Tag Archives: War of Independence

Fighting for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai
Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai

In 1948, the Egyptians thought it would be easy. The British were leaving the Palestinian Mandate in mid-May. The sparsely populated areas where Jews lived in the south were ripe for the picking. The Egyptian army could quickly wipe out the few Jewish defenders in the Negev and on the Mediterranean coast. In two or three days they would be in Tel Aviv.

On May 14, the Jews declared independence, as of the British departure at midnight. The Egyptian army, gathered on the border in Sinai readied to attack. I’m sure no soldier sleeps well the night before a battle, not even those about to fight poorly armed untrained Jewish farmers and refugees. Still, I imagine Egyptian soldiers dreaming about lying peacefully in the sun with their families on beaches of Tel Aviv within the week.

The new nation of Israel woke up Shabbat morning, May 15, to news of the Egyptian invasion. The Egyptians headed north east towards Nirin and Kfar Darom. Facing unexpectedly heavy opposition from the Israelis, they withdrew after two days. Since the eastern path to Tel Aviv obviously would not work, they headed west, closer to the coast. Several towns posed obstacles, but they remained confident. Tel Aviv would soon be in their hands. Their air force was already dropping bombs on the city. The only real obstruction in their way was Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located at a crucial crossroad. They had the superior power—two infantry battalions, one armored battalion and one artillery battalion. They thought the fight would last a few hours.

The agricultural kibbutz had been founded in the late 1930s by Polish immigrants. The founders learned apiculture from some British and Australian soldiers. Soon they were selling honey throughout the land. In December 1943 it was renamed Yad Mordechai, in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1948, about 130 people lived there. The farmers had dug trenches so they could move about fairly safely if under attack. They had been joined by a couple dozen Palmach fighters in anticipation of the coming battle. Even so, it couldn’t hold out for very long against an onslaught of thousands of Egyptian soldiers.

On May 18 the Egyptians camped around the kibbutz.

The Israelis worried about the children. It would be too dangerous for them to stay on the kibbutz, but it was also dangerous to send them away. The only road to safety led through the Egyptian lines. With much trepidation they decided to evacuate the children. I imagine the parents trying not to show their fear as they bundled their children into vehicles in the middle of the night. I doubt any of them slept that night, as they envisioned the vehicles slowly making their way around and through the Egyptian encampment and Arab towns. As first light dawned in the morning, word came through. All ninety-two children were safe.

Now it was time to prepare for battle.

We heard the story about the battle at Yad Mordechai standing on a small hill in the kibbutz, looking down at the plain which leads to the Mediterranean Sea. The field below was probably covered with new crops then. Today there are cast iron silhouettes of soldiers, a static reconstruction of the battle. Three old

Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion
Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion

Egyptian tanks face us. At the edges of the hill two reinforced bunkers overlook the battlefield, connected by the old trenches. The trenches have fresh gravel on their floors and metal sheeting lining the sides. I watched as young volunteers, dressed in the khaki shorts and kova tembel hats of the period, led a family through the trenches at a run, reminding them to crouch down so the Egyptians won’t see them.

The First and Seventh Battalions attacked. The kibbutzniks repelled them.

The Egyptians attacked again, but again they were repelled. Their artillery bombarded the kibbutz, destroying the water tower and buildings.

The Egyptians repeatedly tried to capture the outpost, and failed. Several thousand trained Egyptian soldiers should not have so much trouble overrunning small farming community. Even their tanks didn’t help. They had plenty of guns and ammunition, but they couldn’t wipe out a hundred and thirty Jews. The Jews were so poorly armed that at night they crept over the battlefield gathering rifles and ammunition from the enemy dead.

Five days later, the Jews were out of ammunition and exhausted. Half the defenders had died or were wounded. They could fight no longer. They crept away during the night, through the Egyptian lines, to safety at Kibbutz Gvar’am. Only Yitzchak Rubinstein and Livka Shefer, who carried the injured Binyamin Eisenberg, on a stretcher did not make it. .

During the ceasefires and then after the armistice, Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren searched for missing Israelis. It was crucial, he believed, to determine who had died, and to give them proper burial. Rabbi Goren crossed enemy lines many times, sometimes walking across minefields, to search battlefields and makeshift graves, looking for the remains of Israeli dead. He spoke to as many fighters, Jewish and Arab, as he could to gather eyewitness testimony. But he never learned what happened to the three missing men from Yad Mordechai. They are still listed as “Open Cases,” soldiers whose death and burial place are unknown, by the IDF MIA Accounting Unit.

On the sixth day of the battle, not knowing the defenders had retreated, Egyptians opened fire again. After about four hours of steady artillery bombardment, they realized no one was shooting back at them. They entered the kibbutz, only to find it empty. Not even bodies remained; the Jews had buried their dead in a mass grave.

The Egyptian army destroyed the kibbutz and continued towards Tel Aviv. In Ashdod the Israeli Air Force attacked them. Egypt hadn’t known Israel possessed an air force, nor that they had already seen it in its entirety—all four planes. Surprised by bombs dropping on them from directly above, they retreated.

Actually, a week earlier the Israeli Air Force had not existed.

After World War II, the Jewish community in British Palestine knew that sooner or later they would have to fight the British or the Arabs to gain a state. Agents were sent to Europe to buy surplus military equipment. One found Messerschmitts in Czechoslovakia, then ruled by the USSR. When the USSR decided to support Israel, the Czechs sold five planes plus spare parts, to Israel. Experienced fighter pilots and airplane technicians were recruited from the US and Canada.

Boxes of airplane parts arrived in Haifa and were taken to Zichron Yakov, a town near the coast. The planes were reassembled in a large wine storage cave. They were not equipped to drop bombs, so they were loaded with hand grenades and bottles full of water.

