Jewish settlement efforts. In 1952, he took a course in France on armored warfare. Back in Israel he became Head of the Armored Corps. In 1954, he was promoted to brigadier general, a new rank at the time, and two years later, he left the army.
He was so well-respected that Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan called him back to the army in 1971, appointing him Governor of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. This was to create a counterweight against his boss, Major General Ariel Sharon, Commander of the Southern Command. At the time, Pundak said that Sharon “did one swinish thing after another.” Dayan defined Pundak as “an excellent watchdog.” He finally left the IDF before the 1973 War and filled various secondary administrative positions, including Ambassador to Tanzania, the creation of the Arad Municipality, and Head of the Jewish Agency in Argentina.
In the interview honoring his birthday, he commented on his experiences, remembered the accursed Battle of Nitzanim, claiming that its horrors never left him. Its Hill 69 event became a synonym of heroism when the last defensor of the stronghold, an artillery observer, ordered his guns to bring down fire on his own position, and was killed.
During the recent interview, Pundak achieved the same.
One of the causes of the Palestinian Exodus was the occupation and destruction of their villages by the IDF. Pundak acknowledged: “If we didn’t destroy the villages, there wouldn’t be State [of Israel],” he said. “I destroyed villages and I am in peace with that,” he added.
“Haven’t we done that, there would have been an additional one million Arabs in the State,” he said, bringing the actual number of refugees into accordance to Palestinian sources.
“Thank you, Pundak!” Palestine summarized.
* Sunday Times (June 15, 1969), The Washington Post (June 16, 1969)
Roi Tov is a graduate—among others—of Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science. In addition to his memoir, Tov is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Molecular Physics and other scientific journals. He won various travel writing and photography awards.
In his writings, he tries to reveal life in Israel as a Christian Israel Defense Force (IDF) officer—from human rights violations to the use of an extensive network of underground agents. He was recognized first as a refugee and subsequently as political prisoner of Bolivia.