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Another View of Settlements

By Dr. Joseph I. Ungar

Those who question the wisdom or meaning of Israel's new settlements should take a trip to Negba.

The word means "southward." The place, a kibbutz, was founded as the most southerly Jewish colony in the land. It lies on the coastal plain, about halfway between Ashkalon and Kiryat Gat.

You approach Negba along a gently curving road that passes fertile fields and a neat white fence. A short distance past the tennis and basketball courts, you find yourself at the heart of this small community. Here, you look around and piece together the story.

You see an historical plaque, a rebuilt stockade and watch-tower, a water-tower full of holes, and the steel hulk of an old Egyptian tank. And off to one side, a cemetery.

Negba, the plaque says, was established in 1939 as "a constructive reply to the Arab riots." During those riots, which began in 1936 and lasted three years, Jews were terrorized. They were murdered, their dwellings looted and destroyed, their transportation sabotaged, their fields burned.

Casualties rose daily. The British had no choice but to help the Jews defend themselves through the formation of the Jewish Special Police Force. Long-term survival, however, demanded something more. It demanded the establishment of outposts capable of self-defense.

Between 1936 and 1939, a total of 55 new "stockade and watchtower" settlements were ere. Their fort-like design was indeed "a constructive reply". It blunted the violence of the organized Arab rebels who plagued the countryside.

Negba was one of these settlements. In its isolated position, it was forced to repulse attacks from its earliest days. It held its ground well. But nothing prepared it for the onslaught of 1948.

The water-tower attests to that barrage. It stands as a remembrance, a huge elevated concrete cylinder, mud-brown and riddled with gaping holes. British Spitfires did that. Within hours of Israel1s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, these fighters, manned by Egyptian pilots, took to the air. They flew unopposed, for Israel, as yet, had no air force. Many bombed the dwellings of Tel-Aviv. Others strafed the settlements frequently aiming first for the water-towers.

Negba, then a community of 220 farmers, was particularly hard hit. Twice daily, it was targeted for raids. Except for a scattering of willow, acacia and olive trees, it sat without shelter. It was defenseless. It did not even possess a single anti-aircraft gun. The Spitfires could bomb and strafe at will, often running a volley of shells along the shallow trenches where people sought protection.

Yet, as unlikely as it seemed, this small kibbutz had a crucial role to fulfill. It would help to hold back the Egyptian ground forces from advancing on the northern population centers of the new state. This success, founded in great courage, was abetted by a fortuitous visit. Colonel David "Mickey" Marcus stopped here.

Colonel Marcus, the West Point graduate and American hero of World War II, was drawn to Israel as if by a magnet. Re had never forgotten the sight of Dachau. He came to help his people survive.

Marcus was eventually designated Commander of the Jerusalem Front. On an earlier mission, however, his jeep company rested at Negba. He stayed only a short while, but long enough to witness a Spitfire attack. And long enough to teach the residents how to fight off the diving plane with a concentration of well-coordinated rifle fire. The lesson grew and found future application.

The Egyptian tank is one example. It now bears a fresh coat of khaki paint. It sits next to the curb, situated so that the rupture blasted in one tread is clearly visible.

The tank rumbled in on June 2, 1948, as part of the invasion force of Egypt. Waves of Egyptians poured across the Negev, ten-thousand men spearheaded by armor and heavy artillery. Overhead flew the Spitfires. Their goal was Tel-Aviv. Between this force and that large Israeli city lay 27 scattered settlements. They were fortified only with barbed wire and defended by men with rifles. Negba was one of the nearest.

The riflemen of Negba fought well. The disabled tank tells us of their marksmanship and valor. Miraculously, they drove off one of the enemy detachments. The Historical marker states simply that the settlers succeeded "by withholding their fire until the last moment." They withheld their fire successfully once again when the Egyptians returned weeks later.

For the next six months, Negba suffered from air bombardments and long-range shelling. Everything but the ruined water tower was leveled. Finally, in mid-October, 1948, the Israeli Army was able to launch its "Ten Plagues Operation". It dislodged the Egyptians from their regional stronghold. And in early November the settlers of Negba began to rebuild.

The dead from this war lie in the large cemetery that borders the farms. At its far end stands a dramatic monument created by the sculptor, Rappaport. Three heroic figures, two men and a woman, clasp hands and stare into the distance. One holds the barrel of a rifle which rests on the ground. But none of them are soldiers. They are dressed in farming clothes.

You enter the cemetery and find that the graves are grouped within wooden frames. The first frame at the end of the walk sits alone. It contains five graves. The tombstones tell you that all of those killed were between sixteen and nineteen years old. They had come from Turkey, Greece, Syria, Poland, and Germany. Their first names-Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Micah.

You reflect silently. The message implied by this final gathering of fallen men is not obscure. All had returned from the nations of the Diaspora. And all bore names of lofty heritage -- those of the patriarchs who lived with a promise, of the son whose bones were carried back from Egypt, of the rural prophet who dreamed of plowshares. How far back, how far forward, do these names go?

A question arises: Is this gravesite a tribute of the present to the past, or of the past to the present? You quickly realize that the question is meaningless. On this soil the past and the present are indistinguishable. Somehow, time does not apply. The gravesite is a tribute to the eternity of a land and its people.

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