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

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