Battles of the Kinarot Valley

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battles of the Kinarot Valley
partof=1948 Arab-Israeli War

caption=The Deganias and Tzemah in 2003
date=15 May–21 May 1948
place=Israel, Syria (Golan Heights)
result=Tactical stalemate, perceptual Israeli victory
territory=Slight Syrian territorial gain
combatant1=flagcountry|Israel (Haganah)
commander1=flagicon|Israel Avraham Yoffe (Barak Battalion),
flagicon|Israel Moshe Dayan
commander2= (Minister of Defense)
strength1=About 70 (Battle of Degania)Cite web|publisher=Israel Defense Forces|url=|accessdate=2008-08-30|title=The Battle for Degania he icon]
strength2=Infantry brigade,
Tank battalion,
Two armored vehicle battalions,
Artillery battalioncite book|title=Palestine 1948|author=Gelber, Yoav|year=2006|isbn=184-519-075-0|publisher=Sussex Academic Press|url=,M1|accessdate=2008-08-29|page=p. 141]
casualties1=8 (Degania Alef)Cite book|title=BeIkvot Lohamim, Volume 1 - North|pages=pp. 97-101|publisher=Tamuz Publishing|author=Yitzhaki, Aryeh|year=1988|location=Tel Aviv, Israel he icon]
Tens (Tzemah)Cite web|url=|title=Fall of Tzemah|publisher=Golani Brigade|accessdate=2008-09-13 he icon]
casualties2=45 (Israeli estimate)|
The Battles of the Kinarot Valley, is a collective name for a series of military engagements between the Haganah and the Syrian army during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, fought between 15 May 1948 and 21 May 1948 in the Kinarot Valley. It includes two main sites: the Battle of Degania-Tzemah, and the Battle of Masada-Sha'ar HaGolan. The engagements were part of the battles of the Jordan Valley, which also saw fighting against Transjordan in the area of Gesher.


The first stage of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, referred to as the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine, started following the ratification of UN Resolution 181 on 29 November 1947, which granted Israel the mandate to declare independence. Despite the Arab states' threats on the Jewish population of the British Mandate of Palestine should they declare independence, as well as the American truce offer, the head of the Provisional State Council, David Ben Gurion, declared independence on 14 May 1948. On the night between 14 and 15 May, the states of Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen invaded the newly-created state.

During the days prior to the declaration of independence, the Arab states surrounding the Mandate of Palestine massed their forces at the borders in preparation for the scenario. According to the Arab plan, the Syrian army was to attack the new state from southern Lebanon and capture Safed.Gelber, Yoav (2006), p. 134] As such, the Syrians massed their forces in that area; however, after they found out that Lebanon did not wish to actively participate in combat, their plans changed to an attack from the southern Golan Heights on Samakh (Tzemah) and later Tiberias.Gelber, Yoav (2006), p. 136] The Syrian force assembled in Qatana on 1 May. It moved on 12 May to Beirut and to Sidon on 13 May, after which it headed to Bint Jbeil. After the sudden plan change, the force moved to Nabatieh, and proceeded around the Finger of the Galilee to Banias and Quneitra, from which the eventual attack was staged.

Disposition of forces

According to plan, the Syrians attacked from the southern Golan Heights, just south of the Sea of Galilee through al-Hama and the Yarmouk River, hitting a densely-populated Jewish area of settlement. This came as a surprise to the Haganah,, which expected an attack from south Lebanon and Mishmar HaYarden.Gelber, Yoav (2006), p. 135] The Jewish villages on the original confrontation line were Ein Gev, Masada, Sha'ar HaGolan and both Deganias.