By this time, the Egyptian army was marching up the coast.

The brand new Air Force took off and flew south. One plane crashed into the sea, but the remaining four planes attacked the Egyptians in Ashdod. The pilots dropped the hand grenades and water bottles out the window. The grenades killed only a few soldiers. The water bottles broke with loud noise. The Israeli air attack was successful only because the Egyptians were surprised and panicked. They turned and fled back to the Negev.

In Ashdod today you can stand on the Ad Halom (“This Far”) Bridge. The Egyptian army got that far north and no farther.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai paid a terrible price—twenty-three of its members had died and all its buildings had been destroyed. But in the six days it held the Egyptian army at bay, Israel had built an air force which saved its largest city.

About six months later Israel retook Yad Mordechai. The farmers returned and rebuilt. Today, with more than 600 members, it is the largest producer of honey in the country.

Several Egyptian tanks still sit in its fields. Defensive trenches still rim one of its hills. The cast iron soldiers stand where once live soldiers fought. And visitors look at it all, listen to the recorded description of the battle, and learn about the sacrifices it took to make the country.

Location of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Gush Etzion, South of Jerusalem

The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967
The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967

When I was in Israel for the summer in 1962 with a group of other American high school juniors, we were taken to a hilltop a little south of Jerusalem. The guide waved his hand at the desolate hills before us and told us the history of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc. The Gush was group of four kibbutzim that had been attacked by the Arabs several months before the end of the British Mandate. In April 1948 they were short of ammunition and other supplies to defend themselves. They called on the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish underground army, for help. The Palmach sent thirty-five young men from Jerusalem to take supplies and armaments to the besieged settlements. They were ambushed by the Arabs, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

The kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was captured on Iyar 4 and all the defenders killed by the local Arab fighters. The defenders of the remaining three communities in the Gush held out another day, until the British Mandate ended. At that time, the Jordanian Legion took over the attack. The Jews, surrounded and out of ammunition, surrendered to the Legion, knowing that the Jordanian soldiers would not murder them. They spent the whole War for Independence in prisoner of war camps in Jordan.

The story of the fighters of Gush Etzion made a strong impression on me. As a teenager, I and my friends were sure that Israel had no hope of ever regaining these areas. Jews would never live there again.

Five years later the Gush was in Israeli hands.

I’ve been to the historical museum at Kfar Etzion twice. A few years ago it was located in a small nondescript building. Photos of the area during the mandate period and the reestablishment of the Kibbutz after 1967 hung on the walls. A short documentary film, mostly in black and white was screened. It reviewed of the history of the area. The land had originally been bought by a European Jew to be used for agricultural settlements. The first Kibbutz established on the site in 1935 failed because Arab attacks. The second settlement, Kibbutz Etzion, was established in 1943, and was starting to grow by 1948. Three other settlements were also established in the area before statehood was declared. All facts, lots of maps, no emotion. I came away knowing more about the Etzion Bloc, but not feeling more connected to it.

Last year a new historical museum opened. The same photos hang on walls throughout the modern multimedia center. But a new video features actors portraying some of the early residents and defenders of the kibbutz. We see them struggling to build the kibbutz, deciding to evacuate mothers and children, fighting until the last day. I knew what was going to happen in the last video—the kibbutz would fall to the Arabs. Even so, I sat there watching it with tears in my eyes, hoping for a different ending.

History doesn’t change just because you want it to. The film ends with the fall of Kfar Etzion. When the lights go on, the screen rises, and visitors are invited into the next room, where a large hole in the floor

Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. "And I said to you, In your blood you shall live." (Ezekiel 16:6)
Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. “And I said to you, In your blood you shall live.” (Ezekiel 16:6)

allows you to look into the bunker where the last defenders had held out. Yizkor plaques on the wall list the names of the residents of the kibbutz who had been murdered after they surrendered to the Arabs.

For nineteen years the area of Gush Etzion was part of Jordan. For nineteen years, every spring on the date the settlement fell to the Arabs, the survivors gathered on the hilltop just south of Jerusalem on which I had stood. The mothers and children who had been evacuated, all the widows and orphans, stood where they could see the top of the oak tree of Gush Etzion. They said the memorial prayers, many of them yearning to return to their former homes.

In June 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. Israel had spent the previous weeks begging King Hussein not to attack if (when) war between Egypt and Israel broke out. The King had agreed. But on the first day of the war, Egyptian President Nasser called King Hussein. He reported they were already winning. If Hussein didn’t attack Israel, Jordan would lose out when it came time to divide the spoils. So the Jordanian army attacked Jerusalem, and within a few days lost all of Judea and the Shomron.

The orphans of Kfar Etzion, led by 24-year old Hanan Porat, wanted to return to their homes south of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. The government had not yet decided how much of the territory to retain. But Hanan and his friends told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol they wanted to live in their old homes and pray where their parents had prayed. The Prime Minister gave them his blessing. Two days later the group of exiles from the Judean mountains returned to their home.

There wasn’t much to return to—the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings and uprooted most of the trees. But they rebuilt and replanted. More people joined them, and additional towns were established. Today, there are eighteen Jewish communities in the Gush.

I love driving through the area, looking at the towns and the lush farms. The soil and climate are perfect for wine grapes, and the neat rows of grape vines seem to stretch for miles. The quality of the grapes is reflected by the wines produced by several wineries.

Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut
Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut

The climate seems perfect for education as well. Numerous yeshivot have been established in the area. The oldest is Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, established in 1968. About 500 students in the Hesder program combine advanced religious studies with military service. Most of the larger communities in the Gush have a yeshiva– Beitar Illit, the largest town has 25 yeshivas of varying size.

