This article originally appeared on the 26th of December 2019 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
“All is fair in love and war” is an idiom in English that refers to the practice of otherwise questionable actions being considered acceptable under exceptional circumstances. When talking about weaponry in general, one example to illustrate the aforementioned saying would be the direct use of an enemy’s arms of war to forward one’s own agenda. Anti-Communist Afghan Mujahideen fighting their Soviet enemies with Soviet-made weaponry, Islamic State attacking regional adversaries with US M4’s and M16’s or the post-war US government employing former German and Japanese scientists and technologies for their fight against the Red Menace are all examples of this common practice. The Israeli Defense Forces‘ hexagram emblem on Nazi Mauser-manufactured Kar98k carbines is another interesting manifestation of this idiom.
14 May 1948, the day before the expiration of the British Mandate for Palestine. David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) and several of his comrades at the Jewish Agency were in full preparation to unilaterally declare the establishment of an independent Israel. The Jewish Agency was the representative institution for the Jewish migrants to the Mandate, helping coordinate Jewish immigration into Palestine and Jewish armed opposition to the British government and local Arab militias. By May 1948, the Agency realized that the fighting they had witnessed for months on end as a result of the raging civil war was only a prelude to what was about to come when they would effectively declare their state proper.
A year earlier, by early 1947, the Jewish United Resistance Movement, a Jewish Agency-organized cooperation of the armed Haganah, Irgun and Lehi militias, came to the conclusion that they had two main problems that needed a decisive solution before any steps could be taken towards the establishment of Israel. First and foremost, they had to come up with a realistic response to the reality of their geographical position, which had them locked and cornered between several enemy Arab states with numerically superior armies. Secondly, they would need appropriate weaponry and ammunition to counter that threat and to secure their soon-to-be independence.
David Ben-Gurion , the future first prime minister of Israel and its first minister of defense , knew that independence could only be achieved through warfare. Since the Arab states still had the upper hand on paper, the Zionists had to outdo them in weapons and ammunition. By mid-1947, he ordered various agents in Europe to begin negotiations with post-war governments willing to sell them arms, despite Britain’s conspicuous anti-Zionist stance.
In a surprising turn of events, the Jewish Agency and the United Resistance Movement had an unexpected stroke of fortune. Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia was open to a deal. It is safe to say that post-WWII Czechoslovakia had a huge surplus of German weapons and ammunition, either locally produced in Czechoslovak factories or surrendered by the German army. Since 1938, Czechoslovakia had been an industrial hub for Nazi Germany’s re-armament project led by Herman Göring (1893-1946), who had been in charge of administering Nazi Germany’s Four-Year Plan, a program of economic development and increased arms production. When the Germans started to annex parts of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) from 1938 onward, Göring decided that the country’s pre-existing heavy industry would be ideal for the industrial manufacturing of quality weaponry. The local plants made thousands of rifles for German use throughout WWII, most notably the Kar98k 7.92×57mm bolt-action rifle used by the German military. When the Red Army poured in throughout 1945, however, they seized the factories, and they seized the weapons. The cash-starved Czechoslovak Communists were literally sitting on vast stockpiles of German weapons and needed an opportunity to both sell the arms and empty their inventories.
However, such a massive arms deal had to be tolerated by the highest authorities in Moscow, since there was no way it could be done secretively without informing their dominant Soviet neighbor. Yet again, the Jewish Agency was in luck. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was aware of the need for a loyal USSR ally in the Middle East. Since a vast number of Jews had previously served in the Red Army and since the Soviet Union was home to around 30% of all Jews worldwide, the Jewish Agency seemed to be an excellent candidate for a possible political investment. And thus in 1947, Stalin authorized the selling of large amounts of arms and ammunition to the Jewish militant organizations in Palestine. His only condition was that these would not be of Soviet manufacture or design, so the USSR could maintain a certain neutrality on the ground and vis-à-vis the British. A Soviet satellite state would be well placed to undertake the transactions and Communist Czechoslovakia had the obvious preference by both sides of the deal. David Ben-Gurion declared his support for the plan – Operation Balak was conceived.
