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The armored cars which served to bring supplies to besieged Jerusalem

Bab el Wad and the Siege of Jerusalem

Bab el Wad - In Sadness and Glory

The one who will walk on the way we had been treading, would never forget us, we the Bab al-wad

Haim Guri, 1949, translation Orit Adar

This post is divided in two – this part gives the historical background for the battles of Bab el Wad. The second is dedicated to Khan Shaar Hagai Heritage and Memorial Center, built in commemoration of those extraordinary times

Bab el Wad, Sha'ar Hagai - Then and Now

Few of the drivers buzzing on the high-traffic Road 1 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv give a thought or pay tribute to the heroic fighters who made it all possible in the battles of 1948.

Bab al-Wad 1917Sha’ar Hagai 1917 (Source::Wikipedia)

Road number 1 at Bab el WadSha’ar Hagai, 2019 (Source: Kipa)

Out of sight,out of mind?

In the past,old, red, rusty armored vehicles featured prominently and proudly along road 1 at Bab-el-Wad, also known as Sha’ar Hagai. Sighting them brought up images of the tragic heroic end they came to on their way to save besieged Jerusalem, and of the hard-won ultimate victory.

Sadly, as iron prices worldwide soared, criminals dismantled some of the vehicles for the metal. Eventually, those remaining were repainted (a dull, ugly grey) and moved out of sight away from the gushing traffic 

The recently established Khan Sha’ar Hagai Heritage and Memorial Center attempts to do justice by these historical vehicles which played such an instrumental role in the establishment of the State, and by the undaunted brave men and women who rode them.

The presentation is suitable for all ages, and serves to remind us Israelis and others, that nothing in this country can be taken for granted.

   Bab el Wad - The damaged armored vehicles from 48 Bab el Wad convoys - forever remember our names    In the week preceding Independence Day, the old armored vehicles (meshoryanim) are enwrapped in Israeli flags.

Jerusalem Under Siege and the Spirit of 48

The Jewish population of Jerusalem 

Since the middle of the 19th century, Jews comprised a majority in Jerusalem. The community was fondly referred to as “The Yishuv Yashan.”, or the Old Settlement, and was largely religious and traditional. The non-homogeneous population was sub-divided into Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, who were even loathe to intermarry. My paternal great grandparents migrated from Lithuania to the Holy Land to live with the Ashkenazi community at the last quarter of the 19th century. 

However, patterns of immigration (aliya) and settlement at this period veered towards the Kibbutzim and the new towns at the center. In consequence, the percentage of Jerusalemites out of the general Jewish population dropped from 50% in 1936 to 16% by1948. Nonetheless, some new immigrants still kept coming to Jerusalem in that period, and formed the nucleus of what is now the dwindling secular sector of the city. An intellectual community gravitated towards the newly-built Hebrew University. My maternal grandfather and my father were part and parcel of that community.

The siege – water buckets, mallow leaves and wooden radios  

Immediately after approval of the November 1947 UN partition resolution, Arab militias started a partial siege of Jerusalem, which developed into a full siege as the war progressed. Supplies were prevented from reaching the city by blocking and ambushing all roads connecting Jerusalem to the rest of the country.

At the peak of that period, which lasted for about three months, the 100,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem were isolated from the rest of the Yishuv, or Jewish settlement, in the country. The blockade brought the residents to the brink of starvation. Defenders were desperate for arms and ammunition, while the Trans-Jordanian Arab Legion was well-equipped and trained by the British. The situation worsened when the Legion cut off the water supply to the city.  

How to live on 10 liters of water

Following are suggestions how to use the quota of 10 liters of water a day per person:

Instructions included burning paper after use in toilet to diminish water expenditure, wiping dishes with paper, steaming instead of cooking, reusing all dirty water for flushing, filtering water through cotton wool. Strict food rationing was enacted as well, and residents resorted to going out to the fields to collect mallow leaves for their nutrition. Jordanians  picked up Jewish radio broadcasts with instructions for cooking mallow, and assumed that Jerusalemites were dying of starvation and would soon surrender.

Jerusalem Under Siege - Some Personal Accounts

Seeing the current assault on Ukraine, and in particular the siege on Mariupol and other cities, I can’t help thinking and comparing. When my mom and sister lived under the Arab siege, and 100,000 Jewish people were surrounded, shelled, starved and their water supply cut, no outsiders came to their aid. No Red Cross, no “international community”, no “foreign legion”, no fund raising. Their redemption came through the efforts of our own people alone. It also goes without saying that the British made a major contribution to this deteriorated situation in the first place.

