It's a letter that Maj. Gen. Amos Horev says is one of his most telling artifact from Israel's six decades of independence. "Please give to Amos two guns and one mortar from Jerusalem," reads the note to another commander from a Jewish US Army colonel who, after World War II, came to help the Jewish army in Palestine.
To Mr. Horev, himself a leader in the army called the Hagana, Hebrew for defense, it's a reminder of how low on guns and bullets his fighters were. "The most crucial war we ever fought was the War of Independence. We asked every day, 'Are we going to make it or not?' It was a very difficult time. We didn't know if we could protect Jerusalem, where we had 100,000 people. My parents were there." That period of time was the most difficult, he says, because of a scarceness of arms. "We could hardly buy anything. We were so poor in weapons, and afterwards, we said, never again can we suffer from this kind of shortage," he says, sitting on the sofa in his home in this quiet Tel Aviv suburb he's lived in for half a century. "We felt the world had granted us a state without giving us the means to defend it."
It is a common theme that Arabs and Jews who fought in 1948 express: a sense that the world supported the enemy, and that the British, as the rulers of Mandatory Palestine, sat back and let the other side do as it wished. "The British were there but they didn't give us any protection," says Horev. "It was a battle of the roads, of the highways, and of communications. We suffered from a total embargo."
Beginnings of a new Jewish state
Both of his parents had immigrated here from Warsaw, in 1919, two years after the Balfour Declaration stating Britain's support for the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, previously a province of the Ottoman Empire. They came as Zionists who hoped to build a new state in their old homeland, but also to escape anti-Semitism. Had they not left, his parents later realized, they would likely have been killed by the Nazis, like many of their relatives who stayed. Of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3.3 million Jews, more than 90 percent were killed, according to figures from Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust remembrance authority.
Horev was born in Jerusalem in 1924, and at the age of 17, he left high school to join the Palmach.
"We worked to finance our training, so we would work two weeks a month and train two weeks a month," he says. By 1943 he was commissioned as an officer, and soon promoted to platoon commander and then company commander.
Then came the November day in 1947, when the United Nations voted on the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Arab states disagreed and declared war. At the time, one of Horev's jobs was running convoys to supply Jewish areas of Jerusalem that were cut off, a job which led him to see many young comrades fall.
"When you look at the convoy situation, it was like going on a suicide mission: each time we went out we got attacked," Horev explains as the hours crawl toward Israel's Memorial Day, which always comes the day before Independence Day. Melancholy songs fill the airwaves, stories of fallen soldiers run on television, places of entertainment close. Horev makes his pilgrimage to the Nahalal Cemetery in Jerusalem, where many of the fallen members of his brigade are buried.
"I think a lot about them now, all my classmates I lost, what they would have done later, what good scientists they would have made, too." Horev, an outstanding science student with a knack for logistics, was sent by the Israeli army to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after the war to complete his BA and a master's in mechanical engineering. During the war itself, he had figured out how to adapt American-made Sherman M4 tanks to the local terrain, turning them into M-50s that lasted Israel until the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Into the 1950s and 1960s, he served as the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) chief of ordnance and chief of logistics.
"Most of the 6,000 killed were part of that generation, my generation. It may not sound like a lot, but it was 10 percent of our population," he recalls, looking at the photos of friends in uniform that now seem almost baby-faced, as he names each of them and whether he survived. "We were the right generation, because we were born at a moment that occurs once in a thousand years: the chance to create a new nation, a new state."
During the war, Horev's wife of more than 60 years, Shoshana, remembers not hearing from her husband for more than three months. By the end of the war, she says, "more of our close friends were dead than alive."
About a month before Israel declared its independence, Horev was deputy commander of the 6th Palmach Battalion, second to Yitzhak Rabin, the famous Israeli who would become prime minister and be felled by an assassin opposed to his peacemaking policy.
One of their missions was to secure the road to Jerusalem to stop nearby Arab villages from overcoming a Jewish settlement called Kfar Uriah. "If they had succeeded, nobody would have come out alive," he says, pointing to a map of where it was situated, surrounded by a cluster of Arab villages southwest of Jerusalem. "There were no neutral villages around Jerusalem," he says.
Two colliding narratives
What happened to the residents of those Arab villages is one of many crucial points where Israeli and Palestinian narratives collide. Palestinians say some people fled, expecting to come home later, but that many villages were evacuated by force by Zionist militias and destroyed. Most Israelis, including Horev, spurn that version of events. But what some Israeli academics loosely refer to as the "New Historians" say that the Palestinian account of events was more credible than previously acknowledged, and that incidents of ethnic cleansing occurred.
Horev says he wasn't involved in any such missions. "When Arabs from other countries started to operate here, their bases were the villages. Some people left because they were scared. Some were promised they could come back," he says. He thinks Israel's mistake was signing the armistice agreement with Jordan in 1949, which meant agreeing to a cease-fire line without an actual border. It invited more attacks, he says. Such questions of cease-fires versus real peace touch on Israel's dilemma in negotiations with the Palestinians today. Hamas, which won the last Palestinian elections, says it supports a period of calm with Israel, but will never recognize it.
In his mid-80s, Horev is optimistic about the progress of his country, which in his lifetime has moved from the margins to modernism. He grew up in a place famous for exporting oranges and today lives in a hub of high-tech. But he believes the conflict has become even more complicated than it was 15 years ago. When his old friend Mr. Rabin decided on the Oslo "experiment" in 1993, Horev supported it because the conflict seemed solvable in territorial terms. Now, he believes, too, many people across the Middle East view this as a battleground of religious ideology, of the Islamic East against the Judeo-Christian West.
"The war ended. But since then, we didn't have a year of peace," Horev says. "I thought we were closer to peace 40 years ago than we are today. Look how far away we are from this handshake," he says of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. "I don't believe that we can get to this two-state solution President Bush is promising in 2008, this two-state solution which I myself support."
Such sentiments seem to echo the Israeli public's feeling overall as it turns the corner toward a new decade. According to the April issue of the War and Peace Index, a Tel Aviv University survey released Tuesday, 70 percent of Israeli Jews do not believe in the chances of reaching a deal with the Palestinians despite renewed peace talks. And yet, the same pollsters found that 70 percent also support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Horev's son, Yehiam, named for one of his father's fallen comrades, is a few months older than the state of Israel. He lives just down the road from his parents, fought in Israel's 1967 and 1973 wars, and is the father of three sons. The youngest of them is almost 16 and will in two years be drafted into the army, like his older brothers before him. Yehiam is not sure he can expect things to be any different for his sons, in terms of the wars they may yet be asked to fight.
"We're not in the same mood we were 20 or 30 years ago," says Yehiam Horev. "The country has grown in incredible ways. But we have a feeling that some of the leaders are not as we expect them to be. And we're still in the stage of fighting our neighbors. The future will hopefully be better than it was." He is quiet for a moment, and then frowns. "But as long as they keep fighting between themselves, and showing that they do want the whole area, there won't be peace."