Most people think that the War of Independence began on May 14, 1948 when Israel was declared a state. Not so. In fact, the first shots of the war were fired half a year earlier, the day after the United Nations passed a resolution dividing Palestine into one Arab and one Jewish State.
Palestine’s Arabs were violently opposed to the resolution and launched an assault less than 24 hours after it was approved. Utilizing methods with which we are all too familiar today, a band of Arab terrorists ambushed and killed seven Jews traveling by bus to Jerusalem.
For the next four months local and imported Arabs ran riot in Jewish neighborhoods and cities; they also tried to capture settlements around the country. But most of the Arab effort was focused on Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish people.
Since conquering Jerusalem with its 100,000 Jewish inhabitants would be difficult, the Arab command decided to lay siege to the city instead. And it proved rather an easy task, for while Jerusalem’s Arab residents had access to villages and towns north, south and west of the Holy City, Jewish inhabitants were isolated from the other Jewish communities and were completely dependent on the coastal cities for water, food and fuel.
Jerusalem was supplied by way of one main artery: the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Today a major highway, 54 years ago it was a narrow, single lane surrounded on both sides by the steep Jerusalem hills. To prevent supplies from reaching the city, Arab villagers would shoot at Jewish vehicles from above, killing drivers and passengers alike.
Another technique was even more lethal: when the Arabs spotted a convoy coming towards the hills they would run down the slopes, place a huge boulder across its narrow lane and hide among the trees. The driver would stop to clear the road, and the vehicles behind him were forced to wait. That’s when the Arabs would attack — sometimes with explosives — and indiscriminately massacre everyone in sight.
While there were dozens of fortified heights from which Arab assailants could attack the road during the war of Independence, the most vicious were launched from the Kastel.
Located a few kilometers outside of Jerusalem, the Kastel is an impressively steep hill that towered over the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Because it commanded the road, it was fortified by both the ancient Romans and the Crusaders. During the War of Independence terrorists used the Arab village spread out along its slopes as a base from which to attack Jewish vehicles. Today the Kastel is a National Park that has been restored as a memorial to the soldiers who fell during its bloody battles.
To fully comprehend the Kastel’s significance, it is important to understand the extent of the siege of Jerusalem. Desperate to get through, supply vehicles began traveling in convoys accompanied by armored guards – despite the British prohibition against Jews carrying weapons. When this didn’t do the trick, buses and trucks were covered with a strange “sandwich”: two steep plates surrounding a wooden board.
Unfortunately, when the cumbersome lead vehicles changed gears to begin their slow ascent to Jerusalem, the cars behind were forced to creep along at a snail’s pace. And they all formed the perfect enemy target.
By the first of April, Jerusalem had completely run out of water and the population was reduced to eating plants. Finally, and although long accustomed to thinking in terms of restraint and self-defense, Jewish leaders decided it was essential to assume control of the roads. For the first time in Jewish-Arab history, the Jews would go on the offensive and capture hostile Arab settlements. And the operation’s very first target was the Kastel.
Palmach commandos were charged with conquering the hostile Arab village. It was ominously quiet as they moved stealthily up the rocky slopes in the dead of night. To their surprise, the village was nearly empty. They met with little resistance, and the remaining villagers took to their heels…
When word of the Kastel’s fall reached Arab leaders, they ordered commander Abed el-Kader El-Husseini to take it back. Thousands of Arabs answered el-Kader’s call to arms, for the charismatic El-Husseini was adored by the masses. With any weapon they could get their hands on — knives, clubs, rifles, guns and explosives — they swarmed up the hill in wave after wave, pinning the Jews down for the next five days.
Rain poured unceasingly as the small group of Jewish defenders who had relieved the commandos ran out of food and ammunition. Reinforcements failed to arrive, and their fatigue was intense. Positions at the Kastel were constantly changing hands in frequent bloody battles.
On April 8, 1948, during a sudden late-night lull, two guards spotted three figures walking up the slopes. Certain that these were the longed-for reinforcements and supplies, the guards shouted “come on up!” Then they heard one of the newcomers call out, in English, “Hello boys! Hands up!” Now aware that the three were Arabs, one of the guards pulled his trigger. Two of the Arabs fled, but a lucky bullet scored a direct hit on the third.
An hour or so later, a soldier listening to Arabic radio broadcasts heard the phrase “the bird fell in the cage” repeated over and over again. He had no idea what it meant, but later in the morning a massive number of Arabs rushed the slopes of the Kastel. In the worst battle for the site so far, Jewish forces faced a colossal barrage of fire on three different fronts.
It turned out that the “bird” who the bullet had cut down was El-Husseini himself. His Arab admirers, who revered him as a demi-god and thought that he had been captured, had turned out en mass to get him back – dead or alive.
Soon the ammunition was gone, and some soldiers were so tired they fell asleep at their posts despite the noise. Emergency reinforcements were sent to Kastel, but nothing could hold back the hordes of raging Arabs. Retreat was the only option; even so, many of the soldiers and almost all of the commanders were killed in battle. The Arabs recaptured the Kastel.
Palmach commandos were sent back before dawn on the very next day. Prepared for a heavy and bitter fight, they were shocked to find only a few people left on the hill.
Once they had gotten their hands on El-Husseini’s body, the Arabs had left the Kastel and gone off to his funeral. The siege of Jerusalem was finally lifted. And soon a convoy of 235 vehicles packed with supplies ascended safely to the Holy City.
To reach the top of the hill, visitors to Kastel National Park climb a dirt path lined on all sides with an unlandscaped, natural wilderness of wild grasses and spring wildflowers in a multitude of colors. Part of the time you can ascend through extensive bunkers and trenches prepared in the early sixties by the Israeli army as a preventive measure, for until the Six-Day War in 1967 the Jordanian border was only a few kilometers away.
Ruins of the village chieftain’s house, built on Crusader foundations, still remain on the peak of the hill. From there, and atop a lovely memorial lookout, the view is astounding. Along with dozens of modern-day Jewish neighborhoods and villages, you can see clearly how easy it was to shoot at vehicles on the highway below.
The park is open seven days a week, and free on Fridays and Saturdays (also on Independence Day, with guided tours in Hebrew). Within a few months the all-Hebrew signs will be replaced with new tri-lingual ones and brochures in English will be available. Details on hours and directions at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority site.
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.