Operation Balak outfitted Jewish freedom fighters with thousands of firearms
by PAUL HUARD
Even before Israel declared its existence as an independent state in 1948, its political and military leaders knew they faced two daunting problems.
First and most importantly, a new nation of Israel would be immediately cornered by enemies. Second, the fledgling Israeli military desperately needed weapons from anywhere it could get them.
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence as a sovereign state. Just 15 days later, the forces of the Arab League including Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq mobilized sizable armies and invaded Israel — the beginning of the First Arab-Israeli War.
Before independence, both Great Britain and the United States embargoed weapons sales to the Yishuv, the Jewish settlers who lived in Palestine under the control of the British Mandate.
But the Israelis had their own firepower, thanks to one of the most incredible arms deals in history that put weapons intended for Nazi Germany into the hands of Jewish freedom fighters — many whom had escaped the Holocaust.
The arms deal was part of Operation Balak, named after the biblical king of the Moabites whose name meant “he who lays waste to an enemy.” The communist government of Czechoslovakia sold the weapons to Israel with Joseph Stalin’s blessing, no less.
The deal included hundreds of MG34 general purpose machine guns, which first saw action when the Germans fought in the Spanish Civil War. The transfer also included thousands of Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifles — the German army’s basic infantry weapon.
The young Israeli Air Force flew Czech-built Avia S-199 fighter planes, which were really German Messerschmitt Bf 109s with a different name. In fact, the Israeli pilots called the planes “Messerschmitts.”
And make no mistake — the Israelis were happy to have the weapons, even if some of the firearms still had Nazi proof marks.
“The feeling in those crucial days in Israel was that any way it could defend itself against the Arab armies attacking the young state was justified,” Uzi Eilam, a senior research fellow with the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies and a retired IDF brigadier general, told War Is Boring.
If you wonder how such an ironic arms deal could’ve been made, look no further than a decision by one of the Third Reich’s leading strongmen — Hermann Göring.
In 1938, Göring was in charge of administering Nazi Germany’s Four Year Plan, a program of economic development and increased arms production in violation of the Versailles Treaty. At the same time, Hitler’s goal of taking European territory without firing a shot was moving along briskly, including annexing part of Czechoslovakia under the terms of the Munich Agreement — the infamous treaty that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said granted “peace for our time.”
What the treaty really did was prove that the Czech military alliance with Great Britain was a joke, and place Czechoslovakia’s heavy industry under Nazi control. Göring later ordered the Skoda works transformed into weapons production plants — the Hermann Göring Werke complex that became one of the Reich’s leading arms production factories.
The plant made thousands of rifles and machine guns for German use throughout World War II. After Soviet troops swept into the territory, they seized the German plants … and the weapons.
By 1947, Jewish political leaders such as David Ben-Gurion — who was not only the future first prime minister of Israel but its first minister of defense too — knew independence could only be achieved through warfare. He ordered various agents in Europe to begin negotiations with governments willing to sell arms to the Jews despite the various embargoes.
Surprisingly, communist-controlled Czechoslovakia was open to a deal.
“The Czech government agreed because they had a huge surplus of German weapons, some of which had been produced in Czechoslovakia during the war, and because they got paid — in dollars,” Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian and theorist, told War Is Boring.
“By the summer of 1948, the IDF had enough [weapons] to arm all its troops, so no more imports were needed. There was also talk about selling Israel ex-German tanks, but nothing came of it.”
There was even talk that the deal might persuade the new Israeli government to lean toward a close relationship with the Soviet Union. That’s at least what Stalin thought — at first. Moscow would later adopt a staunchly pro-Arab foreign policy.
Israel would eventually acquire weapons from other sources, including crude but effective British Sten guns, French 65-millimeter howitzers and other leftovers from World War II.
But Nazi weapons kept showing up in the hands of Israeli soldiers. The various Jewish militias that Ben-Gurion absorbed into the early IDF had MP 40 submachine guns — a rugged firearm once favored by Waffen-SS troops.
However, the Israelis’ most common weapon was the Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifle, which was re-designated in Czechoslovakia as the P-18. More than 35,000 of them ended up in Israeli arsenals so the new government could arm its soldiers, many of them recent immigrants to the new nation.
“They had to put weapons into the hands of everyone they could,” Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute specializing in military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran, told War Is Boring.
“They were practically giving the rifles to people straight off the boat with a little training. The Israelis were mobilizing for war against multiple enemies — it was an emergency measure to protect Israel.”
Many of the German rifles remained in use through the 1970s. The IDF re-chambered them for the more common 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO round, and they saw active service during the 1956 Suez Crisis before more modern weapons became available.