At the onset of the invasion, the Syrian force consisted of a reinforced infantry brigade, supplemented by at least one armored battalion (including Renault R35 tanks) and a field artillery battalion.cite encyclopedia|encyclopedia=Carta's Atlas of Israel|year=1978|publisher=Carta|location=Jerusalem, Israel|editor=Evyatar Nur|author=Wallach, Jeuda|coauthors=Lorekh, Netanel; Yitzhaki, Aryeh|title=Battles of the Jordan Valley|volume=Volume 1 - The First Years 1948–1961|pages=pp. 14-15] The troops moved to Kafr Harib and were spotted by Haganah reconnaissance, but because the attack was not expected, the Israeli troops did not attack the invaders. At night between 15 and 16 May, the bulk of the Syrian forces set up camp in Tel al-Qasr in the southwestern Golan. One company with armored reinforcements split up to the south to proceed to the Jewish Water Institute on the Yarmouk riverbank.

The Haganah forces in the area consisted of several units from the Barak Battalion of the Golani Brigade, as well as the indigenous villagers, some of them members of the Guard Corps (HIM).

First battles

The opening shots were fired by Syrian artillery on kibbutz Ein Gev at approximately 01:00 on 16 May. The following day, the Syrian company which split from the main force attacked the Water Institute, where every worker was killed except one. The company then proceeded towards Sha'ar HaGolan and Masada. Its advance was halted by the village residents as well as a platoon of reinforcements armed with 20 mm cannons. The company retreated to its position and commenced artillery fire on the two kibbutzim.

This development gave the Israeli forces time to organize their defenses at Samakh (Tzemah). During the course of 16 May, Israeli gunboats harassed the Syrian positions on the southeastern Sea of Galilee shore. Meanwhile, Syrian aircraft made bombing runs on Masada, Sha'ar HaGolan, Degania Bet and Afikim. The attack on Tzemah resumed on 17 May - the Syrians set up their positions in an abandoned British military base just east of the village, while the Israeli forces entrenched in the actual village and its police station, which had been abandoned by the residents in April 1948, with British escort.Gelber, Yoav (2006), p. 101] A Syrian force attempted to surround the Israelis by crossing the Jordan River to the north of the Sea of Galilee, but encountered a minefield in which a senior Syrian officer was wounded.

This additional reprieve allowed the Israelis to evacuate the children, elderly and sick from the Kinarot Valley, as well as conduct maneuvers which feigned massive reinforcements in the Poria-Alumot region. In the panic of surprise, many men also tried to flee the frontal villages, but blockposts were set up near Afula and Yavne'el by the Military Police Service's northern command, under Yosef Pressman, who personally stopped buses and allowed only the women and children to proceed to safety. [Cite encyclopedia|title=Military Police Corps - Combat Military Police|encyclopedia=IDF in Its Corps: Army and Security Encyclopedia|last=Harel|first=Zvi|editor=Yehuda Shif|publisher=Revivim Publishing|year=1982|pages=p. 15 he icon]

Battle of Tzemah

On the morning of 18 May, a Syrian armored force consisting of about 30 vehicles, including tanks, advanced west towards Tzemah in two columns - one across the coast, and another flanking from the south. A contingent was allocated further south, in order to secure the safety of the main force by flanking Sha'ar HaGolan and Masada from the west. It entered a stalemate with a new Israeli position northwest of the two villages. The coastal column shelled the Israeli positions and inflicted enormous damage, due to the Israelis' lack of time to properly dig in. Reinforcements from the Deganias arrived but were immediately hit by the Syrians and did not significantly affect the battle. After the second column reached Tzemah, the Haganah retreated from Tzemah, fearing a cut-off of its retreat route to the Deganias by the latter column. The retreat was disorganized and heavy Israeli casualties were recorded as Tzemah's police station fell.

On the same day, Syrian aircraft bombed Israeli village Kinneret and the regional school Beit Yerah, on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. By evening, Tzemah had fallen and a new Israeli defensive line was set up in the Deganias, facing the Syrian counterparts. At night, a Palmach company attempted to recapture the village and assaulted the police station, but were warded off. On the morning of 19 May, a message was sent to Masada and Sha'ar HaGolan to prepare for an evacuation, although when the final order was given to stay put, the villages had already been abandoned, mostly to Afikim. Syrian troops subsequently captured the villages without a fight.

