BEGINNING IN A BUNKER
It was 1945, three years before the State of Israel's establishment, and the Jewish leadership in Palestine already had a sense of what was looming. It was a matter of time before the Mandate was dissolved and the British left Palestine. The moment they did, the Jews knew, the Arabs would attack.
Weapons were in short supply, but the real problem was that under British rule, Jews caught with weapons faced prison and sometimes the death penalty. The Haganah — the Jewish paramilitary organization that would eventually evolve into the IDF — needed ammunition and weapons. The question was how to get them.
The man tasked with finding a solution was Yosef Avidar, a senior Haganah commander. Avidar had been born in Russia and undergone basic military training at the age of nine, with the help of a non-Jewish neighbor who had returned home from service in the Czar's army. The skills stuck for life, and after arriving in Israel, Avidar stood out and quickly climbed the Haganah ranks. He was commander of Jewish forces in Jerusalem's Old City during the 1929 Arab riots and succeeded in holding off Arab attackers with a single gun and a mere 11 bullets. In a cable he later sent Haganah headquarters, he criticized what he deemed to have been a gratuitous use of ammo. His complaint points to just how little ammunition the Jewish community had.
"We could have stopped them with seven bullets," Avidar said. "We wasted four."
The riots were a wake-up call for Avidar, who understood that if Israel was going to survive, the Jews needed training and lots of it. That's how he found himself one Saturday morning at an amphitheater near the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, teaching a group of 50 men how to throw grenades. The Haganah didn't have real grenades, so Avidar held the demonstration with a homemade contraband one. As he lifted his hand to throw the grenade, it exploded prematurely, ripping into his flesh. The explosion could be heard for miles, and it was only a matter of time before British forces arrived. Despite the serious injury, Avidar refused to be evacuated until all his men had safely snuck away.
That was a defining moment. The Jewish community needed quality weapons, the kind that wouldn't explode in soldiers' hands. But the British had a tight grip on the country. Smuggling Jewish immigrants in by sea was hard enough, let alone weapons. As a result, Avidar came up with a revolutionary idea to build a bullet factory in Israel, the first of its kind. It was a bold notion. First, the Yishuv — as the Jewish community in pre-state Israel was known — didn't really have any experience in manufacturing weapons. Second, the British were everywhere. It would be difficult to set up a bullet factory without their finding out.
But Avidar was determined. Success, he knew, depended largely on finding the right location. He toured the country and settled on a hilltop just outside the city of Rehovot, known as the home to the Weizmann Institute of Science, one of the country's leading academic institutions. A small group of Jews had settled on the hilltop in 1932 but eventually moved into the city to consolidate forces in the face of growing Arab attacks.
The hilltop had two clear advantages — it was isolated but close enough to the city and power grid. Since it was elevated, there was room to dig into the mountain to build the factory underground, far from the eyes of the British army.
Avidar also liked the fact that the hilltop was close to the Rehovot train station, which was always full of British soldiers. The last place the British would expect a weapons factory, he figured, would be right under their noses.
But Avidar needed a cover story to explain why a group of Jews was suddenly settling on that exact hilltop. He was told that a group of new immigrants — affiliated with the Jewish Scouts movement — was planning to establish a kibbutz. One day, Avidar showed up in their dining hall and asked the group to alter their plans a bit. Instead of establishing a kibbutz, Avidar suggested they join the war effort. They would move to the hilltop, the Haganah would build all of the necessary structures and they would work inside the factory. The group agreed.
By spring, a few dozen 20-year-olds had moved to the hilltop and begun what seemed like ordinary lives among the citrus orchards and communal recreational activities.
At the same time, construction began on the underground weapons factory, named the Ayalon Institute. Some of the existing structures were renovated — the bathrooms, the chicken coop, the kitchen and the cafeteria.
To build the underground hall, Avidar recruited a Jerusalem-based contractor who had participated in the construction of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in the 1920s, one of the most grandiose construction projects at the time and the same place where Avidar had severely injured his hands a few years back. Within 22 days, the contractor dug out a 100-foot-long hall some 30 feet underground.
To anyone who asked, the pioneers said they were building the underground hall to store fruits and vegetables they would be picking in the nearby orchards and fields. The hall, they explained, was needed to keep the produce fresh.
The secret hall was covered by a thick concrete ceiling with two openings, each leading into a newly built structure: one to a bakery, and the other to a laundry. A production line was assembled below with World War I–era equipment, purchased in Warsaw and smuggled into Israel via Beirut. The copper needed for the bullet casings was smuggled into Palestine in crates marked as containing lipstick cases.
