In 1948, the state of Israel was a new nation without a unified military and without sufficient weapons.
The one thing it did not lack was enemies. Surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel almost immediately, precipitating the War of Independence. The fledgling military that would eventually become the Israeli Defense Forces was desperate for weapons.
So desperate they were willing to use arms once destined for the soldiers of the Third Reich.
One of the little known facts of 1948 Arab-Israeli war is Nazi weapons armed Jewish freedom fighters, many of whom had faced the same armaments in the hands of their German oppressors during World War II and the Holocaust.
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.
Thanks to one of the most unlikely arms deals in history, the Israeli government circumvented the embargo. The 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 deal included hundreds of MG34 general purpose machine guns, which first saw action when the Germans fought in the Spanish Civil War. There were thousands of Karabiner 98 bolt-action rifles – the basic infantrymen’s weapon of the Wehrmacht.
The young Israeli Air Force even flew Czech-built Avia S-199 fighter planes, which was really the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. In fact, the Israeli pilots even called the planes “Messerschmitts.”
Even the MP-40 submachine gun – a weapons favored by Waffen-SS troops during World War II – was in the hands of the various Jewish militias that Ben-Gurion ordered absorbed into the early IDF.
Make no mistake – Israelis were happy to have the weapons, even if some 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,” said Uzi Eilam, a senior research fellow with the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies and a retired brigadier general in the IDF.
The genesis of what might qualify as the world’s most ironic arms deal is a decision made by one of the Third Reich’s leading strongmen and an unrepentant anti-Semite: Hermann Göring.
In 1938, Göring was in charge of administering the Nazi’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 the annexation of 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 it really did was place Czech 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 leading arms production plants for the Reich.
The plant made thousands of rifles and machine guns for German use throughout World War II. After World War II when Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Red Army, the Soviets captured the German weapons and the plants.
By 1947, Jewish political leaders knew independence could only be achieved through warfare. 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,” said Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian and theorist. “By the summer of 1948, the IDF had enough (weapons) to arm all its troops, so no more imports were needed.”
Czechoslovakia sold the weapons to Israel with Joseph Stalin’s blessing, no less, probably in the hope that the deal might persuade the new Israeli government to lean toward a close relationship with the U.S.S.R. That didn’t happen, and eventually the Soviet Union adopted a staunchly pro-Arab foreign policy.
Eventually, Israel would eventually acquire weapons from other sources, including British Sten guns, French 65-millimeter howitzers and other leftovers from World War II.
But Nazi weapons stayed in Israel’s arsenals. The Israelis dubbed the Karabiner 98 bolt-action rifle the P-18. Re-chambered in Israeli arsenals for the 7.62 x 51 millimeter NATO round, it saw active service during the 1956 Suez Crisis before designated a weapon for reservists by the IDF.
Many of those German rifles remained in use through the 1970s.