Since the Oslo accords, the land in Judea, which includes Gush Etzion,  and the Shomron has been designated as Area A, B, and C. The Jews all live on land classified as Area C, which is under Israeli civilian administration and security. A sizable Arab population in Gush Etzion lives in Areas A and B. In Area A, civilian administration and all security are provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Area B, the PA provides civil administration and Israel is responsible for security.

These areas are like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Even with a good map the only way to tell which area you are driving through is by looking for subtle clues. For example, black water cisterns are seen on the roofs in Arab communities; the roofs of houses in Jewish communities have white solar water heaters instead. Cars with white or turquoise PA license plates can travel all the roads. Cars with yellow Israeli license plates can only drive in Areas B and C. Roads in Area A have big red signs notifying Israeli drivers that entrance is both illegal and dangerous to their lives.

In 1950, the Israeli government established a memorial day for those who had died in the struggle for the State. David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, insisted that Memorial Day be on Iyar 4, the day Kibbutz Etzion fell. Today the day before Independence Day is still observed as a memorial to those who fell in all of Israel’s wars, as well as for victims of terror.

Almost fifty years after I first heard the story of Gush Etzion, I can sit under the 700 year old oak tree in Alon Shvut, and hear the story again. Today it is a better story because it no longer ends with defeat and longing for return. Sitting under the tree, I can remember my feelings as a teenager, my wish that the defenders of the Gush had been successful. As I look around, at the stone houses, the large Yeshiva and Herzog College on the hill, the playground, the vineyards and fruit orchards on the once barren hills, I still cry. It feels incredible that so much life has developed in area that was once forbidden to us.

Where exactly is the Gush?

The Road to Jerusalem: Latrun

memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.
At the memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.

Near Latrun, just southwest of where Road 3 crosses Road 1, a small memorial overlooks a wide valley. The valley looks beautiful and peaceful under the warm late winter sun. The farmland in a dozen shades of green stretches to the Judean mountains where the Latrun Trappist Monastery and the old British Tegart fort can be plainly seen. This is the Ayalon Valley, whose long bloody history belies its pastoral sleepiness.

The Ayalon Valley is one of a very few east-west valleys in the region. Because it is wide and flat, in ancient times it linked two major trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its flat terrain also made it perfect for war. The Ayalon was where Egyptians fought Canaanites, the sun stood still for Joshua, the Maccabees fought their sixth battle against the Seleucids, the Byzantines fought the Arabs, the Arabs fought the Crusaders, and the British under General Allenby fought the Turks in World War I.

Here is where the nascent State of Israel fought the Jordanian Legion. Whoever held Latrun controlled the Ayalon Valley and the road to Jerusalem. Both sides recognized its crucial geography. The Haganah tried to capture Latrun from the Jordanian Legion, the best trained and equipped army in the Middle East, three times.

The first battle is probably the best known. The myth is that Israel sent untrained immigrants, just off the boat from European DP camps, to Latrun to die. The truth is much more complex.

New immigrants were given rifles, quickly trained, and sent to join the Haganah. But in the plans for battle, they were placed in the rear. In front of them were better trained fighters, men who had been in battle already. In front of those fighters, was G’dud (battalion) 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, the best trained most experienced fighters of the Haganah. Leading them was the best, most experienced officer, twenty year old Arik Scheinerman. A large force was assembled to capture the poorly manned fort in the middle of the night, May 26.

In war, as in other parts of life, things do not always go according to plan. The intelligence was not current. The Israelis did not know that in the previous few days the Jordanians had reinforced the garrison at Latrun. Instead of a few dozen soldiers, the attackers would face the fire of 2000 better trained better armed soldiers.

The other problem was timing. The Israelis wanted to attack at night because they needed to cross the large flat valley directly in front of the fort. To win, they needed the cover of darkness to surprise the defenders. However, instead of starting at 12 AM, they did not move until 4 AM, just before dawn started to light the valley. They had lost the element of surprise. Not unexpectedly, they lost the battle as well.

Arik Scheinerman, a young soldier in the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade
Arik Scheinerman as a young soldier in the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade (Getty Images)

Arik, the twenty year old commander leading the attack, was severely wounded in the abdomen early in the battle. As he lay there in the sun, he was sure he would die, with soldiers dying all around him, gave the order to retreat. For the only time in his career, he ordered that the wounded be left on the field. But one of his men decided to try to pull him to safety. They had to move slowly and carefully; they were under Jordanian fire, and Arab villagers were on the field killing the wounded and stripping them of anything of value. Numerous times during the next few hours, as the soldier slowly pulled the officer towards safety, Arik told him to go, to save himself. The soldier was as stubborn and brave as Arik was. It took hours, but both men made it to safety behind the Israeli lines.

Arik’s experience under the guns of Latrun reinforced his conviction never to leave wounded or dead soldiers behind. This has been one of the operating principles of the IDF up to today; they do not leave the wounded to die or be captured.

Even dead soldiers are used as bargaining chips by our enemies. Their bodies are held and returned for proper burial only in return for some advantage. In 1986, after Israel released over 1000 convicted terrorists in exchange for the body of a kidnapped soldier, a new protocol was developed. It stipulated that all efforts be made to rescue a kidnapped soldier, even at the risk of endangering his life. Kept secret until 2003, it has come to be known as the “Hannibal Protocol.” Because of events in recent wars against Hamas, the IDF is reconsidering the Hannibal Protocol. Soldiers lives have been lost and many enemy civilians have been killed in IDF efforts to bring home our kidnapped soldiers.

