Palmach: The Birth of Israel’s Elite Fighting Force

Stand for Israel  |  May 15, 2020


Israel’s Palmach was formed 79 years ago today, on May 15, 1942. But, you might ask, what was the Palmach?

Before the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) served as the Jewish state’s “watchmen on the walls,” and before the formation of the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Holy Land needed protection from those who wished them harm.

Defending the Jews of British-Mandate Palestine

As World War II spread across the globe, it reached the Middle East in full force. The Holy Land at the time was still British-mandate Palestine. Although the British ruled the land, its Jewish residents knew they would need a fighting force of their own. This was for two main reasons…

First, if the Nazis were to defeat the Allies in the region, the Holy Land’s Jews would face the same deadly threat as European Jews experienced. And secondly, if the British military were forced out, the surrounding Arabs would surely attack their Jewish neighbors.

So England agreed to fund a fighting force of unpaid Jewish volunteers. This was the Palmach.

A Christian Friend of Israel

While British support of the Palmach always seemed questionable, a British Christian named Orde Wingate believed wholeheartedly in the Zionist dream. Transferred to the Holy Land by his superiors in the 1930s, Wingate trained many of the fighters who would go on to form the Palmach.

The British gave in to Palestinian pressure – the Jewish people’s enemies didn’t appreciate this Christian Zionist helping the Jews – and transferred Wingate elsewhere during WWII. Wingate showed his valor in both the Ethiopian and Burmese theaters of the war before dying in a plane crash in 1944.

But to this day, Israel remembers him as “ha yedid” or “the friend.”

Going Underground

But after the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, England ended its support of the Palmach. The group was forced to go underground.

Many of the areas Jews lived on kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz, which is a collective farming community). These communities needed protection, as well as workers. So each Palmach platoon became part of a kibbutz, providing protection and farm work in return for food and housing.

Serving the New State of Israel

Once Israel declared her independence and founded the IDF, the Palmach became part of the Israeli military, forming three crucial brigades for the 1948 War of Independence. The Negev Brigade successfully defended southern Israel against the Egyptian army. The Yiftah Brigade helped in the south before being transferred to fight in northern Israel. And the Harel Brigade defended the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Many members of the Palmach made great contributions to the Jewish state and the rest of the world. You may recognize their names. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, and even stylist Vidal Sassoon fought for Israel and her people.

So, as the Palmach celebrates its anniversary, let the memories of its 1,187 fallen be a blessing, and let its history be an inspiration to those of us who stand for Israel.