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Battles of Negba (Hebrew: נגבה) - Negba is a Kibbutz of the Kibbutz Artzi Hashomer Hatzair. It is located near Qiriat Gat in South-central Israel. The battles of Negba in the Israel War of Independence were among several that became paradigmatic of the valor and obstinacy with which Israelis defended their country.

Negba was founded July 12, 1939 as part of the "Tower and Stockade" Homa Umigdal settlements that were created during the period of the Palestine Arab Revolt and the White Paper of 1939. At the time, it was the southernmost Jewish settlement in in the Palestine Mandate. 

 

Background of Battles of Negba

On May 15, 1948, Egyptian forces aided by Muslim Brotherhood irregulars invaded Israel in defiance of  the 1947: UN Partition Plan for Palestine: General Assembly Resolution 181 which was to have divided the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Egyptians invaded through the Gaza Strip.  One fork of the Egyptian force veered headed north toward Tel Aviv, while another headed west toward Jerusalem, invading areas of the Palestine Mandate that had been part of Israel in the Partition Plan. The Egyptian forces, about 6,000 troops (Morris, 2008, page 232) had tanks, armored cars, artillery, machine guns and aircraft for troop support as well as reconnaissance. In all, the the regular invading Arab forces consisted of about 22,500 troops, plus about 10,000 or more Palestinian irregulars. The combat troops of the Israeli Haganah consisted of 16,500 personnel. About 60% of Haganah troops had rifles on May 15, 1948 (Morris, 2008, page 204). Israel had no artillery, perhaps one or two tanks and no combat aircraft, and was fighting a war on three fonts as well as internally, against Palestinian Arabs.

The battle between Israelis and Arabs has often been portrayed in recent years as a battle of well arrmed Zionist colonialist imperialists against helpless oppressed Palestinian peasants. The battles of Negba and similar battles  do not seem to fit into this picture. The kibbutzim that faced the Egyptian and Syrian armies and the commanders of the Haganah were mostly members of Marxist or socialist movements. Abba Kovner, the "cultural officer" of the Givati Brigade, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and a hero of the Vilna Ghetto revolt. The Egyptian forces that opposed them received the following blessing from Muhammad Mamun Shinawi, rector of Al Azhar University, on May 15, 1948:

The hour of Jihad has struck... A hundred of you will defeat a thousand of the infidels... This is the hour in which Allah promised paradise...Fighters, this is a war there is no avoiding, to defend your women, homes and the fatherland of your fathers and forefathers."

The actual troops consisted mostly of Egyptians, Sudanese and volunteers from North Africa who had never set foot in Palestine and had no ancestors, fathers or forefathers from there. The typical attacking forces consisted of battalion sized (about 500 or more troops) groups of regular troops with tanks, artillery, armored cars and sometimes air support. The defenders were usually Kibbutz members reinforced by some Haganah or IDF troops with varying degrees of training. Their heaviest weapons were PIAT anti-tank guns, mortars and Molotov cocktails. 

The first days were crucial. Resistance of Kfar Darom,  Nirim, Yad Mordechai, Netzarim and other kibbutzim in the south, as well as successful resistance at Degania and elsewhere in the north, helped to gain time in which the rag-tag Haganah was quickly transformed into a national army - the IDF, and arms were brought in from abroad. By the beginning of June, 1948, the situation had "stabilized." Timely arrival of Israel's very first fighter airplanes had allowed the fledgling air force to make a symbolic demonstration against the Egyptian forces proceeding north to Tel Aviv, and evidently caused them to halt near a bridge between Ashqelon and Ashdod, since known as "Gesher Ad Halom" - the "until here" bridge. 

Negba had been recognized as a strategically important point long before May 15. It was near the Iraq el Suweidan police fort and could defend the eastern ("inner") road from northern Israel to the Negev, as well the road from Majdal (Ashkelon) on the coast to Beit Guvrin and Jerusalem. But recognition of its importance did not ensure massive reinforcement. The women and children were evacuated at some point, and about 70 Givati brigade troops were stationed there with two 3 inch mortars and one or two PIAT anti-tank guns, for a total of about 140 defenders.  