Hamas knows Israel will do all it can to get even dead bodies back.

During a cease fire in the summer of 2014 war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and two other officers were shot by Hamas gunmen in Rafah, Gaza. Hadar was pulled into a tunnel. One of Hadar’s men continued to follow the trail of blood into the tunnel to try to rescue him. When he realized his efforts were futile, he returned to his unit, bringing with him evidence of Hadar’s death. The IDF never announced what that evidence was, but it was enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Rabbinate to declare him dead.

Although the Goldin family sat shiva, said Kaddish, and observed the other rituals of mourning, they were not satisfied. Today, over a year and a half after his death, they are still pressuring the government to bring Hadar home for a proper burial. Hamas understands the lengths Israel will go to in order to bring her people home, alive or dead. Israel released over a thousand convicted terrorists to get Gilad Shalit released five years after his capture. Hamas wants a similar payment for Hadar Goldin’s lifeless body.

A few weeks later the Haganah became the Israel Defense Force. Arik Scheinerman became Arik Sharon. Known as a daring, clever, and at times insubordinate officer, he rose through the ranks. He eventually served as Chief of Staff and Prime Minister of Israel.

And Latrun?

Israel attacked it two more times. Both attempts were equally unsuccessful. It remained in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the siege of Jerusalem needed to be broken. Where Israeli might did not work, Jewish ingenuity did. In the midst of the war, with little heavy equipment, the Hganah built a new road through the impassable mountains. It was completed two days before the first ceasefire on June 9, 1948. Without this road, Jewish Jerusalem would have been choked off by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies, and forced to surrender.

The new road, ironically called the “Burma Road” after a British road similarly built during a war, under extreme conditions, supplied Jerusalem for the next five months. Then a good road, properly engineered and built opened. But the Burma Road remains. It is a monument to the hard work and sacrifice that went into the founding of the State.

Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948
Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948

As is the memorial across the Ayalon Valley from Latrun. Next to a pale stone arch that frames the valley battlefield is a stone pillar that lists the names of the members of G’dud 32 who died during the first battle of Latrun. Fifty eight names are listed here. Fifty-eight men from one unit—a shockingly high percentage. Over a thousand men were on the battlefield, and only seventy five were killed. G’dud 32 had been the best soldiers of the Haganah, the most experienced in battle, the bravest. The untrained fighters, the new immigrants, fought behind the Alexandroni and the other trained units and suffered relatively few casualties. G’dud 32 had borne the brunt of the battle, and they suffered accordingly.

Latrun would remain in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, for the next nineteen years. Yet the siege had been broken. New roads would be built, and Jerusalem would survive.

The Road to Jerusalem: Mishmar David

Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Dorps who gave their lives in service to Israel
Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Corps who gave their lives in service to Israel

Mishmar David is one of those places in Israel that I never knew about until a tour guide took me there. It was once of the key points in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948. Once Eitan Morell told its story, I wondered why I had never heard about it before.

Mishmar means guard, so Mishmar David is David’s Guardian. In this context, it refers to those who guard Jerusalem,the City of David. Atop the hill is the memorial to the Haganah Engineers and their successors, the IDF Engineering

IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)
IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)

Corps, who gave their lives protecting Jerusalem. It’s not too far from Road 1, at the top of one the hills that border the road, and marked by a few small brown directional signs. Basically, if you don’t know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. Yet this spot was critical during the time the British were preparing to leave mandatory Palestine and to the new nation of Israel.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem started months before the proclamation of the State. At the time Jerusalem was just a small city. It could have been classified as a Jewish outpost since it was surrounded by Arab towns. Those Arab towns not only surrounded the city, they also surrounded the road to it. Strategically, Jerusalem was worth little. It was distant from the population centers, surrounded by the Mountains of Judea, far from a good source of water. It had no decent airport nearby and didn’t even overlook any major road.

But psychologically, emotionally, it was worth everything. As the direction of Jewish prayers for millennia, as the focus of longing for a land of our own, Jerusalem was the heart of the nation. Without Jerusalem, there could be no Jewish nation.

Even the nonreligious David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and first prime minister of Israel, recognized this. Although he was determined to keep the Negev part of the new country, he pulled army units from the south to save Jerusalem.

Saving Jerusalem meant breaking the Arab blockade.

The first attempt to break the blockade was sending convoys carrying food, water, and weapons from Tel Aviv. Armored trucks and jeeps carried the supplies. The word “armored” is used loosely here. The vehicles were covered with thick boards, over which thin sheets of metal were attached. They offered a little protection against bullets. Worse, the “armor” made the vehicles much heavier, which slowed them down on the way up the steep roads through the Mountains of Judea on the way to Jerusalem.

The road wound up to Jerusalem along the valleys, through the mountains. Arab villages were located on almost all the hilltops, which made the slow-moving trucks easy targets. The truck drivers knew that their chance of getting through were not good. In every convoy, at least three, and maybe five or eight, drivers died. Nonetheless, as long as the Haganah was able to send supplies, men and women were willing to drive the vehicles.

On March 30, a large convoy gathered at Hulda to make its way to Jerusalem. Although winter was almost over, it was still the rainy season, and it rained. As the slow trucks passed Mishmar David, one after the other become bogged down in mud. The Arabs on the nearby hilltops saw, and attacked. They then looted what remained. Little of the valuable food or weapons arrived in the city, but the Arabs in the nearby villages were well armed and well fed for weeks.

Convoys continued to travel, Arabs continued to attack, and truck drivers continued to die, but a trickle of food reached the city.