My family in besieged Jerusalem

My older sister, who was born in 1944, recounts: 

Kiryat Moshe

I was four years old during the siege of Jerusalem. Father was in the army. Me and mom lived in a small apartment in Kiryat Moshe. The neighborhood faced the Arab village of Dir Yassin, from which we were shelled throughout that period. The building in which we lived did not have a shelter, so when shelling began, we would run down to a neighbors’ family on the ground floor. The entrance hall to their apartment was covered in mattresses, where all the building’s residents and children slept crowded together.

In the trunk of a car

I do not recall any fear, except for one traumatic event. During one of the many shelling episodes, my grandmother, who lived in Beit Hakerem (another neighborhood, which had not been shelled) had a neighbor, who was a signaler for the Hagana. Due to his job he had access to a a vehicle, and grandma asked him to transfer me and my mom from our house in Kiryat Moshe to her house. It was all done hastily and under bombardment.
I was shoved, without warning or explanation, into the trunk of the car, and the lid was closed over me. I remember lying there curled up and squeezed in total darkness. The fear was not from the explosions, but that I would be forgotten there.

The Tzena (austerity)

During the siege, and much afterwards throughout the “period of austerity” (Tzena), everything was budgeted, and water above all. Once in a while, a car or a wagon with horse would pass down the street and deliver water. People would come from their apartments with pots or buckets and the line for water would snake along the street. We were lucky to have a neighbor who owned some chickens. He gave us a few eggs once in a while.   
The only electrical  instrument in the houses at that time, except for light bulbs, was the radio, which was very big and stationed on a special table. It was made of wood, and the loudspeaker was covered in cloth. The broadcasting service would deliver the news three times a day, and all household members would crowd around it to get the updates.
I add that on these radios the country heard of the decision of the UN on November 29th in real time. Right after the spontaneous dancing, the war, and the siege, began.

The War Over the City

The battles for Jerusalem

The local Arabs started attacking the Jewish population right after the  United Nations decision on November 29th, 1947 to partition the land. The battles over Jerusalem and the villages around it were the fiercest of the Independence War, and not all of them were won. Notable failures were the attempts to take the Old City, or even just to salvage the Jewish Quarter. 

Following the Declaration of Independence on May 14th, 1948, the surrounding Arab countries and all the way to Iraq, attacked the nascent state. In particular, the Jordanian Legion was a major challenge to the Jewish forces trying to protect the city. The Legion has received elite British training, and some of its units were even commanded by Brits. Moreover, Egyptian forces attacked from the south.

I personally do not believe these ventures by Arab countries were carried out in good faith on behalf of the Palestinians. More likely than not, they were imperialistic attempts to take over the land for themselves and split it, or later fight among themselves over its control. They would not have established a “Palestinian state”.

There is no need here to delve into the details of the various battles in and over and around the city. Our current topic is the lengthy war over the western road to Jerusalem. However, in that context it must be mentioned that all roads to Jerusalem and environs were attacked, including the roads to Gush Etzion, Neve Ya’akov, Atarot and the road to Mount Scopus.

Bab el Wad - Blockading the Road to Jerusalem

During the siege, the larger Jewish population elsewhere, mostly those living on the coast, took it upon itself to “save the city”.  David Ben Gurion, who saw the paramount importance of Jerusalem, presided over this effort and commanded it, It is notorious that both civilians and combatants participated in the convoys bringing supplies to the city at a huge risk to their lives.

Blockading Bab el Wad

The narrow Bab-el Wad ravine, the bottleneck of the road to Jerusalem, was surrounded by Arab villages on both sides of the hills, effectively commanding the passage. On April 20, 1948, Arabs captured the heights around Sha’ar HaGai, making the complete closure of the road effective. British-trained Arab Legion soldiers, assisted by British officers and by Egyptians militaries, joined local militias in enforcing the blockade.   

The Legion took up a strategically superior position at the Latrun Monastery and at the police fortress. Fierce battles took place between the Legion and the small Jewish forces which were attempting to protect the convoys.

The convoys, comprised of crudely-made armored vehicles, were improvised using old trucks and buses, as can be seen in the museum. They were repeatedly attacked and suffered very heavy casualties. 

The most joyous moment of her life

The siege was eventually broken by constructing, under the most arduous conditions, the famous “Burma Road” by-pass, named after the World War II road from Burma to China. The road was so difficult to cross that initially donkeys were used to carry the supplies. Jeeps had to be pushed by hand in some places. But on June 14th the road was eventually made functional for motor vehicles, enabling a trickle of desperately needed supplies to start reaching the beleaguered city. The three-month siege ended on July 11th.