The situation had "stabilized" poorly. The Egyptians had dug themselves in, in a swath of land that stretched from the coast to Jerusalem. They could not conquer the Jewish communities in their midst for the most part. After the first few battles in which they were thoroughly whipped, the Egyptians took on only vital outposts that stood in their way. Yad Mordechai was taken and Netzarim was taken. Negba was attacked repeatedly, and a few other settlements like Kibbutz Gal-On were attacked as well, all unsuccessfully. However, taking advantage of hospitable Arab villages or throwing out the villagers as their needs demanded, they established bases, interfered with traffic and cut the roads from to the Negev. The lynchpin of the Egyptian position was the British Tegart fort at Iraq al Suweidan, about 1 mile (1.7 km) south east of Negba, dubbed "the monster" by the Haganah. This dominated the Faluja junction - the north-south road to the Negev and the transverse Majdal to Beit Guvrin to Jerusalem road. This fort was to remain the impregnable redoubt of the Egyptians throughout most of the war.

For unknown reasons, Negba had  been built on one of the lowest of the hills in its territory. Surrounding hilltops provided ideal positions for mounting attacks on Negba. Even before May 15, 1948, Negba had suffered attacks from neighboring Arab villages including Julis to the northwest, Iraq Suweidan village to the South East, Beit Affa to the East and Abdis to the North East.

A first attack on Negba, not usually recognized in historical accounts, occurred on May 21. This included an aerial bombardment that left at least three dead, including Yitzhak ("Yoav") Dubno, until then the commander of Negba.

The first Battle of Negba

The "First Battle of Negba" as it is generally called, took place on June 1-2, 1948. According to once account (Morris, 2008) the attackers consisted of a single battalion, the Egyptian First Battalion. According to Negba eye witnesses, the 140 defenders were attacked by a force of over a thousand troops, about two battalions.(ref ) A similar account is given in Herzog and Gazit, 2005.  p 74, but the spearhead of the attack was the First Battalion under Saad Taha Bey.  The Egyptian movements were discerned fairly accurately by the defenders, despite alleged use of smokescreen in attack and withdrawal.

Trench defenses at NegbaThe defenders noted concentrations of Egyptian troops moving on the roads toward Negba on June 1. Toward evening on June 1, the Egyptians opened up an artillery barrage that escalated over night to reach a rate of about 600 artillery and mortar shells an hour. Meanwhile, enemy troop movements were noted in Ibdis, Iraq Suweidan village and Beit Affa, and Egyptian armor began advancing from Iraq El-Suweidan police fort. The attack was spearheaded by a central column of 7 tanks. To the west, about 300 meters behind, there were four armored cars, and on the ridge between the police fort and the kibbutz there were another eight armored cars. The Egyptian infantry formed up south of the armor.

The battle followed a pattern similar to that seen in other such attacks. The Jewish defenders had no long range weapons that were effective against tanks and armored cars. Therefore, the only choice was to allow the invaders to advance close to the lines, and then open fire from more or less well defended emplacements.  By 07:00 hours the tank column had reached within 100 meters of the southern fence of the kibbutz, the high point of the attack.  The Egyptian infantry passed the the tanks in two waves. Of course, the Egyptian artillery could no longer support the attack as the forces were too close to each other. The defenders opened up up withering fire from their trenches at the infantry, and sent attackers with Molotov cocktails against the tanks. The lead tank was, according to various versions, either fought off by a PIAT gun or turned tail after an unsuccessful Molotov cocktail attack. The other tanks followed suit, two of them being hit by mines.

At this point, jeeps of the motorized machine gun commandos, the IDF Negev Beasts, which had been temporarily seconded to the Givati brigade, appeared on the Julis hills on the Egyptian flank. The Egyptians interpreted this as the beginning of an Israeli counter attack, and began to retreat. About 100 Egyptians are estimated to have been killed, versus eight defenders dead and eleven wounded.

The Egyptians continued to harass Negba until the truce of June 11. The time of the truce was used to reform the defenses of the Kibbutz. These had been adequate to hold off attacks by irregulars, but were next to useless in defense against a regular army. Communications had been conducted through above ground telephone wires that were destroyed by enemy fire, and trenches and mine defenses were weak.