To cover the noise the bullet machines would be making, Avidar needed the laundry to work around the clock, and to do so, it needed customers. So Avidar had the group open a branch in downtown Rehovot, which soon began handling washing for most of the region. The laundry business won a bid for a nearby hospital and later took on as a customer the British army, the exact entity it had been established to dupe.
No chances could be taken. Sunlamps were installed in the underground hall to ensure that the "kibbutzniks" making the bullets looked tanned, as if they had been out in the fields all day.
The opening in the bakery was covered by a massive 10-ton stone oven, built on rails so it could slide on and off a secret stairwell. The opening in the laundry was covered by the washing machine, which also moved with the pull of a lever.
Avidar, who would go on to become one of the IDF's first generals and an Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, secretly connected the factory directly to the nearby power grid to prevent anyone from asking questions about why a small, new kibbutz was using so much electricity.
And finally, to discourage visitors, kibbutz members spread rumors in town that their community had been struck by an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. They put up a sign at the kibbutz gate, ordering visitors to dip their shoes in disinfectant before entering.
The plan worked brilliantly, and the British never suspected a thing. There were a couple of close calls, though. One was in early 1948, when a train carrying British soldiers from the Gaza Strip to Lod was derailed by a mine explosion just below the kibbutz. Twenty-eight soldiers were killed and dozens more were injured. The attack was carried out by the Lehi, a Zionist group also known as the Stern Gang, which was more radical and militant than the Haganah.
The immediate concern was that the British, suspecting that the kibbutz had played a role in the bomb attack, would search the buildings. Work was suspended in the subterranean bullet-production hall, and all of the workers were ordered outside.
But how would they prevent the British from searching the kibbutz? The workers decided to rush to the train and offer help — food, water and medical care. The British naturally assumed that there was no way the same kibbutz that so graciously offered assistance would also be the kibbutz that had carried out the attack.
The Ayalon Institute operated for almost three years — from 1945 until the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948 — and manufactured more than two million nine-millimeter bullets. At their peak, factory workers manufactured 40,000 bullets a day embossed with two letters: E for "Eretz Yisrael" (Hebrew for "the Land of Israel") and A for "Ayalon."
* * *
After the war, the Ayalon Institute folded into Israel Military Industries (IMI), the country's first defense company and today a recognized global leader in the development of missiles, rockets and armor.
But that would take some time. In the meantime, the state-to-be needed a way to get weapons, and with war coming, it needed them fast. The problem was that almost no one was willing to sell arms to the beleaguered soon-to-be state — not the United States, Britain or the Soviet Union.
The one exception was Czechoslovakia.
The first planes that served the Israeli Air Force were four Messerschmitt aircrafts gathered from Nazi Luftwaffe leftovers in Czechoslovakia. Each plane was taken apart, shipped to Israel, reassembled and equipped with a machine gun and four 70-kilogram bombs.
Other planes, brought in through Italy, had fuel tanks installed in place of seats to extend their range and enable them to make the flight to Israel.
The Czechs also agreed to supply Israel with rifles and four artillery guns, last used in World War I. It didn't make a difference. If it could shoot, the Israelis wanted it.
Beyond the arms deals, there were also shady and creative plots hatched to obtain weaponry. One group of Israeli arms buyers went to England and set up a fake movie company to film what they claimed would be a World War II movie. They hired an entire cast and crew — actors, producers — and even purchased aircraft to be used in the movie.
In one of the opening scenes of an air battle, the aircraft took off into the cloudy London sky. The cameras filmed from below as the planes flew away and then as they turned southeast, toward Israel.
These gimmicks were nice, but Israel's leaders knew that they couldn't go on forever. Israel needed to find a more secure way to get weapons. That would have to wait, though. First, Israel needed to fight for its survival.
* * *
In May 1948, as expected, war broke out. In a coordinated assault, five Arab armies from across the Middle East invaded Israel. The new state didn't seem to stand a chance. The Arabs had superior arms — tanks, artillery cannons and an organized air force. The Israelis didn't have a single cannon or tank.
Estimates regarding Israel's chances varied, but defeat was a definite possibility. In a briefing to the Jewish leadership, one top military commander gave the new state a 50-50 chance of survival.
"We are as likely to win as we are to be defeated," the commander said.
The war was brutal. Israel was outnumbered and outgunned. More than 6,000 Israelis were killed, and another 15,000 were wounded. In the end, though, the Jewish State survived, thanks to a combination of unconventional tactics, amazing dedication and never-seen-before improvisation. Israel achieved the impossible.
One example was in Yad Mordecai, a small kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast just north of the Gaza Strip, where some 150 Israelis fended off an entire Egyptian mechanized division for six days with just 75 rifles, 300 grenades and a single anti-tank rocket launcher.
