87. Operation Balak; the Arab refugee crisis

For a few days, at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, due to the shortage of arms and ammunition with the Jews, the Arabs enjoyed an upper hand over them. Then, the Jewish diaspora spread across the world girded up their loins to get their motherland out of this problem and consequently, within no time, Israel started to receive a good flow of money and weapons. From the United States alone, a sum of $50 million got collected. The campaign for weapons purchases’ hosted for the last few months by the Jewish people and the friends of the Jews had caught a brisk pace.

The purchases of weapons and other war equipment from Czechoslovakia featured prominently in this campaign. The Czech equipment and that purchased from other places were secretly flown into Israel. The clandestine operation, codenamed ‘Operation Balak’, under which all these activities were performed, continued for about three months.

While talking about Operation Balak, one name,‘Gordon Levitt’, is not to be missed. Levitt, a former pilot with the British Royal Air Force, came in very handy for Israel due to his battle experience gained at World War II. Though not a Jew, being born into a poor family in Britain made him sympathetic towards the underprivileged and the sufferers. He developed empathy towards the Jews after hearing about the thousands of years of history of their exploitation at the hands of many rulers. He thus took it upon himself to help the Jews as much as possible.

Arab-Israeli War, Operation Balak, Gordon Levitt, pilot, riots had begun, immigrants, Czechoslovakia, David Ben-Gurion

However, when he conveyed his willingness to help the Jews, it was viewed with suspicion as he was not a Jew by birth. The pro-Arab policy of Britain, and that he was a British national made him a suspected spy who intended sabotage. But with Israel in dire need of any kind of help coming its way, they could not reject Levitt’s proposal. They made him a part of the ‘Operation Balak’ along with the other Jewish pilots by turning a blind eye towards the suspicion and the consideration of his intentions and was kept aside for scrutiny at some later point in time. And Levitt did not let them down. He gave his everything to the operation. He even staked his life battling the rough weather and difficulty situations while performing several sorties between Israel and Czechoslovakia. His flights helped to bring Israel the tons of weapons and war equipment (bombs, guns, dismantled cannons, even disassembled fighter and bomber planes) that were purchased and stocked in Czechoslovakia for the last few months. Besides, his airlifts also brought home hundreds of Jewish soldiers.

Arab-Israeli War, Operation Balak, Gordon Levitt, pilot, riots had begun, immigrants, Czechoslovakia, David Ben-Gurion
The Avia fighters, dismantled and flown in from Czechoslovakia under ‘Operation Balak’

Later, Levitt also joined the Israeli Air Force. He played a crucial role in building it into a modern-day air force. He mentored the trainee Israeli pilots; it was one of his main contributions to the cause of Israel. His efforts and value additions saw him promoted as a ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ in the Israeli Air Force.

This way, the ‘Operation Balak’ of 1948 ensured that the issue of the inadequacy of weapons plaguing the Israelis during the war got addressed to a good extent. This boosted the Israeli forces, and they readied to face the Arab armies with a renewed vigour. Also, the Haganah had arranged for twelve cargo ships which carried with them a large stock of weapons and war stores from European ports to Israel. This further boosted the morale and confidence of the Israeli forces. The Israeli forces had entered the war with limited objectives of only facing and successfully warding off the Arab aggression and keeping the Jewish State protected. However, as the war progressed, the arrival of reinforcements pushed them to advance their aims and objectives. Slowly, a thought grew as to – ‘Why the borders of the Jew State should not be expanded’.

The land allocated to the Arabs had disconnected Jewish settlements. The advancement in the objective happened with the thought of protecting these Jewish settlements from Arab aggression. If at all the separate Jewish settlements had to be under the Jewish control, they had to be joint and continuous. Only then could the boundaries of Israel be defined. A control over disjoint masses of the settlements would not have served the purpose. That is, the thought, the Israeli control had to be established over the Arab land between the two unlinked Jewish settlements as well, was included as a part of the objective and the strategy was chalked out accordingly.

Importantly, the invading Arab armies started to receive bitter resistance from the Israeli military. Having received the reinforcements, the Israeli forces with a fresh impetus began pushing back the Arab forces and regaining their areas. Scared at the happenings, ordinary Palestinian Arab population fled their villages for refuge either in the neighbouring Arab nations or in the large Arab quarters of ‘Gaza Strip’ and the ‘West Bank’ in Palestine. With it, the population of the West Bank rose from its earlier 400 thousand to more than 700 thousand just in the year of 1948. At the same time, the number of migrants in Gaza Strip who had taken refuge reached about 175 thousand in under a year. By the time the war ended, the number of Palestinian refugees had stood at somewhere between 700 thousand to 1 million. The numbers of the Arabs who had fled to the neighbouring Arab countries too were not small. Lebanon hosted some 100 thousand, Jordan had received about 100 thousand, Syria had between 75,000 to 90,000, Egypt got around 10,000 and Iraq housed approximately 4,000 Palestinian immigrants.

Arab refugee, Operation Balak, Gordon Levitt, pilot, riots had begun, immigrants, Czechoslovakia, David Ben-Gurion
The Palestinian refugees

However, to take vengeance for this, the Arab states started inflicting atrocities on the Jewish citizens residing within their borders. From 1947, ever since the Arab-Jew riots had erupted in Palestine, retaliatory riots had begun in these Arab nations. Subsequently, the Jews from these countries, who had managed to save themselves and flee or were driven out from there, had started to return to Israel.

It is necessary to mention another sequence of events that progressed parallel to all this but behind the scenes. The mention is about the highly efficient intelligence wing of Israel. The formal creation of Israel’s modern-day, world-famous spy agency, ‘Mossad’, happened a few months after 1948. However, much before it, David Ben-Gurion had realized the importance of having such an organization fora nation and had got together all the Israeli secret agents while building an intelligence department. The spies of this outfit played a very critical role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. A couple of missions that highlight this role are – the Israeli intelligence operatives rendered useless even before the flight from their base, the four advanced bomber planes that Italy had sold to Egypt. In another case, the Israeli undercover officials sank a ship named ‘Leo’ that was carrying more than eight thousand guns and ammunition from Europe for the Arabs. Both these operations badly hit the morale of the Arab forces. Apart from this, sleuths of the bureau carried out many other vital tasks like disrupting the enemy communications, intercepting their messages and planting erroneous content in their place, cutting off enemy supply lines, creating roadblocks on the enemy’s way, etc.

This parallel complementary work helped the regular Israeli army in winning the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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