Zipporah Porath, a young American who had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in the fall of 1947, described the convoys in one of her letters home that spring:

           “A convoy…generally sets out from Hulda or the outskirts of Tel Aviv                   with thirty, forty, or fifty trucks laden with hundreds of sacks of flour,             canned food, other staples and fruit—the city’s needs for less than a                   day—accompanied by a couple of armed escorts to “protect” it. Burdened             as they are, the trucks, which can’t travel faster than about ten miles an             hour, are perfect targets for a bloody massacre by the Arab bands that             lay in wait.

          “If the convoy is in luck, maybe fifteen or so of the trucks will make it to            Jerusalem. If they have ben waylaid by roadblocks, most of the trucks                will be knocked out of commission and block the way for the others, so                the whole shebang becomes sitting ducks for the Arab attackers and the            precious cargo is dislodged, scattered and looted. We’ve lost so many of              these armored trucks—along with their drivers and Haganah protectors—            that stocks are now almost nil. “ (Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, p.              135-136)

Jerusalem was kept going by the convoys for several weeks. The memorial at Mishmar David includes a map of the area as it was in March and April 1948(see below). The British camps are yellow, Arab villages are red, and the Jewish settlements, including Jerusalem, are blue.

Map of road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948 at Mishmar David, showing Arab (red) & Jewish towns (blue)
Map of the road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948

Looking at the map, I wondered how the city managed to remain in Israeli hands. Jerusalem’s rescue seems like the hand of G-d, working through the hands of the Engineering Corps and soldiers of the IDF. I’ll describe what they did later—it’s too long a story for one installment.

When I came to Israel in 1962, the destroyed trucks and jeeps still sat at the side of the road to Jerusalem. They were the rusted skeletons, left where they had been stopped as memorials to the brave men and women who had saved Jerusalem. Our guide told us that they would not be moved from the roadside where they sat because they were people’s graves. The visible deterioration and the rust that had accumulated in fourteen years contributed to their emotional impact.

The trucks still sit there today. You can see them as you travel Road 1 near Sha’ar Hagai. In the smallest national park in Israel, six old truck skeletons sit in the grassy median between the east bound and west bound lanes.

None of the trucks are exactly where they had been stopped by Arab bullets; they have been moved several times as the road was widened or straightened. Periodically, they are taken to the shop and given a coat of preservative paint, to keep them from rusting away to nothing. The pale green paint is not quite the color of old rust. The solidity and new look of the painted relics lacks the emotional impact of the old rust. Their smoothness covers up the destruction and deterioration beneath. Visitors who don’t know the history of the road probably think they are statues placed artistically along the road towards Sha’ar Hagai, not even identifying the location as the fearsome Bab al Wad. The urge to preserve them is understandable—they are the only physical evidence of the lives sacrificed to save Jerusalem, to keep it part of yet to be born Jewish state.

Nevertheless, I miss the rust.

To get there:

On the Road to Jerusalem: Hulda

"Defense and Labor" memorial sculpture by Batya Lishansky at Hulda
“Defense and Labor” memorial sculpture by Batya Lishansky at Hulda

All tour guides study the same curriculum and take the same tests to get their license. They all understand and convey how the topography of the land influenced history. They all have a mastery of the history of the land that I envy. But each one also has a special interest or develops a specialty. It is these specialties that make them stand out from each other. Eitan Morell tells stories that make the past come alive. As he takes groups to different places he slowly builds his story of seemingly unrelated events until it all comes together. He makes a convoluted history seem like a straight line.

He called a recent tour “Tales from the Road.” All that those of us who signed up for the Orthodox Union (OU) sponsored tour knew was that we were going to be staying fairly close to Jerusalem. Most of us had been on one of Eitan’s tours before, and we knew it would be interesting.

Our first stop was Ya’ar Hulda, Hulda’s Forest, less than a half hour outside the city. It’s not too far from where Road One, the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, crosses Road 3, one of the main east-west roads in the country. We would also visit Mishmar David, Latrun, and the Har-El monument. All the names were familiar to me, but aside from visiting the Tank Corps museum and monument at Latrun, I had never been to any of them. They are so close together, they would be a nice day’s hike for a youth group learning about the rise of the state and the battle for Jerusalem. However, the OU tours cater to a distinctively older clientele, and we traveled from site to site by bus.

At Hulda, we entered a large walled courtyard. This, Eitan informed us, was once an agricultural school. Founded in 1908, on land bought from the Arab landowner, it was a place for Jews from Europe to learn agricultural methods before going out to settle the land. Started two years before the founding of the first kibbutz, Hulda served as a model for both kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the land.

World War I severely stressed the whole Middle East. Shipments of food and money to Israel stopped. A drought at the beginning of the war resulted in food shortages. The 1915 locust plague demolished all that year’s crops. People starved all over the country. Most of the people at Hulda left, but a few hardy pioneers remained.

We had driven through a forest to get there, which is not unusual in the environs of Jerusalem. Today the Jerusalem forest forms a broad ring around the city, but in the early 20th century, no forest existed anywhere in the country. Israel’s forests are man-made, every tree planted by hand on land bought by the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) with money contributed by Jews all over the world. Scattered through those forests are trees I paid for as a child by collecting dimes from all the grown-ups I knew.

The JNF had planted its first forest of olive trees here, but because of the drought and other unsuitable conditions, most of those trees had died. Following the war, Hulda reestablished itself and by 1929 it was a thriving agricultural settlement. However, the dusty courtyard where we stood was at that time still surrounded by dusty hills.

