On April 29, 1948, during the battle for Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood,
platoon commander Rafael (Raful) Eitan was shot in the head. Part of a Palmah
force that had taken San Simon Monastery, Eitan was carried to a room full
of soldiers killed in the battle. Later, when it became apparent that he had
somehow survived, he was moved to a room for critically wounded men.
After capturing the monastery, there were a few hours of quiet. But then the
Arabs counterattacked with reinforcements and heavy weapons. The situation
quickly became desperate. Arab forces had a cannon aimed along a little lane
(’death alley’) leading to the monastery complex so that anyone trying to get
in or out could easily be shot. And snipers fired steadily from a house with
One of the commanders walked through rooms filled with injured soldiers,
looking for someone still able to fight — and Eitan volunteered. As he put
it years later, ’I was shot in the head. Half an hour later it passed.’
Tied to a chair that was placed on a table facing the monastery’s high
windows, a bandage on his head, Eitan fired bullet after bullet.
A fascinating two- to three-hour walk takes you through the southwestern
portion of Talbiyeh, then into Katamon as far as the monastery. On your outing
you will pass the former site of the Semiramis Hotel, blown up by the Hagana,
and the British courthouse where Jewish freedom fighters were condemned
Begin your stroll at Orde Wingate (Salameh) Square at the junction of three
lovely streets: Balfour, Jabotinsky and Marcus. Pass the magnificent residence
of the Belgian Consul at Rehov Balfour 22, originally the home of Christian Arab
Constantine Salameh. Continue down Rehov Jabotinsky.
To your left stand the Van Leer Institute and the Israel Arts and Science
Academy, where the country’s intelligentsia carry out a variety of projects.
Beit Hanassi, completed in 1971, is next door.
The large structure on your right, at Rehov Jabotinsky 44, is Yad Harav
Nissim. Built in the 1940s as an apartment complex, it wound up, instead, as the
Salvia Hotel. In May 1947, a few UNSCOP (United Nations Special Commission
on Palestine) delegates spent several months at the Salvia while discussing the
future of the region.
Foreign journalists frequented the hotel lobby, along with British
Intelligence and undercover Hagana members. Sephardi chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim
bought the building in 1958 and turned it into a yeshiva.
Stay on this side of the street and cross to the next corner to see
a wrought-iron gate and, inside, a strange looking guard post once manned
by British soldiers. You have reached the St. Antonio Monastery, designed
in 1936 by famous Italian architect Antonio Barlucci as a Franciscan school for
When World War II broke out three years later, the British confiscated the
Italian-owned building as enemy property. The second floor became their Supreme
Military Tribunal; the British fortified the building and stuck machine guns out
of the window to protect them from terrorists.
It was here that members of the underground Lehi, Hagana and Etzel were
tried — and that some of them were sentenced to death. According to journalist
Gavriel Tzafroni, when they walked into the courtroom, reporters already knew
that a prisoner was going to die, for the judges’ hats would be on the table.
Afterward, the judges would put on their hats and read out the sentence.
WALK AROUND to the main entrance for a better look at the gardens, then
return to Rehov Jabotinsky. Turn left on Rehov Hanassi and right on Rehov
Hapalmah, next to the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art. Always worth a visit,
you can now view the museum’s recently recovered priceless clock collection,
which was stolen 25 years ago.
As you continue on Rehov Hapalmah you will enter Katamon, from the Greek KATA
TOI MONASTERIOI, which means ’under the monastery.’ The name reflects the
importance of the neighborhood’s Greek Orthodox monastery (San Simon), erected
on a hilltop in 1859.
At the beginning of the last century, the Greek Orthodox church underwent
financial difficulties and sold some of its land to wealthy Christian Arabs.
