Pigeons, winged warriors that helped Israel to victory 70 years ago

By Rinat Harash
Pigeons, winged warriors that helped Israel to victory 70 years ago

By Rinat Harash

GIVAT BRENNER, Israel (Reuters) - The cooing of pigeons fills the air once again in a secluded dovecot that was once part of a top-secret communications project during Israel's war with its Arab neighbors 70 years ago.

It housed carrier pigeons, which delivered critical messages from the battlefield to Israeli military headquarters during the 1948 war after the new state declared independence and was attacked by the armies of countries including Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

As Israel prepares for its Independence Day celebrations, starting at sundown on Wednesday, the recently restored dovecot in Kibbutz Givat Brenner is today an educational center devoted to the winged warriors.

"This is the only thing that was left, and we thought that this is a great place to tell the story," said Tal Ben Nun of The Society for Preservation of Israel's Heritage Sites.

It has used 600,000 shekels (about $170,000) given by the defense ministry and Prime Minister's office to restore the site. Kibbutz Givat Brenner was founded by Jewish immigrants from Europe in 1928. It lies between Ashdod and Tel Aviv, just north of where Egyptian forces reached after invading from the Sinai in 1948.

Lacking communication devices during the war, the Israeli forces relied on a clandestine network of 68 dovecots spread across the country, and ran 'pigeoneer' courses for soldiers, Ben Nun said.

Counting on the pigeons' ability to return to their home dovecot, as armies have long done, the Israeli soldiers flew them from the heart of the battle - this time carrying messages written mostly in Morse code.

"It was the only way to communicate, to receive news of what's going on with the troops - whether they succeeded or not, whether they were attacked, if they have wounded or dead, is there a need to send a vehicle to evacuate the wounded? It was all done through the pigeons," said veteran military pigeoneer Shaul Sapir, 90, who still gets emotional when he reminisces about his birds.

"They were nurtured, so much that... a truck would be brought carrying food for the pigeons, when we remained very hungry."

After being deserted for decades, the restored dovecot in Givat Brenner now houses 60 carrier pigeons, some of which are descendants of those who were there during the war. They are trained daily by volunteers.

"I think it is a duty, a duty, to all the youths and especially those who will be enlisted to the Israeli army's communication or intelligence units, to come and see how we started from nothing, with a pigeon, and what is reached today, with satellites."

In the coming days and weeks Palestinians will also hold events marking what they call the "Nakba" or "Catastrophe", when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the violence that surrounded Israel's creation.

(Reporting by Rinat Harash; Editing by Stephen Farrell and David Stamp)