His mission almost failed, under the light of a full moon.
Operation Markolet was the Hebrew name of the “Night of the Bridges” campaign carried out overnight on June 16, 1946, by the pre-state Jewish militia, the Hagana. It was aimed at destroying 11 bridges linking Palestine to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, from where troops and weapons were reported to be heading to the Arab residents of the British Mandate area.
Nineteen-year-old Chanan Rapaport, who quickly rose up the ranks of the Palmah, the elite strike force of the Hagana, was part of one of the units sent out on the mission.
“Our targeted bridge was over the Na’aman River, close to where Nahariya is today, that brought the train from Lebanon to Haifa,” says the 90-year-old Rapaport, talking animatedly in the meticulously neat living room of his downtown Jerusalem apartment that he shares with Judith, his wife of 61 years.
The holder of a doctorate in clinical psychology, Rapaport served for 18 years (1965-1982) as general and scientific director of the Szold Institute – the National Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, and advised two prime ministers – Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin – on Israeli societal problems.
Crisply dressed and possessed with an equally sharp mind, he speaks with precise detail about events that took place more than 70 years ago.
“There was a full moon, so we crawled along at about half a meter every five minutes. Standing on the bridge were British guards who would switch every four hours. We were under orders not to kill any British during the mission,” he says.
“We had very simple explosives – TNT – in our knapsacks.
As we got closer, our explosives expert gathered the TNT and maneuvered his way around the barbed wire under the bridge and placed the explosives.
When he completed the task he gave me a signal.
“My job was to shout out ‘Beware, the bridge is going to blow up!’ so the British soldiers would leave. But they got so startled, they started shooting their weapons in all directions. None of us were hit, and I shouted it out again, and only at the last second did they run off the bridge and save themselves.”
The Night of Bridges was a success, except for one operation at the Nahal Achziv bridges where 14 Palmah fighters were killed. It was just one of the operations that Rapaport played a key role in during the buildup to statehood and during the War of Independence, in which he served as an officer in the brand-new IDF.
GROWING UP in Nesher, near Haifa, where his Zionist- oriented parents settled after moving from Galicia, now Ukraine, Rapaport followed his older brother into the Hagana in his teens and quickly moved up the ranks.
He was one of the lead figures in a revenge raid following what was known as the Haifa Oil Refinery massacre at the end of 1947.
After members of the Jewish underground Irgun threw a bomb into a crowd of Arab workers, killing six of them, Arab workers at the refinery and from the nearby village of Balad al-Sheikh turned on their Jewish colleagues and killed 39.
“The British Army didn’t do a thing to prevent it,” recalls Rapaport. “It was too much for the Hagana, we knew we had to react. On the night between December 31 and January 1, we launched a raid on Balad al-Sheikh and Hawsha, where many of the refinery’s Arab workers lived.
“I was responsible for one of the units, but the main commander was Hanan Zelinger.
We knew which houses the workers who carried out the massacre lived in, and we were ordered to set the houses on fire and kill the men.”
In the ensuing battle, dozens of the villages’ residents were killed, and the Hagana suffered two casualties, including Zelinger.
“We finished the mission at around 2 a.m., conducted a summary session, and we all went home, to Nesher and other communities close by. I woke up around 10 a.m. and went outside. People started looking at me like I was a ghost. ‘Chanan! You’re alive!’ I heard over and over.
“People had heard about the raid, and the report got out that Hanan the commander had been killed. But it was Zelinger, not me. Later, during the War of Independence, when we conquered Balad al-Sheikh and it was incorporated into Nesher, it was renamed Tel Hanan, after Hanan Zelinger.”
Rapaport’s brushes with history included participation in a meeting with the de facto leader of the Yishuv, David Ben-Gurion, and Mickey Marcus, the famed United States Army colonel who assisted Israel during the War of Independence and became Israel’s first modern general.
“Marcus told him, ‘Listen, your men are excellent, but they don’t know how to fight in big battalions, just the ragtag units of the Hagana.’ “Ben-Gurion answered, ‘We have neither the time to train nor the manpower.’ “So Marcus sat down and dictated to a young woman who knew English a guide for battalion and company commanders.
They used a stencil and distributed it to all of us, and we studied how to be a commander, like learning the Talmud,” said Rapaport.
AFTER THE 1948 war, Rapaport attended the Hebrew University, spent several years in Minnesota on postdoctoral studies in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and returned to contribute to Israel’s rapid development.
“We established a country, bringing hunted people here from around the world. It was born out of necessity,” he said, adding that while he was fighting for its existence, he never had any complex historical thoughts about finding himself at a pivotal moment in the history of the Jewish people.
“It was a situation of no choice. After the Shoah, with the hostile Arab countries surrounding us, we didn’t even think about what we were doing, we just did it. I was 19 and doing what I had to do for my people to survive.”
Ironically, when Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Rapaport, commanding an outpost in the Galilee hills, wasn’t even aware of it.
“We had two drivers who would bring us food a few times a week. Ben-Gurion made his declaration on a Friday, and when the driver came on Shabbat to bring us food, he said, ‘Did you hear? Yesterday, Ben-Gurion declared a state!’ “That’s how we found out.”
Thankfully, Rapaport – who lives only a few steps away from the courtyard of the Jewish Agency’s headquarters, where throngs celebrated in 1948 – won’t miss out on the state’s 70th birthday Wednesday night. But the celebrants who crowd Jerusalem’s streets will miss out knowing that one of the heroes of the story is right around the block.