In time, the neighborhood also became home to high-ranking members of the
Glance at the tables outside the coffee shop at Rehov Hapalmah 18, where
80-year-old Netiva Ben-Yehuda spends part of her day. A courageous member of the
Palmah, the feisty Ben-Yehuda took part in many battles during the War
of Independence and hosts a fascinating radio talk show. Together with Dan
Ben-Amotz, she wrote a humorous dictionary of Hebrew slang.
Across the street from the coffee shop, a murder was committed at Ben-Zion
Guini Square. Count Folke Bernadotte, a mediator appointed by the United
Nations, had just completed a proposal that he hoped would stop ongoing battles
for Israel’s independence. Among his suggestions: Hand the Negev over to the
Arabs and return Arab refugees to Jewish-controlled territory.
On September 17, 1948, afraid that the new Israeli government might agree
to Bernadotte’s plan, members of the Lehi ambushed his motorcade as it passed
this square. One of the group shot and killed both Bernadotte and his aid Andre
The rather modest three-story edifice at Rehov Hapalmah 24 was once the Park
Lane Hotel. You can still see the pole on which the owners draped a flag.
In the 1940s, the hotel boasted elaborate gardens with a fountain. Author and
architect David Kroyanker remembers it well, noting in his book Jerusalem
Architecture, that two doormen stood at the entrance, dressed in Arab robes with
wide belts. Each wore a red fez on his head, bestowing a touch of London-style
class to the hotel.
Beit Teodori at Rehov Hapalmah 30 was built for a Greek Orthodox family.
In 1948, the house became the Palmah’s frontline position, almost directly
across from Iraqi forces in Katamon.
WHEN YOU reach Rehov Hapalmah 38 (Bank Hapoalim) turn right and ascend Haviva
Raik Alley to Givat Shihin. Follow the road when it curves to the left and look
at the two long buildings on your right.
In 1948 there were three houses here, one of them known as Beit Shihin. From
here, where Arabs concentrated their forces, they were able to cut the Jewish
neighborhood of Kiryat Shmuel off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem. All three
houses on Givat Shihin were blown up by Hagana forces advancing into Katamon
during the War of Independence.
Pass through the Lambert Playground and descend the steps back to Rehov
Hapalmah. Turn right and walk for several blocks. At Rehov Hameshuryanim turn
left, then right on Rehov Hamatzor. Pause for a moment at No. 4.
Usually, adding on to an old house ruins its character. In this case, the
modest, one-story building with a shingled roof and square windows has been
transformed into a magnificent edifice with multi-shaped window frames and
a stunning entrance. Before you turn onto Rehov Hahish, look across the road
at Rehov Matzor 10. This is an original, simple, but elegant building.
Now go left on Rehov Hahish, and descend to Rehov Mehalkei Hamayim. On the
corner to your left stands a large, modern villa that replaced the Semiramis
For years, Arabs routinely terrorized Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, but
incidents drastically increased at the end of 1947 after the UN decided
to divide Palestine into two separate entities.
As more and more Jews began fleeing their homes, the Hagana decided it needed
a grandiose operation to boost morale. The neighborhood of Katamon seemed
an excellent target from which, they hoped, Arabs themselves would flee.
Arab informers had informed the Hagana that there were two Arab headquarters
in Katamon, one of them the Semiramis Hotel. Indeed, the distinctive white jeep
belonging to notorious terrorist Abdel Kader el-Husseini, commander
of Jerusalem’s Arab forces, had been sighted in the driveway. Choosing the
Semiramis Hotel over the second possibility, the Claridge’s guesthouse, the
Hagana chose January 5, 1948, as the date of their operation.
However, when Hagana members bombed the Semiramis Hotel, they missed
el-Husseini — if he was even there — and instead killed two dozen hotel guests,
including Christian families staying at the hotel and the Spanish
Some historians relate that Jewish Agency head Golda Meir was appalled when
she heard what had happened, and even more horrified when she realized that
Claridge’s might have been chosen for the attack. At the time, Claridge’s was
hosting a group of Czechoslovakians who had come to Jerusalem to work out
an arms deal with Jewish leaders.
