Once more we traveled to Jerusalem for today’s tour, with the focus on the city as part of the wars of 1948 (when it was split) and 1967 (when it was unified).
Our day began at the Greek Orthodox monastery of San Simon. This is believed to be the site of the home of Saint Simeon, the priest who performs the redemption ceremony for Jesus as described in the Gospel of Luke, and prophesies his future greatness.
Of more relevance to today’s visit, we learned that this was the site of a major battle in the 1948 war. There were four concentrations of Jews in south Jerusalem at the time: Ramat Rachel kibbutz, Mekor Haim, Talpiot and Arnona. The control of the Katamon neighbourhood around the monastery by the Arabs meant that these neighbourhoods were cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem and effectively under siege. Taking Katamon would enable Jewish control of the whole western part of the city.
The battle, which took place in April 1948, was long and ferocious. Ninety percent of the Israeli force was wounded, several mortally so. At one point they were about to give up and withdraw, but the Arab force beat them to it. Through stoicism, heroism and quite a bit of luck (these themes repeated themselves throughout the war), the battle was won and the southern Jewish neighbourhoods had their siege lifted.
We continued south to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, where the relief was short-lived. Only a few days after the Battle of San Simon the kibbutz was surrounded by Jordanian and Egyptian troops and subjected to an immense bombardment. The kibbutz members held on bravely for three days but eventually had to evacuate. Israel did not want to give up the kibbutz, and the battle continued, with the site changing hands three times before eventually being held by the Israeli troops.
While at Ramat Rachel, we also explored the archaeological excavations. Researchers have discovered remains of a vast palace complex from the 8th century BCE (the First Temple Period) including impressive irrigated gardens. The site continued to be an important administrative centre into the 3rd century BCE.
On route to our final stop for the day, we drove along parts of the ‘City Line’, the border between Israel and Jordan for 19 years between 1948 and 1967. It is crazy to think that there was a physical border fence along the middle of the city for so long. Although it was mostly quiet, every now and again Jordanian snipers would shoot over the fence causing several Israeli deaths and even more injuries.
Our last site was at Ammunition Hill, the memorial site for all soldiers who died in the battle for Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. There was an excellent film here about the battle for the city; the capture of the Old City was a very emotional moment for Israelis and Jews around the world, having been forbidden entry to their holiest site for 19 years, and the film conveyed this well.
Ammunition Hill was the site of a particularly difficult battle as the Israeli troops pushed east in an attempt to reach Mount Scopus, which had been an Israeli enclave within Jordanian territory since 1948. An intelligence error meant that the Israeli force was underprepared and under-resourced; after a gruelling 4 and a half hour battle over a very small area, and many lives lost, the hill was taken, paving the way for the eventual capture of the whole city.
With this, our series of tours focused on Israel’s wars has come to a close, together with the accompanying tragic stories of promising young lives cut short and remarkable bravery. In 2014, it is so easy to take Israel’s existence for granted; these tours have served as a reminder as to how close it came to extinction on so many occasions. Truly an extraordinary tale.