New nation, new love: Israel's first soldiers forged lasting bonds on the frontlines

Many of the fighters in Israel's most elite pre-independence fighting unit, the co-ed Palmach, fell in love and formed unions that have lasted to this day.

Evan Bryant
Alisa and Pinhas Ofer, photographed in Jerusalem earlier this month, have been married for 63 years. They recount sneaking off a Palmach base for their first date, hoping the guards wouldn't shoot them when they returned.
Courtesy of Alisa and Pinhas Ofer
Elad and Zimra Peled were married in 1948, shortly after Israel declared independence. They, together with the state of Israel, will be celebrating their 65th anniversary this year.

When Alisa Berman and Pinhas Ofer decided at age 17 to go out on their first date, they faced unusual hurdles: A barbed-wire fence and the armed soldiers guarding their base.

It was February 1948, and they were part of an elite fighting force known as the Palmach. Tensions were running high and there were frequent deadly skirmishes as both Jews and Arabs battled for the upper hand in what would soon become full-out war after Israel declared independence in May 1948.

Ms. Berman and Mr. Ofer were based at Mt. Canaan, a freezing outpost in the northern Galilee, where the female guards would take turns wearing a single oversized British Army coat on their two-hour shifts. Conditions were harsh, and even teenagers in love had to think about precautionary measures.

“We decided to go out of the base, to just walk together a bit outside, but we had to warn the guards,” recalls Mr. Ofer. “So we told the guards – we are now going out, please don’t shoot at us when we come back.”

“We endangered ourselves, actually,” he says, laughing now. “And we probably weren’t the only ones.”

In fact, roughly half of his acquaintances in the Palmach fell in love and, like he and Berman, ended up getting married. Some 65 years before US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta opened the door for American women to fight in combat, teenage Jewish girls were ferrying weapons from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in their bras – a crime that carried a five-year prison term. They also provided first aid and operated radios that provided crucial coordination between units at a time when even parents didn’t know their own children’s whereabouts for months at a time.

While only a few girls had bona fide combat roles, they were intimately involved in the preparations and operations of the elite Palmach forces – and the boys couldn’t help but notice their female comrades. The war, which resulted in the displacement of at least 700,000 Palestinians, was a nakba or “catastrophe” in Arab eyes. But the love forged within the intimate bounds of the Palmach has proven surprisingly durable.

The Ofers have hosted alumni of their platoon every year for 45 years. Among them are Haim Ghouri, one of Israel’s best-known poets, and Elad Peled, who went on to serve as Yitzhak Rabin’s right-hand man and later as deputy mayor of Jerusalem under legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. Almost none of the couples have divorced. Many have marked 60 years or more of marriage.

He threw a love note from ambulance

On May 10, 1948, just five days before Israel declared independence, Mr. Peled – Berman and Ofer's 19-year-old platoon commander - was injured in a battle in the northern Galilee town of Safed. Ofer helped him hobble off the field and after a brief stay in a local hospital, Peled was evacuated to Tel Aviv, where his parents were living. He had no way of contacting his girlfriend, Zimra Flex, who was in Jerusalem and also served in the Palmach.

But when he awoke in the makeshift ambulance en route to Tel Aviv, he learned they were in Pardes Hanna – the town where Ms. Flex’s parents lived.

Peled, who at the time went by his father’s Polish name of Reisfeld, asked the driver to stop and give him a piece of paper and a pen.

He wrote: “To the Flex family: My name is Elad Reisfeld. I am wounded. I am being taken to a hospital near Tel Aviv. If you know something about Zimra, tell me.” With that, he folded the piece of paper and threw it out the window.

He had never met his girlfriend’s parents. Her mother, a woman of Russian descent, had initially opposed the match since Poles were seen as inferior. But several days later, Mrs. Flex showed up at the hospital and presented Peled with a beautiful bouquet of white flowers.

She ran through hostile territory

Peled was also visited by some girls in the Palmach’s welfare service, one of whom had been with Flex just two days earlier and knew where he could reach her. So he took up his pen again, wrote her of his adventure, implored her to visit him, and concluded with the weighty line: “If we won’t meet now, who knows if we’ll ever meet again.” 

The day the letter arrived, Flex had just walked several hours home from visiting a close friend whose husband was killed. But she had a steely disposition; she was the only girl from her community who went to join the Palmach, which was an underground movement at the time. “I wanted to do my best,” she recalls simply. “I knew that this was the hardest way and the best way to serve my country.”

When she received the letter from Peled, with whom she had fallen in love at first sight, she went to her battalion commander and told him, “Read this letter."

He did, and told her that if she ran, she might catch up with a reconnaissance patrol that was wending its way down through hostile territory toward Tel Aviv. She ran for three hours, found them, and walked with them through the night until they got back across the Israeli lines. She was 20 years old.

He and Flex eventually found each other, with some help from a senior Palmach officer who offered to drive Peled, and were married less than two weeks later. This year they’ll be celebrating their 65th anniversary, like Israel.

Neither she nor Peled knew that David Ben Gurion had declared Israel’s independence on May 15. “We were busy,” says Peled simply.

Comrades Alisa and Pinhas became Mr. and Mrs. Ofer two years later at Palmachim, a kibbutz on the shores of the Mediterranean that they had talked of establishing on that cold winter night in February 1948, when they slipped off the Mt. Canaan base to begin their romance.

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