A convoy entering besieged Jerusalem, 1948A convoy entering besieged Jerusalem, 1948  

And what if?

This, of course, is a lousy question nobody, especially on the Israeli Left and on the international pro-Palestinian Left, wants to answer. But the answer to me is clear. The population of 100,000 people would have probably been massacred; everything they owned would be looted and stolen, and various atrocities would have been committed. Israel would not have been established as an independent state. 

It was the happiest moment in my mother’s life, and of so many others. Jerusalemites who lived through the siege cannot forget the joy of meeting the men and women who came from the coast to save their lives in the so-called “Big Caravan”. This is perhaps comparable to the European joy upon liberation from the Nazis, when  the American and Russian soldiers were showered with flowers and love..

Bab el Wad – Caravans under fire

Many of the fighters and convoy participants, as well as many of the fallen, were people who had arrived straight from the horrors of the Holocaust to fight in the battles of Jerusalem and Latrun. 

"Sandwich" - an 1948 improvised armored vehicle built on an old truck

Already during the so-called Big Arab Revolt (Me’oraot) of 1936-39, the Arabs had discovered that they could impair the Jewish supply route to Jerusalem by putting stone blockades on the narrow road. Vehicles could not escape to the sides, and were showered with rocks and bullets. The British tried to stop the sabotage by building a guarding post and a police station, but in 1947 following the Partition Resolution, the Arabs resumed their tactics.

Bab el Wad and teh caravans were the main saga of the Independence War, according to Assaf Sela, son of Eliyahu Sela, known as Ra’anana, one of the prominent commanders of the battles for Jerusalem. In the space between Latrun and Jerusalem, Israel lost a third of all the war’s fatalities. Eight of the12 brigades fought there. Many Jews saw similarities between the hardships incurred on Jerusalemites and the horrors of Leningrad during WWII. That was a great incentive to fight that war to victory.

Bab el Wad - "In Sadness and Glory"

Bab el Wad

This is the quintessential iconic patriotic lamentation over those fallen at Bab El Wad, breaking the road to Jerusalem, making Israel possible.

The war over the road to Jerusalem was one of the fiercest and hardest, and about a third of the fallen in the war fell in the battles over Jerusalem and its environs.

The song used to be sung every year at Memorial Day services all across the country.

Written by :Haim Guri,  Melody: Shmuel Fershko,  SInger: Yafa Yarkoni (“The singer of the wars”) English :Orit Adar

Here I pass, pausing to stand by the rock
A black asphalt road, rocks and ridges
Evening slowly sinking, the sea breeze blowing
First star rising over Beit Machsir*
Bab al-wad,
Forever remember our names
Convoys broke the way to The City.
On the sides of the road lay our dead
The iron skeleton is as silent as my friend.
Here tar and lead boiled over in the sun
Here the nights went ablaze in knives and fires
Here sadness and glory dwelled side by side
A burned armored vehicle and the name of a stranger.
Bab al-wad…
And here I walk, as silent as the corpses,
And I remember them all, one by one
Here we fought together on rocks, cliffs and gravel,
Here we lived together as family, as one.
Bab al-wad…
A spring day will arrive, the cyclamens will bloom
Anemones will color the hills and valleys in red,
The one who will walk on the way we had been treading,
Would never forget us, we the Bab al-Wad
Bab al-wad…
*Beit Mahsir – The Arab village from which snipers shot over the convoys bringing supplies to Jerusalem. During the Independence War a Jordanian company was stationed there as well as some local gangs (knufiyot) or militias if you like.


Sha'ar Hagai Khan - Comemmorating the Convoys to Jerusalem

The second part of this post – 

 Sha’ar Hagai Khan, Commemorating the Convoys to Jerusalem, 

describes the history of the old khan, the project of turning it into a national monument and the fantastic interactive display at the site. 

Armored bus at Khan Shaar Hagai

Climbing out of one of the reconstructed armored vehicles on the grounds of Khan Sha’ar Haagai at Bab el Wad


This post belongs in the post series, “Israel’s healthy Foundations“, under the general category of “Israel’s best” on my website all of which are dynamic.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. A stunning post. The two pictures of the road in 1917 and in 2019 are indeed amazing.
    You write about the yishuv yashan in Jerusalem: “The non-homogeneous population was sub-divided into Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, who were even loathe to intermarry”. One famous such love story is that of Itamar ben Avi, the son of Eliezer ben Yehuda and Leah abu-Sadid. The story eventually had a happy end, but after a long hard struggle.

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