Nothing happens in isolation. In Jerusalem, the ongoing dispute for power and influence between the Nashashibi and Husseini families was about to spill over and affect the rest of the country. At that time the Nashashibi family held political power—Rajib Nashashibi was mayor of Jerusalem. Haj Amin al Husseini was the mufti, the Muslim religious leader. He knew the way to gain power was to gather the people to him. The best way to do draw them together was to preach violence against the Jews, whose population had been steadily increasing. Husseini was a superb orator, and he knew how to use his skill. On Friday August 23, at services in Al Aksa mosque he promised that anyone who killed a Jew would go straight to paradise on his own death. He then continued, falsely claiming that the Jews planned to burn down Al Aksa, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. At the end of the service, the worshipers streamed out of the mosque, down from the Temple Mount, and out the Damascus Gate into the new city. They destroyed the neighborhoods of Nissim Bek and Eshel Avraham. As they approached the walls of Mea Shearim, Aaron Fishler pulled out his rifle and shot several times into the air. The unarmed mob dispersed.

The rioting spread from Jerusalem. Over the next few days, Arab mobs killed 67 Jews in Hevron, leaving mutilated corpses in looted houses. In Tsfat, the Arabs murdered 20 Jews, wounded 40, and looted and burned 200 houses. As a result of the rioting and looting, people fled from the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, Haifa, Acco (Acre), Nablus, and Gaza, never to return.

The residents of Hulda, a small settlement surrounded by Arab villages, realized they were in danger and appealed to the Haganah for help. The Haganah sent twenty fighters, led by Efraim Chisick. Some of these men could stay only one day.

Beit Herzl, where defenders of Hulda took shelter from Arab attack in 1929. The trees would have been about waist high then, little more than bushes.
Beit Herzl, where defenders of Hulda took shelter from Arab attack in 1929. The trees would have been about waist high then, little more than bushes.

When the Arabs attacked on September 4, the people at Hulda quickly realized the wall around their courtyard would not hold for long. One by one they crawled across the courtyard to the stone house, which was protected by an additional wall. Efraim covered them and would be the last to go. With no one to cover his retreat, he was killed by the Arabs only a few yards from the house. The 13 remaining Haganah fighters and the 24 residents of Hulda continued to defend themselves through the afternoon into the night.

Somehow word of the attack was relayed to the British army, who came and dispersed the Arabs. The soldiers said they had been sent only to rescue people; they refused to take Efraim’s body with them. He was left lying on the ground between the courtyard and the empty house.

A week later, the British allowed Efraim’s brother and sister to go to Hulda for a short time. Without shovels or other tools, they dug a grave with their hands and buried him just outside the courtyard.

Two years later the Chisick family built a memorial at the site of Efraim’s grave. The sculptor, Batya Lishansky, wanted to carve it from one large block of stone, but the stone was too large to move, and had to be cut in half horizontally. Nonetheless, it is impressive—over 12 feet high, and about 5 feet wide. It is called “Defense and Labor,” and depicts three people. The man at the top has his left arm outstretched, like a wing protecting the two people below. He has never been definitively identified, but is believed to be Benny Munter, one of the people who died nine years earlier defending Tel Hai in the north. The other man is Efraim Chisick and the third person is his sister, Sarah Chisick, who also died defending Tel Hai.

The agricultural school was abandoned for two years. When it was reopened, it thrived as a farm and a center of reforestation. But it was abandoned in 1937, when Kibbutz Hulda was founded nearby, on a hill better situated for agriculture.

Its location remained strategic. During the 1948 Arab siege of Jerusalem, the kibbutz served as the point from which convoys carrying food left to try to break the blockade of the city.

But that’s another story. One for another day.

The View from Ramat Rachel

Hypothetical Destruction, one of four sculptures at Ramat Rachel, Jerusalem, marking area of a building thought to have once stood there
Hypothetical Destruction, one of three sculptures at Ramat Rachel marking the corners of a building thought to have once stood there

If geography and topology give a place strategic importance in one era, they make it important in other eras as well. Once again, on a tour to see an ancient site, I saw this point demonstrated. This time my tour was part of a course on the Second Temple Period; the place was Ramat Rachel, in the southern part of Jerusalem.

A ramah is a high place, and at 818 meters above sea level, Ramat Rachel is this highest place for miles around. At one time it was halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Over several thousand years both cities grew, until today Ramat Rachel is within the southern borders of Jerusalem, less than two kilometers from the outskirts of Bethlehem. From one spot on the hilltop, you can see almost to the Dead Sea, and turning around, you can see, first, western Jerusalem, and further around, the Mount of Olives. It is obviously a strategic piece of real estate.

I’ve been there twice—both times the wind made it feel cooler than the lower surrounding areas. It may have been the cool breeze that led one of the last kings of Judah to build a palace here, but it was probably the height of the hill that brought the Roman Tenth Legion 800 years later.

Like most ancient sites, it has been excavated more than once. The first modern people to dig here were not doing so to uncover historical artifacts. They were members of the IDF digging trenches to fortify the border and protect themselves from the sight and the bullets of the Jordanian army. What they found piqued the interest of archeologists, but the site was too dangerous to excavate. During an archeological conference in 1956, a gathering on the hilltop drew the attention of Jordanian soldiers stationed nearby, who opened fire. Five people were killed, and fourteen more were wounded.

Nonetheless, archeologists were determined to explore the site, and Yohanon Aharoni dug here in the early 1960s. He uncovered remains of a huge palace, which he thought had been built by King Yehoyakim. After all, had not the Prophet Jeremiah railed against the King’s magnificent palace, which he was building? Jeremiah mentioned the fine dressed stones and “red stuff smeared on the windowsills.” One bit of evidence that this was indeed Yehoyakim’s palace came with the discovery of carefully cut stones that had remnants of red paint still clinging to them under the windows .