Turn right at Rehov Mehalkei Hamayim and again right on Hahim for a look
at the unusual edifice at No. 10. Note how the otherwise monotonous building
is broken up by gabled roofs and other unusual elements.
Return to Rehov Mehalkei Hamayim, turn right and walk into the park beside
the monastery. Cross the lawn, follow the sidewalk around the monastery to the
left and at the fork turn right. Go right again, onto the little alley. On your
left is the San Simon Hostel for people with severe physical disabilities, and
originally the Greek Orthodox patriarch’s summer home.
AT THE end of April, 1948, David Shaltiel heard a rumor that the British
would be clearing out of Jerusalem earlier than expected. Shaltiel, the
Hagana’s district commander of Jerusalem, ordered Palmah commander Yitzhak Rabin
to capture all of the British bases in the city as soon as they were gone.
Rabin brought his exhausted Palmah troops to Jerusalem, only to learn that
the rumor had been untrue. But once here, he was told his soldiers would take
part in the Jebusite Campaign. Three vital areas of Jerusalem were
to be conquered: Nebi Samuel, from whose heights Fawzi el-Kaukji’s Arab
Liberation Army had been shelling the city; Sheikh Jarrah, to create a link
between Jerusalem and Mount Scopus; and the all-important Katamon, where Arab
fire was disrupting life in the center of the city and preventing movement
between Jewish neighborhoods.
Forty Jewish soldiers were killed in an unsuccessful battle for Nebi Samuel.
Then, on April 27, those who remained walked from the area of today’s Beit
Hanassi to the Valley of the Cross and from there to the San Simon Monastery,
a well-fortified base from which Iraqi troops controlled southern Jerusalem.
In an ironic twist of fate, Iraqi soldiers had just left the monastery and
were marching toward the Valley of the Cross in a parallel line to the Palmah.
When the two groups finally met, the fighting was fierce — and our troops
Two nights later, the Palmah returned. One group headed for two houses,
including today’s San Simon Hostel; the second crawled toward the monastery,
filled with well-equipped Iraqi troops. Fighting their way from room to room,
the Palmah managed to drive out the Arabs.
But the battle was not over, for the enemy counterattacked with
reinforcements and mortars. They kept up a continuous fire at short range,
shooting between buildings and repeatedly hitting the monastery roof with
Look around you: This is ’death alley’ and a loaded cannon would have been
pointed in your direction.
Turn right on an asphalt path near the end of the alley and walk past the
lawn. At the far end of the immense new apartment building on your left there
is an old house with a shingled roof. From its balconies, Arabs kept up a steady
barrage of sniper fire.
By April 30, Palmah troops had run out of ammunition, morphine and bandages.
Reinforcements didn’t arrive, and of 140 men only 20 survived and were able
to fight. The men were ordered to retreat — but there weren’t enough of them
to carry the wounded, even if the soldiers who had fallen were left behind. The
radio ceased operation and they could no longer communicate with
Commanders had a terrible decision to make. Obviously, no one could
be abandoned here alive as that meant certain torture, mutilation and death. Two
men volunteered to shoot the wounded and then retreat — but were unable to carry
out their mission.
After agonizing discussions, everyone who couldn’t walk was placed in one
room, on top of a layer of explosives. Two soldiers volunteered to stay behind
to blow up the monastery — and everyone inside — when the Arabs broke
At the last possible moment, a Hagana intelligence officer at the Jewish
Agency intercepted a message from the Arabs in Katamon announcing their
exhaustion and intention to retreat. But the Hagana had no way to let the Palmah
troops holed up in the monastery know that the Arabs were clearing out.
Suddenly, just as they began moving out of the monastery, the radio sprang
to life! The message was received, the Arabs left and the Palmah remained.
Wounded soldiers made it to the hospital, and southern Jerusalem was freed
of the Arab yoke — another Independence War miracle.
Keep walking and you will return to the park entrance.
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