MAḤAL , abbreviation of Mitnaddevei Ḥuẓ la-Areẓ (Foreign Volunteers), the term used for volunteers from abroad, mainly Jews, who enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (idf) and participated in the *War of Independence, 1948/49. In practice the Maḥal section of the IDF Manpower Branch handled volunteers who were citizens or residents of countries outside Eastern and Central Europe. No reliable statistics are available, but it was officially estimated that Maḥal comprised about 5,000 volunteers. Of these, about 1,500 were from U.S.A. and Canada, about 500 from South Africa, and about 1,000 from Great Britain. The small Jewish community of Finland contributed the largest proportion of volunteers, a total of only 30, but 2% of its strength.
The first groups of volunteers were organized after the un General Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine in November 1947. In some instances, the initiative was spontaneous and local. This was the case in Canada, where two Jewish ex-servicemen issued a call for volunteers for Israel. The same was true in Scandinavia. In South Africa, the movement was organized after the arrival of two representatives of the *Jewish Agency who contacted the South African Jewish servicemen's association. By the beginning of 1948, volunteer organizations were at work in most Jewish communities in the Western world. In many countries the activities were under cover: the official destination of the volunteers was France. A small number of volunteers, mainly with military skills urgently needed by the *Haganah, were smuggled into the country before the State of Israel was proclaimed. The majority of the volunteers were channeled through training camps in France and Italy, organized by the Haganah European Command (with headquarters in Paris) and staffed by instructors from Palestine. Most were World War ii veterans, and some had been officers. Transport facilities across the Mediterranean were difficult to arrange.
On arrival, the Maḥal volunteers were absorbed in idf units according to the need for reinforcements, not fighting in separate formations. They thus fought on all fronts. Their contribution was not in numbers but in quality and experience, most necessary in a new army whose fighting tradition was that of an underground movement. Maḥal's major contribution was to the air force, which was organized, commanded, and to a large degree, staffed by overseas volunteers and by foreign air force veterans on special contract. Maḥal volunteers also played an important part in staffing the army medical corps. Individual volunteers also made important contributions to the engineers' corps, the signal corps, the armored units, and the artillery. Approximately 150 Maḥal volunteers were killed in action, the majority from U.S.A. and Canada. About 300 remained in Israel or returned later to settle there, but the majority came, fought, and returned to their countries of origin.