Less than 24 hours after the United Nations agreed on a plan to partition Palestine on November 29,1947, Arabs fired the first shots in the War of Independence and killed seven Jews. From that time on, much of the Arab effort was focused on Jerusalem: The Arabs cut off the only route by which Jewish residents received food, water, medicine and weapons and thus placed the city under siege. And it was up to Jewish soldiers to set her free.
The Palmach was the elite pre-State striking force of the Haganah, the Jews’ military organization in Palestine. Although poorly armed, and with only about 2,000 fighters, the Palmach operated all over the country, intent on capturing enemy outposts and liberating roads.
On April 16, 1948, the Palmach formed the Harel Brigade, consisting of battalions who had already seen combat in the Jerusalem Hills. Their mission: to keep the road to Jerusalem open so food, medicine, and weapons could reach the besieged city.
Stirring and creative monuments to the soldiers of the Harel Brigade who gave their lives so that the Jewish State could become a reality are found throughout the Jerusalem Hills. They range from striking sculptures to wonderful parks and unique cemeteries; from memorials commemorating the deeds of one fallen hero to monuments (called andartas in Israel) dedicated to entire battalions and brigades. Here are just a few:
Sha’ar Hagai Lookout
Today a multi-lane highway runs between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But in 1948, the narrow, winding road to Jerusalem ran beneath hills alive with hostile Arabs.
Located near Moshav Beit Meir, off Highway 38, the Sha’ar Hagai Lookout offers a stupendous view of the road below, and makes it easy to see how anyone holding this position could stop its traffic. Signs at the site relate stories of the campaigns carried out by Harel’s 5th Battalion. Also at the lookout is a large memorial for North Americans killed in battle and terrorist actions.
Yisrael “Zuziya” Shapira was born in Russia and, as a youth, was exiled to Siberia because of his connections with the Zionist movement. When released four years later, he made it to British-controlled Palestine and joined Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim.
During World War II he fought in Britain’s Jewish Brigade and afterwards was instrumental in bringing refugees to Palestine. When Jerusalem came under siege in 1948, he drove convoys with supplies on their dangerous journey to Jerusalem.
In May 1948, as the Jordanian legion advanced towards Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha and Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, he was sent to the Sanatorium Outpost in the Judean Hills to help ward off the Arab invasion. Shells were penetrating the three-story cement fortifications with ease, and Shapira commanded his soldiers to take immediate cover.
He himself stayed outside spotting the enemy for his snipers. Not long afterwards, he was hit by a fatal shell.
A metal Torah scroll stands at the entrance to the Gazelle Monument, erected in 1979 by Shapira’s son Michael with the help of the Jewish National Fund in the forest east of Ma’ale Hahamisha. It is inscribed with a biblical passage seen often in memorials to Israel’s heroic sons and daughters: “The beauty (in Hebrew – zvi, which means gazelle) of Israel is slain upon your heights: how are the mighty fallen! [2 Samuel 1:19].
The monument itself is an enormous metal gazelle that weighs over a ton. Perched on the roof of the former outpost, it practically beckons visitors to leave the forest trail and clamber up to the top for a fabulous view of the Judean Hills.
As he neared Jerusalem during World War I, General Allenby captured a strategic hill 880 meters above sea level. During the next world war, the British erected a radar station on the hill for spotting enemy planes. When they left Palestine a few years later, the British handed Radar Hill over to the Jordanian Legion.
Despite dozens of desperate attempts by the Harel Brigade during the War of Independence, and many casualties, Israel couldn’t gain control of Radar Hill. It was finally taken on June 5th, 1967, during the Six-Day War.
Developed by the JNF, and located inside the community of Har Adar, Radar Hill is the central monument to soldiers of the Harel Brigade who fell in Israel’s wars. Visitors can explore bunkers and tanks, or climb the tower for a marvelous view of the countryside.
January, 1948. The war is in its second month and soldiers from the army in a country which is not yet a State are falling in battle. The first Palmach soldier to be buried at Kiryat Anavim is hastily laid to rest in a dry riverbed next to the local cemetery. He is quickly joined by others, most of them from the Harel Brigade. Casualties mount at such an alarming pace that graves are dug for fallen troops even before they set out for the battlefield.
Kiryat Anavim, where Harel was based, boasts the only cemetery in the country dedicated to fallen soldiers from one specific brigade. At the far end of this unusual burial ground stands a striking tribute to the Brigade that, from the side, resembles both a lion at rest — and a rifle at the ready. The late artist Menahem Shemi designed the monument; his son is buried here with his comrades at arms.
Large numbers of soldiers who served in the newly formed Israeli army during the War of Independence were Holocaust survivors for whom the land of their forefathers was the final refuge. Barely off the ship before they were drafted into the army (or insisted on joining up), many had never held a gun in their hands and knew little, if any, Hebrew.
One of those survivor/soldiers was Benny Bearale, killed at the battle for Katamon in Jerusalem and buried at the Kiryat Anavim military cemetery. His tombstone is almost empty – inscribed only with his name, the place where he fell, and the date on which it occurred (May 1, 1948). He had arrived on a ship the week before, and his comrades knew little about him. Was his name really Benny Bearale? Or was Bearale his nickname? No one will never know.
If you want more specific directions on how to reach these sites, call the JNF hotline at 1800 350 550.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.