One of the prominent heroes of the story of the Harel Brigade asked me if, for the review of this book, I would wish to interview some of his colleagues. My response was that I ought to first read the full tale before relating to his suggestion. Having read it with fascination, I see no need to attempt extracting from the Brigade's veterans what author Zvi Dror has already done so proficiently. Dror does not pretend to offer an academic study. He presents a moving drama, replete with durable materials and occasionally conflicting versions of the same battle.
A good part of the evidence has for years fed numerous sagas, memorable poetry and vibrant novels. Using Winston Churchill's reference to the RAF, it could be safely said that never have so few (i.e. of the Harel Brigade) done so much for saving the people and the city of Jerusalem from extinction and devastation.
The Harel Palmah Brigade was officially established on May 16, 1948, though some of its units were engaged in fighting since the first day of the War of Independence. Yitzhak Rabin was nominated its first commander. Of the 6,044 dead in the war, 2,009 fell in the battle for Jerusalem (1,082 within the city). The number of the wounded was about 4,000, of whom 3,000 were hit within the city.
Harel was assigned from the start to keep the road to Jerusalem open. That was a hell of a job and riddled with obstacles. David Ben-Gurion realized that if Jerusalem were not secure, the implications would be ominous. The battle for Jerusalem was therefore crucial for the survival of the new state and all available fighters, equipment and resources had to be diverted to this battle.
The Arabs, too, understood that the campaign to isolate Jerusalem from the rest of the country would determine their fortunes. This was why, right after the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, they directed their fire against the Jews who struggled to keep Jerusalem free and fed.
Topography and demography were not helping the Jews, and the initial reaction of the Hagana was to do what had been done in the troubles of 1936-39. That, however, was ineffective. Convoys were supposedly guarded, but the Arabs were hiding on the hills and their weapons were often superior.
Some of the Hagana commanders started then to urge retaliation by preventing Arab access to and from Jerusalem, and moving from a defensive to an offensive strategy. To achieve that goal, larger units had to be formed and a more centralized and overall operational command had to be organized.
It was not easy for some of the more ideologically-bent elements of the Palmah to adjust to the new constraints. They idolized the old Palmah set-up, though people like Rabin and Yigal Allon prevailed. That was not the case with the IZL (Irgun Zvai Leumi). For months following the UN resolution of 1947, they were still thinking mainly of going on fighting against the British, not realizing that the British were getting out and that the threat was then coming from the Palestinians and, more so, from the imminent invasion of the Arab armies.
One of Harel's senior commanders said once that "explosives never live in peace with ethical values." But there was never a doctrine of killing and destruction motivated by vengeance. There were quite a few cases of finding horribly mutilated bodies of the Brigade, but the canon was not altered. Arab villages along the road to Jerusalem were not occupied because there was in principle no policy of occupying more territory. Arab villages were taken only when they were used as a base for attacking buses and trucks. Villages that were peaceful (like Abu Ghosh) were not touched.
Dror mentions several instances in which the British forces guarding the water pipeline to Jerusalem, or maintaining the safe passage of potash trucks from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem, performed their jobs impartially. On a number of occasions our people would have wished the British to side with us, but their policy was clear: not to get involved unless British interests were endangered. All in all, between December 3, 1947 and May 20, 1948, 229 convoys made their way to Jerusalem composed of 3,783 trucks carrying 13,604 ton of supplies.
Ben-Gurion's vision was of building one national army, rejecting the idea of allowing private militias to choose where and whether to fight. His insistence on creating a national army and breaking down the factional units of the Palmah on the Left and of the Irgun (and the Stern Gang) on the Right, proved to be of historical importance. Had he let the Irgun keep its independent military organization in Jerusalem armed with weapons (also to be provided by the Altalena ship), and had he succumbed to the urging of Ahdut Haavoda to maintain the semi-independent status of the Palmah, we might have become another Lebanon with all its flashpoints.
The great virtue of this book is primarily its fair, candid and impartial treatment of history. Calls for factionalism are heard these days all around, and not only among Palestinians. They were perilous in 1948 and they are a threat today.
The writer is a former ambassador to Mexico and the Netherlands, and ambassador at large.