Then there was the story of Lou Lenart.
Born in Hungary in 1921, Lenart immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of nine and became a regular target for anti-Semitic beatings and taunts in the small Pennsylvania town where they settled. He learned early in life that to survive, he needed to be strong, and to be strong, he needed to join the Marines.
Lenart became a pilot, and by the end of his seven years of service, he had flown combat missions in the Battle of Okinawa as well as against the Japanese mainland. After the war, he learned that his relatives, who had remained in Hungary, had been killed in Auschwitz. Lenart returned to Los Angeles and began thinking about Israel, or, as it was then known, Palestine.
"My family had been killed in Auschwitz and I felt that the remnants of the Holocaust had a right to life and some happiness — and no one wanted them except their own people in Israel," he recalled for us years later.
He joined up with a group of Jewish pilots in Los Angeles that was being formed to help Israel. He arrived in the country in April 1948, just a month before war would break out. He was immediately put to work reassembling some Czech Avia S-199 Mule combat aircraft.
By mid-May, war had erupted, and the planes were finally ready. After about a week of fighting, Israel was on the verge of despair. A column of 15,000 Egyptian soldiers with 500 vehicles and tanks was stopped on the Mediterranean coastal road near Ashdod, just a few miles south of Tel Aviv. Israeli soldiers had blown a bridge the night before, but the Egyptians were hours away from repairing it. If they did, they would be in Tel Aviv by the morning. If Tel Aviv fell, Israel would be lost.
Lenart heard about the stalled Egyptian column and gathered his pilots. They were going to fly south to bomb the Egyptians, he told them. The problem was twofold: The planes had just been assembled and had not yet participated in real missions, and it was not 100 percent guaranteed that they would work. The other problem was that the existence of the planes was still a secret. This was not the way the country had planned on introducing its new air force to the world.
But that wasn't going to stop the pilots. The stakes were too high. As the formation leader, Lenart flew in first over the Egyptian column. Diving down over a group of vehicles, he let his bombs loose and luckily hit a fuel truck, setting off a series of secondary explosions. The other pilots followed suit and together began strafing the ground troops with machinegun fire.
The Egyptians were taken by surprise, and after several hours, they gave up trying to reach Tel Aviv and turned east to join the Jordanian battle near Jerusalem. Tel Aviv was saved. The bridge where the Egyptians were stopped would later be named Ad Halom, Hebrew for "until here."
Lenart didn't have time to consider the consequences of that successful operation. Anyhow, he told people, it didn't make a difference if it was luck, destiny or superior instinct. There was still a war that needed to be won.
* * *
"We have a unique military problem," the "Old Man" said. "We are few and our enemies are many."
It was 1953. One war was over, but the "Old Man" — David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and the Jewish State's version of George Washington — knew that it was just a matter of time before the next one.
Ben-Gurion was troubled by the basic question of how Israel, a tiny country of just a few hundred thousand Jews surrounded by millions of hostile Arabs, would continue to survive.
So he took a vacation from work in Jerusalem and traveled to the modest cabin he kept in Sde Boker, a small kibbutz perched over the Ramon Crater, a natural wonder in the southern Negev Desert.
A few days later he returned to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem with a paper entitled "The Doctrine of Defense and State of Armed Forces," which to this day, with some minor changes, continues to serve as the basis for Israel's national defense.
The rationale was simple and remains true for Israel in the modern age: Israel needed a strong qualitative military edge.
Since Israel had fewer soldiers than Syria, it needed to have better-trained ones; since it had fewer tanks than Egypt, it needed more advanced ones; and because it would ultimately purchase the same F-15s as Saudi Arabia, the Israeli Air Force's version of the aircraft needed to come equipped with specially designed smart bombs as well as advanced electronic warfare systems. Israel simply needed to make sure that it always had superior-quality weapons and fighters. Not necessarily more of them; just better ones.
The question, though, was how to accomplish that goal. No one imagined then that this new, resource-poor country could establish and maintain independent research, development and production capabilities.
Therefore, Ben-Gurion concluded, Israel needed to find countries willing to sell it arms. In 1950, though, that option was a nonstarter. The United States, Britain and France had issued the Tripartite Declaration, a multinational pledge to suspend arms sales to the Middle East. If arms were supplied to Israel, the countries thought, the Soviets would supply weapons to the Arab states. If they didn't, then the Soviets would also hold back.
This left Israel with one real option: to go rogue and search for weapons through an assortment of schemes and adventures, sometimes joining hands with the most unlikely of partners.