Gabi Barkai came to excavate here in the early 1980s. It was much safer for him and his team to dig here, since the surrounding area was now in Israeli hands. He found a lower layer of remains. In this layer, he found pottery jug handles with stamped with tax collectors’ seals from the time of King Hezekiah.So a palace may have stood on the site 100 years before Jeremiah’s complaints about Yehoyakim’s construction project.

The history Israeli archeology always includes the name of Yigal Yadin—he seems to have an opinion about every site excavated from the 1950s to the 1980s, and Ramat Rachel is no exception. After learning about an underground passage leading from the palace, Yadin concluded that this was the palace of Queen Athaliah of Judah. She seized power when her son, King Ahaziah, died, and cemented her hold on the throne by killing all the members of the royal family who might challenge her, including her sons and grandsons. It is easy to understand why she might have felt the need for an escape tunnel. However, Yadin’s theory is not generally accepted.

The question of whose palace these remains were part of remains open, but that is not the end of the story. Tons of pottery jug handles with the letters yud-heh-daldet on them had been found, and they did not fit in with what was already known. The letters spell Yehud, the Persian name for this province of their kingdom. The stamped jug handles are Persian tax stamps, from a few hundred years after the Kings of Judah reigned. Ramat Rachel’s ruins have yielded more of these Persian tax stamps than any other site. Indeed, the majority of Persian tax stamps found in the country were uncovered here. These artifacts did not fit the royal palace story.

Many water channels were found surrounding a platform, a platform too high to be natural. Between the channels were layers of imported garden soil. Obviously an elegant garden had been constructed on the site. The problem is that large elaborate gardens are not a native Israeli idea.

The discovery of these Babylonian/Persian style gardens, has led to further revision of thinking on the function of ancient Ramat Rachel. It is now surmised that Ramat Rachel may have been an ancient administrative center. Conquering nations usually wanted to increase the accessibility of their own administrators. Jerusalem was

Persian Proto Aeolian capital at kibbutz Ramat Rachel, Israel
Persian Proto Aeolian capital at kibbutz Ramat Rachel

surrounded by mountains higher than it was, and difficult to get to. Conquerors generally wanted to de-emphasize Jerusalem as a religious center, in an effort to get the native people to worship their gods and thus become assimilated into their own populations. There is no destruction layer in the ruins, so this site was probably never conquered in battle. A series of foreign governments, starting with the Assyrians, simply built their centers in a scenic spot outside what had been the Jewish capital. After the Assyrians, the Babylonians governed the land from this hill, and then the Persians did as well. Ramat Rachel is one of the few places in Israel where we can see remains of monumental Persian architecture.

When the Persians were succeeded by the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander the Great, all went well for a while. Then Antiochus Epiphanes made a mistake—he moved his center to Jerusalem and set up a statue of himself in the Temple. This latter action inspired Judah Maccabee to revolt. Judah’s victory, celebrated by the holiday of Chanukah, led to the Hasmonean period, the last Jewish kingdom. The Hasmoneans, in their anger over what Antiochus had done and wanting to wipe out all traces of foreign powers, dismantled the governmental structures at Ramat Rachel.

Later the Roman Tenth Legion would encamp here. During the Byzantine period, Christians built a monastery on the site because of its proximity to the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The hill remained insignificant until Jews, returning to the land, established Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in 1926.

A kibbutz is a communal agricultural settlement, unique to Israel. Although today this kibbutz is within the city boundaries of Jerusalem, when it was founded it was well outside the city. Those who lived and worked here were farmers. Because it has such a commanding view of the surrounding area, it was of strategic importance in the War of Independence.

The Egyptian and Jordanian armies rarely worked together, but in 1948 they both attacked Ramat Rachel. The battles fought here were intense. The Arabs captured it three times and Israel recaptured it each time. At one point, the defenders of the kibbutz saw Israeli soldiers approaching. Thinking they were about to be relieved, the defenders excitedly left their base in the dining hall, only to be fired on by their own army. The oncoming soldiers could not believe that Jews were still there, fighting to keep the land. When the armistice agreement was signed, Ramat Rachel remained in Israeli hands, almost completely surrounded by Jordan.

In 1967, at the behest of Egyptian President Nasser and encouraged by false reports of Egyptian victories, the Jordanians launched an assault on Jerusalem by attacking Ramat Rachel and the nearby UN headquarters. Under attack from Jordan, Israel fought back, regaining territory it had lost in 1948.

Since then, Ramat Rachel has thrived. It is no longer strictly agricultural. It still owns some cherry orchards but it has sold much of its land to real estate developers. Most kibbutz members today earn their living working in the Ramat Rachel Hotel or country club, or in hi-tech.

A lookout point, designed by the sculptor Ron Morin, sits on top of an old IDF fortification. From the top, you can see all of Jerusalem in front of you. Because of the distance from the Old City, it was obvious why King David wrote “Jerusalem, the mountains surround her.” Shulie Miskin, our guide, had to point out the golden Dome of the Rock, which seem nestled within the surrounding mountains like a bright bird’s egg tucked into its nest.

Ramat Rachel is a popular site for social events because of its scenic location. On my visit, a photographer was busy taking wedding pictures. He directed the participants to move just a little, to turn this way or that, until he had the perfect setup. As we left the lookout point, I looked back. The bride was standing near the edge, the blue and lavender hills in the background, her veil romantically floating behind her in the breeze. I treasure that picture in my mind. It is a reminder that even in difficult times, peace is possible.

Location of Ramat Rachel

Castel: Key to the Siege of Jerusalem

To break the siege of Jerusalem, it was necessary to hold the Castel which looked down over the main road to the city
From Castel, looking down on Road 1 to Jerusalem

From the Castel fortress, you look down on Road 1, the main route from the coast to Jerusalem. For centuries, this was the only road to Jerusalem. It threaded through Sha’ar HaGai, in Arabic Bab al Wad, the Gate to the Valley, and it led through the Judean Mountains to Jerusalem. Whoever controlled this road, controlled access to Jerusalem.

