The Rifles of Israel 1948 - 1980

    by Dan Reynolds

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition the British controlled mandate of Palestine into two states, one Israel, the other an Arab Palestine.  The United States and the Soviet Union used their influence to secure the votes of smaller states to gain the two thirds majority needed to pass this resolution 33 to 13.  This transfer was to take place on October 1, 1948.  A UN Special Commission was to oversee the transition.  It was composed of Czechoslovakia, Panama, Bolivia, Denmark, and the Philippines.

The British received control of Palestine as a spoil of WW1 when they defeated Turkey.  In the struggle to win WW1, the British promised the Arabs certain things if they revolted against Turkey.  They also promised the Zionist movement certain things which were in conflict with what the Arabs believed they were promised.  The British issued the Balfour Declaration which promised a Jewish National Homeland in Palestine which was the goal of the Zionist movement.  The British controlled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate in the inter war period.

The Zionist movement began in 1897, founded by Theodore Herzl to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  A limited immigration of European Zionists seeking to establish agrarian communes had been underway even under Turkish rule and continued during the years of British control.  The goal was to form a Jewish state. The British resisted implementation of the Balfour declaration due to the opposition of the Palestine Arabs.  This was sometimes violent and Zionist settlers faced security problems. They sought to obtain arms for defense, but these were not legal due to British gun control laws.  The answer was to obtain what could be had on the black market.  The Bedouin, nomadic Arabs, had been engaged in smuggling for ages and many WW1 and older arms could be purchased at the right price.  The Arab population obtained arms in the same manner.

Turkish issued rifles from the days of Ottoman rule were common.  Battlefield pick ups, deserter weapons, looted dumps, etc. all contributed to the stores which were for sale.  Mausers from the Model 1887, the M1890, Model 1893 and Model 1903 were available as were Gewehr 98 and Kar.98az. Ex-German Commission Rifles were available, older Martini Peabody rifles as well as Snider rifles and carbines of former Turkish usage were also to be had.  British designs such as the Martini Henry and SMLE were also for sale.  Egyptian Remington Rolling Block rifles, M1874 Gras rifles, Mannlicher Model 88/90 and M95 rifles, even Berdan rifles were seen.  Limited numbers of Mosin Nagant rifles also turned up.  The big problem with all black market weapons was ammunition supply.  It was always scarce and expensive.  The easiest to obtain was .303 British, and this made rifles using it worth a large premium.

During WW2, the British formed a Jewish Brigade which fought with them.  Zionist volunteers fought with the British against the Vichy French in Syria. French arms and ammunition in this period became available to settlers in Palestine, again in limited numbers.  From 1943 onward large quantities of Italian arms became available across North Africa and the Near East due to the Axis collapse.  First in Ethiopia and Somali land, then in Cyrenica and Tunisia, Italian rifles and ammunition were collected from stragglers, battlefields and poorly guarded Allied collection points.  They were moved by camel and dhow via traditional trade routes.  As WW2 ended small numbers of Enfields were diverted to Zionist groups by elements in the British Army.

In the wake of the devastation and dislocation of WW2, large numbers of DP's, Dislocated Persons, were all over Europe.  Numerous among them were Jewish survivors of NAZI concentration camps.  The British did not want all these people flooding into Palestine and provoking an Arab uprising.  The Zionists arranged to smuggle as many as possible into the area , preparing to create a Jewish state called Israel.  Arms procurement became a major effort as there was an ongoing conflict with the British and the likelihood of full scale war with the Arabs.

Stocks of rifles on hand were very limited to the Zionists.  More handguns and submachine guns were held.  Copies of the Sten machine carbine were fabricated in workshops and handguns were easy to smuggle.  Purchases continued to be made from willing Arabs, but large quantities of rifles were necessary.  In Europe and the USA operations were undertaken to acquire as many rifles as possible.  In Italy, Carcanos and Enfields were acquired and captured 7.92 mm Mausers were acquired from various sources.  Surplus U.S. Model 1917 .30-06 Enfields, at least 25,000 were purchased.  As long as the British controlled Palestine it was very ,very difficult to land any number of rifles.  There were three different Zionist groups attempting to arm themselves.  The official Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Group.  There was friction between these groups and they operated independently of each other.

On May 1, 1948 the British mandate ended and the British withdrew.  Israel was proclaimed and the Arab states attacked.  Arms could now be directly imported without British interference.  A major arms deal with Czechoslovakia involved large number of former German Karbiner Modell 98k 7.92mm Mauser rifles, copies of the latest version of it based on the Kriegsmodell in production at ZB in Brno, Moravia, MG34 and ZB26 machine guns, and even Czech made copies of the Bf109 Messerschmidt fighter.  Deliveries were desperately needed and Dakota aircraft, flying from Bratislava and refueling in Italy, flew the small arms directly to Israel.  Other rifles were also imported from other sources, but this was the big bulk of all the rifles acquired at this period.  The conflict ended in a truce.

In 1949, the rights to produce the Czech ZK-420S in 7.92mm along with prototypes, work in progress and some tooling was purchased.  Prior to the Communist coup in Prague it had been planned to adopt this rifle to replace the Mauser in Czechoslovakian service.  The policy changed and it was decide to adopt an intermediate round in a rifle of other design, the 7.62x45mm Vz.52 being selected in 1952.  The Communist line changed the Czech relationship with Israel after this 1949 purchase as Stalin began the "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign and purged the Czech leadership.

Circa 1951 Israel began buying arms from FN in Belgium, including 7.92mm Browning Type D automatic rifles and 7.92mm Mauser carbines.  A factory to make the Kar.98k in Israel was ordered from Switzerland, but delivery and start up dragged out over a long period and it never produced complete rifles but made parts for existing rifles.

During this period the rights and tooling for the American Johnson rifle and light machine gun which had been made in limited quantity for the USMC ( American Marine Corp) were purchased and prototypes were made in .303 and 7.92mm. These were called the "Dror" and they were used in a series of tests along with the M1 Garand, K43, and M-420S to select a follow on standard rifle for the Ka98k.  It was by now 1954 and it was clear that NATO was going to adopt the FN FAL rifle in 7.62x51mm which Britain had adopted back in 1951.  FN was successful in selling this rifle to Israel.

First deliveries arrived just as Britain and France attacked Egypt and seized the Suez Canal.  Israel entered the war on on October 29, 1956 and some FAL rifles were in use but there were problems with them in the sandy environment. Deliveries with some modification continued along with some 7.62x51mm Mauser carbines.  Israel began assembling these rifles in country from FN supplied parts and it remained in issue for many years but it was not a completely satisfactory weapon.

In the 1967 War, large numbers of AK47 7.62x39mm rifles were captured and it was so much more reliable than the FAL that these AK types were issued and a derivative was evolved in 5.56mm, originally using Finn Valmet receivers, called the Galil.

The USA had supplied large numbers of M16A1 5.56mm rifles and these were and are issued but they failed to match the sturdiness and reliability of the AK.  The Galil design was adopted as standard to replace the FAL, but problems developed with the receivers cracking after about 5600 rounds were fired in them.  It was continued in service and over the years produced in large numbers, some for export.  However the USA continued to supply M16A1 and later versions of the design which served along with Galil.  In the years after the 1973 War, a large number of US M14 7.62x51mm rifles were captured from the Palestinians.  These had been supplied by the USA to Saudi Arabia.  Many of these were issued to Israeli snipers and reserve forces.