The first contract with Czechoslovakia to supply rifles, machine guns and ammunition was signed on 17th December 1947, but the ways of transportation to Israel were not yet resolved until well into January 1948. There was a problem after all. Since the British government was officially at war with the different Jewish militias, which it considered terrorist entities, one couldn’t simply walk into Palestine with a boatload of weapons, not to mention the UN arms embargo on combatants in the Middle East. The only way to succeed was to smuggle everything into the area by plane or boat. Through code name Operation Balak, a reference to a king of the Moabites whose name is mentioned in Numbers 22:2, Jewish and gentile pilots supportive to the Zionist cause flew tons of weaponry and millions of ammunition rounds from a Czech airfield near Žatec, and later another near Nikšić, to abandoned and make-shift air strips in Palestine. They had assembled a fleet of transport planes, among others the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, bought privately in the United States to ferry the arms and complete their objective.
The smuggling operation lasted for about three months, the last trip reaching Palestine by sea on 28 April 1948. David Ben-Gurion wrote in his War Diaries dated April 1st 1948: “The tools that were received tonight were already put to work in the war on Jerusalem.” On 14 May 1948, Israel declared its independence as a sovereign state. Just 15 days later, the Arab League – Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, mobilized sizeable armies and attacked Israel as had been anticipated, leading to the beginning of the First Arab-Israeli War (1948). Since the nascent state had more than 35,000 of Kar98k’s stocked in its arsenals by then, it distributed the rifles to every able-bodied Jewish man and woman in an emergency measure to secure their borders against multiple enemies. Thousands of immigrants with little or no military training were given rifles and sent directly to the front lines. By the end of May 1948, these conscripts and the United Resistance Movement were reorganized by the government into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a conscript army specifically designed to match Israel’s security situation.
After the war, which ended with Israel’s independence secured, Israel purchased an assembly line to locally produce their own version of the Kar98k. Due to delays and the increasing replacement of the rifles (the IDF decided in 1955 to adopt the Belgian FN FAL as its standard-issue infantry rifle), the facility was left to produce spare parts and overhaul all the remaining Kar98k’s. To standardize ammunition, all rifles were reworked and re-barreled to use the 7.62 × 51mm NATO cartridge. They received finger-grooved beechwood stocks, new barrels, a clear “7.62” hammered into the receiver and a “7.62” branded into the butt of the stock. Acceptance/proof marks consisted of the IDF emblem, which is a Star of David enveloping a sword and an olive branch stamped on the receiver and The Hebrew tsade letter in a circle, added on the receiver’s left side.
By the time the 1956 Suez Crisis broke out, the country still had a lot the original Mauser 7.92×57mm ammunition and only a portion of the Kar98k’s had been overhauled. The FN FAL was only just starting to enter the IDF’s arsenal. So, the Kar98k went to war again, in both the 7.92 and 7.62 calibers. Only by the time of the 1967 Six-Day War, most of Israel’s Kar98k’s had been overhauled to the standard 7.62×51 NATO cartridge. When the Kar98k’s where completely eclipsed by Belgian FN FAL’s, local IMI Galil’s and American M16’s, the era of former Nazi weaponry came to an end and most Kar98k’s were outsourced to allied Third World countries like Guatemala, exported for arms collectors or put out as surplus. One of Israel’s last niche uses of the bolt-action Kar98k was as a rifle grenade launcher.
Luttrell, R., I flew for Israel, Flying Magazine (May 1949) p.22
Sachar, H., Israel and Europe: An Appraisal in History (2010)
Morris, B., 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2008)
Greenberg, J., Fun Stuff in ‘48: British gentile in Israel Air Force, The New York Times (1998)
Shanel, L., The Deal, published on the official website of the Israeli Air Force on 01.12.2011, https://www.iaf.org.il/4375-38219-en/IAF.aspx
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.