BEERSHEBA (AFP) — Israeli, Australian and New Zealand leaders gathered in southern Israel on Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of a key cavalry charge that helped clear the way to Jerusalem during World War I.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was joined by his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand Governor-General Patsy Reddy in Beersheba, where the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) defeated Ottoman troops to gain control of a strategic crossroads.
Netanyahu hailed the battle as eventually helping lead to the creation of the state of Israel.
“Nearly 4,000 years ago Abraham came to Beersheba, the city of seven wells,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony, held in the city’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
“Exactly 100 years ago brave ANZAC soldiers liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to reenter the stage of history,” Netanyahu said.
“Israel salutes the sacrifice of these brave soldiers. We will never forget them. We will forever honor and treasure their memory.”
To Australians, “the battle has become part of our history, part of our psyche,” Turnbull said.
The audacious assault on entrenched Ottoman forces enabled the British advance into Palestine and “secured the victory that did not create the state of Israel, but enabled its creation,” Turnbull said.
“Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words,” the Australian premier said.
Britain’s Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, said it viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
New Zealand’s Reddy said the battle “changed political conditions in this region in the most profound way.”
‘That’s pretty special’
Organizers said 3,000 tourists from Australia and New Zealand came for the ceremonies, which saw the normally tranquil Beersheba, dubbed the capital of the Negev desert region, astir with dignitaries, security forces and media.
Kindergarteners holding small plastic Israeli flags were led into the ceremonies by chipper teachers, as teenagers in white shirts waited to pass security to enter the dedication of the nearby ANZAC museum.
Yair Nagid, head of Beersheba municipality’s cultural administration, said that 1,200 of the city’s pupils were attending the events.
Beersheba resident Hedva Chadad had not heard of the historic battle, but knew her two grandchildren would enjoy seeing the 100-horse march down Beersheba’s main Ha’atzma’ut Street by volunteer Australian riders in period uniform.
Speaking as she waited for the march with her grandchildren, Chadad said was not bothered by the roads leading to and from the cemetery being congested and partly closed.
“I think it’s very nice, what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s only once in a blue moon that this kind of thing happens.”
To Australian David Shipp, the ceremonies were the highlight of a tour his family was on, supported in part by his church and in honor of his history buff father’s 60th birthday.
The Beersheba battle was becoming “a bigger deal” to Australians than the one fought in World War I in Gallipoli, the 33-year-old Queensland resident said, in part because of the good ties between Israel and Australia.
New Zealander Tim Moore was visiting as part of a group of 200 people, some of them riding in the march.
The 65-year-old sheep and cattle farmer’s grandfather had participated in the Palestine campaign, and Moore had replicated a picture his grandfather took at the train station in Amman before arriving in Israel.
“That’s pretty special,” he said.
The riders were to stage a reenactment of the charge later Tuesday.