The Second Battle of Negba

Negba Water TowerThe second battle of Negba took place on July 12, 1948. It was led, (according to Morris, 1948, p 276) by the Egyptian Ninth Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Rahmani. However, the Kibbutz Negba account(ref ), based on eye-witness reports, claims there were three Egyptian infantry battalions and one mechanized battalion in the attack, though some of these may have been deployed only in diversionary attacks. Herzog and Gazit, 2005 p 86, confirm that at least three battalions participated. A battalion consisted of about 500 troops.  The approximately 100 defenders had apparently been reinforced by a battery of 65 mm artillery ("Napoleonchiks). But if these were present, they don't seem to have played much rule in the battle. 

Following a five hour air and artillery attack, the Egyptians attacked with air, armor and artillery support, in several waves. At several points it appeared that the kibbutz would not hold out, as "wave upon wave" of enemy infantry advanced, spearheaded by tanks. At about 11:00 hours, the attackers had reached within 50 meters of the perimeter fence. However, as each wave of attackers came within range, they were met by withering force from the defenders and forced to fall back. By sunset, the Egyptians retreated, leaving behind four Bren gun carriers, a disabled tank and many dead. The Egyptians suffered about 200-300 dead. General al Muwawi dismissed Fourth Brigade operations commander Mohamed Naguib (later to lead the Egyptian officer's coup).  The Israeli defenders had 5 dead and 16 wounded. Abba Kovner called the defense, "Negbagrad," referring to the steadfast Soviet defense of Stalingrad in World War II.

By any account, both battles of Negba were extraordinary military victories, and could not be attributed to superior arms, superior numbers, training, or organization of the Jewish forces. By the least favorable account, the defenders of Negba were outnumbered by more than 3 to 1 in each battle, and lacked heavy armament. 

Unlike the earlier battles of Yad Mordechai, Nirim and Degania, the battles of Negba were fought at a time when the Israeli military had begun to receive arms and ammunition and consolidate itself as a force. The Givati Brigade, with 2,500 troops, launched several major, if uncoordinated and indecisive, attacks in this period.  Moreover, unlike Nirim, Negba was a point that was due to be given up and was only there to "buy time." Negba was a strategic location that faced Iraq al Suweidan and was the hinge of the Israeli line. It should have gotten massive reinforcement. However, the disorganization of Israeli forces and the poverty of resources was such that even on June 12 it was forced to fight from a position of considerable inferiority.

Negba Today

Negba today has about 600 members. A museum tells the story of the battle of Negba and is open to tourists.

Negba tank

Egyptian tank, identified as an M22 Lotus, that was left at Negba. The Lotus tank in the British Armor at Covington.  museum looks somewhat different. (see here). This light tank with 37 mm gun and Browning 30-06 machine gun was manufactured in the United States and given to the British under Lend-Lease. The British obligingly passed it on to the Egyptians in 1945. This was a light tank intended to be used in airborne operations and carried by air transport. Historians who insist that Israel had military superiority in 1948 claim that such weapons were not decisively superior to the Czechoslovakian rifles and Molotov cocktails of the Israeli defenders.

A monument in the kibbutz cemetery honors the defenders of Negba.

Negba Battle Monument

Ami Isseroff

November 26, 2008

References

Herzog, Chaim and Gazit Shomo, The Arab Israeli Wars, Vintage Books, N.Y. 2005.

Morris, Benny, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.

Negba History (Online in Hebrew)  - Excerpted from:

קול נגבה-יומן הקרבות –תש"ח, בהוצאת קיבוץ נגבה-תשל"ט; מלחמת העצמאות, אביעזר גולן, הוצאת קצח"ר משרד הבטחון, נובמבר 1968

The voice of Negba, Battle Diary - 1948, published by Kibbutz Negba, 1949; Golan, Aviezer, The War of Independence, published by the Chief Education Officer, Israel Ministry of Defense, Tel Aviv, 1968.

Copyright © 2008

Do not copy this or any other article to your Web site or use it for any purpose without the written permission of the author.


Synonyms and alternate spellings: Mivtza Moked

Further Information:

References:

ACIG

מבצע מוקד

Oren, Michael, Six Days of War, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp 171-178.


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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This work and individual entries are copyright © 2005-2008  by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

 

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