Battle of Degania

After the fall of Tzemah, the Haganah command realized the importance of the campaign in the region, and made a clear separation between the Kinarot Valley and the Battle of Gesher to the south against Transjordan. Moshe Dayan was given command of the Kinarot campaign, and a company of reinforcements from the Gadna program was allocated, along with 3 PIATs. Other reinforcements came in the form of a company from the Yiftach Brigade and another company of paramilitaries from villages in the Lower Galilee and the Jezreel Valley. The Palmach counterattack on the police station on the night of 18 May gave the Israeli forces an additional day to prepare defense and attack plans.

At 04:30 on 20 May, the Syrian army began its advance on the Deganias, assaulting at 06:00. Unlike the attack on Tzemah, this action saw the participation of nearly all of the Syrian forces stationed at Tel al-Qasr, including infantry, armor and artillery. The Israeli defenders numbered about 70 persons. At night, a Syrian expeditionary force attempted to infiltrate Degania Bet, but was caught and warded off, which caused the main Syrian force to attack Degania Alef first. A frontal armored attack, backed by infantry and artillery, was repelled by 20 mm cannons, PIATs and Molotov cocktails. Despite the Syrian superiority in numbers and equipment, the destruction of a multitude of armored vehicles and the infantry's failure to infiltrate Degania Alef was the likely cause for the retreat of the main Syrian force to Tzemah. A less-organized and sparsely-numbered armored and infantry force forked off to attack Degania Bet. The Syrians learned from their experience in Degania Alef and did not conduct a frontal assault, instead opting to shell the village from a distance of about 400 m. An infantry breakthrough was attempted but repelled, and the forces reached a stalemate.

While the battle was taking place, a delegation from the Deganias travelled to the government headquarters in Tel Aviv to request weapons and reinforcements. The General Staff Chief of Operations Yigael Yadin denied the request, but was compelled to provide (for just 24 hours) newly-received field artillery, by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. The artillery reached the front in the middle of the day and was placed on the Poria-Alumot range. While the soldiers who operated the cannons (still lacking sights) were not proficient in handling them, an acceptable level of accuracy was achieved after practice shots into the Sea of Galilee. The artillery fire took the Syrian army by complete surprise, and the latter decided to regroup and retreat to Tel al-Qasr, also recalling the company at Sha'ar HaGolan and Masada. On 21 May, Haganah troops returned to Tzemah and set up fortifications, and on 22 May, villagers returned to Masada and Sha'ar HaGolan, which had been largely destroyed.

First tank kill controversy

The first Syrian tank damaged near Degania Alef's gates, which has been preserved on the location, was the subject of a historiographic dispute when Baruch "Burke" Bar-Lev, a retired IDF colonel and one of Degania's native defenders at the time, claimed that he was the one who stopped the tank with a Molotov cocktail.Cite web|url=|title=The Tank Crewman who Spoke of Idi Amin's Heart|author=Dromi, Uri|publisher=Haaretz|accessdate=2008-08-30 he icon] However, his account was rebutted by an IDF Ordnance Corps probe, which in 1991 determined that a PIAT shot had killed the tank's crew. Shlomo Anschel, a Haifa resident who also participated in the battle, told Haaretz in 2007 that the tank was hit by PIAT fire from a Golani soldier, and that the Molotov cocktail could not possibly have hit the crew.Cite web|publisher=Haaretz|url=|title=The Battle of Degania|date=2007-08-16|accessdate=2008-08-30 he icon]

Aftermath and effects

The battles of the Kinarot Valley were the first and last of the ground engagements between Israel and Syria to the south of the Sea of Galilee. Despite the Syrians holding Tel al-Qasr, which was part of the British Mandate of Palestine and the Jewish state according to the UN partition of 1947, the offensive was considered a decisive Syrian defeat by both sides. The Syrian defense minister and Chief of Staff blamed each other, the latter resigning and the former being dismissed by the prime minister as a result of the battle.

No attempt was made to recapture Tel al-Qasr or al-Hama and a line between Tzemah and Tel al-Qasr was made into a temporary international border in the 1949 Armistice Agreements. The region was a site for numerous skirmishes and cross-border raids between 1949 and the Six-Day War of 1967.


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