That’s why the Romans and the Crusaders built fortresses here. That’s why it was so hotly contested in 1948, it changed hands three times.

At the Castel National Park, we climbed to the top of the hill to see the remains of the fortress. A topographical map of the route to Jerusalem sits in the what was once the center of the fortress. Standing there, we looked down at the map, and then at the hills around us. The significance of the 1948 battles in this area for control of the road to Jerusalem became obvious.

Arab villages occupied most of the hilltops between Castel and Jerusalem. It was easy to put the city under siege. When the Arabs attacked single trucks travelling to the city, the Jews started sending convoys through to Jerusalem. But word would go out that a Jewish convoy was bringing supplies—water, food, maybe ammunition—to the city. The Arab farmers would gather above the road and ambush the convoys. The road was steep and the trucks were very heavy. They traveled up the road very slowly. They were easy targets. Their makeshift armor—a thick panel of wood sandwiched between two layers of metal—was the best the Jews could do, but it did not offer enough protection. Few convoys made it through. The Palmach fighters driving the trucks or acting guards either burned to death in their vehicles or were shot as they got out. And in the meantime, residents of Jerusalem starved.

The British, however, were able to keep their personnel in Jerusalem well supplied with water, food, and munitions. British trucks drove through Bab al Wad and up to the city unscathed.

In late March Ben Gurion changed the paradigm. Instead of simply reacting to Arab attacks, the Jews would act. He appointed Yigal Yadin chief of the armed forces, which at the time were volunteers organized as the Haganah and the Palmach. One of his first objectives was to capture the heights north and south of the road to Jerusalem.

Castel at the time was held by Arab fighters under the command of Fawzi al Kaluchi; the commander of all Arab forces in the area was Abd Elkadir El Husseini . Although Castel had been manned by less than 60 Arabs earlier in the spring, by the end of March it was occupied by 120 well trained fighters. Thus, when the Jews attacked on the night of April 1, they met unexpected resistance. The fighting was fierce, but at the cost of 37 lives, the Haganah captured the fortress and occupied it. Al Husseini counterattacked and was repelled.

The next day, a Haganah sentry became suspicious when he saw three Arab men approaching. After a few minutes, he fired at them. One of the men fell, the other two ran away. The sentry had killed Abd Elkadir El Husseini.

Rumors quickly spread through the local villages that Jews had captured al-Husseini and were holding him hostage. Thousands of Arab villagers attacked the stronghold. The Haganah was ordered to retreat to the west. The order, which set a policy that is still in operation in the IDF today, was for the soldiers to withdraw while the commanders provided covering fire. In the subsequent fighting, 39 Jews died. The Arabs once again held Castel.

But it was too important to leave in the hands of the enemy.

On April 9, the Palmach again attacked Castel. They met no resistance—the fortress was empty. All the local Arabs were at al-Husseini’s funeral.

The next day a huge convoy made its way through Bab al-Wad to Jerusalem.

But the struggle was not yet over. The Jews did not hold enough of the high points to guarantee safe passage along the road all the way to Jerusalem. They needed to find a new route through the mountains.

There are several versions of the story. A soldier from Jerusalem followed some old trails to go home one night. Two soldiers walked to Tel Aviv to see their girlfriends, blazing their own trail. Someone who had spent many years as a shepherd in the hills remembered the paths along which he had taken the sheep. Several officers in a jeep explored an old path called the “Gazelles Route.” The truth about the discovery of the route is not important; what happened next is.

By now, the British had withdrawn and the State of Israel had been proclaimed. The sporadic fighting between the Arabs and Jews had turned into the Israeli War of Independence.

The military and a civilian construction company widened the track through the mountains, and built a road. The Jordan Legion at Latrun could see something was going on, and fired in the direction of the work. But because of the intervening mountains, they could not see their targets and they fired blindly. Although they did kill a few workers, they could not stop the road construction.

The road grade varied from steep to extremely steep, and twisted around many curves. Even before the new road was completely paved, it was used to bring supplies to besieged Jerusalem. At first, donkeys and porters carried munitions and food over four kilometers of the road-under-construction. Paving the road was completed on June 11, the day that the first ceasefire of the War of Independence began. Remembering how the British had built a road from Burma to China during the recently ended World War, it was dubbed the Burma Road.

In order to keep and use this new road once the cease fire started, the Israelis had to prove it had been built before the cease fire started. On June 14, the UN inspectors reported the road was completely paved and vehicles were driving its full length. The Burma Road became the main route to Jerusalem for the next nineteen years.

Today, although the main road to Jerusalem from the west still runs below Castel, there are other roads as well. But as we travel Road 1 through Bab al Wad, which we now call by its Hebrew name Sha’ar HaGai, we see the carcasses of old trucks and jeeps by the side of the road. The Israelis left the remains of several convoys where they had burned in 1948. These vehicles were the graves of brave men and women. Today the metal skeletons of the vehicles stand as a memorial to those who died attempting to relieve the siege of Jerusalem. Periodically, the National Parks department repaints them so they do not rust away to nothing. Carcasses of trucks destroyed by Arabs while trying to relieve the siege of Jerusalem, April 1948

 

I look for them every time I travel Road 1, and remember the sacrifices made to gain our people a home.

Map shows Castel and Road 1 to Jerusalem–the dashed line shows the 1948 armistice line, often referred to as the Green Line. Mount Herzl and Har Hotzvim are within Jerusalem