From Beersheba to Jerusalem

My jaw dropped – driving around Beersheba for three days with an advanced octogenarian from outback northwest Queensland would be a challenge.

March 28, 2015 22:23
A GROUP of North Americans pass Ein Avdat in the Negev Desert

A GROUP of North Americans pass Ein Avdat in the Negev Desert during last month’s inaugural Taglit-Birthright Israel Extreme Outdoors Tour. (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)


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'Graeme, I have a special request for you. George, an Australian farmer in his mid-80s, has just arrived in Beersheba after a tour of Gallipoli in Turkey, and has inquired if we could provide a guide to show him around town for the next three days.”

My jaw dropped – driving around Beersheba for three days with an advanced octogenarian from outback northwest Queensland would be a challenge. But my employer stood firm, and I needed the work.

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Clearly, George was interested in World War I history. Gallipoli had weathered the infamous and fatal disaster that had befallen Australian troops when they tried to establish a beach landing along the Turkish coast. A year later, Beersheba had witnessed their redemption, when a force of Australian horsemen had secured the tide of a battle – a turning point in history that would redefine the boundaries of the modern Middle East, and eventually lead to the creation of the modern State of Israel.

There is only one hotel in Beersheba, which used to be called The Paradise; it was comfortable but not exactly Eden.

George wanted to make an early start, so I slept there the night before we met up.

“Good day,” George greeted me, stooped and lanky, with a friendly handshake and a hobbled gait. “Let’s go out to Tel Sheva and view the battlefield.”

A man on a mission. Clutched under his free arm, George held a copy of Chauvel and the Light Horse; the chapter that would highlight his visit would be “Beersheba to Jerusalem.”

Tel Sheva is located beside Beersheba and is an artificial mound belying an ancient settlement, prominently placed above the confluence of the Hebron and Beersheba streams; south of the site is a desert plain encompassed by low hills. Over the centuries, the sparse rainfall upon the landscape has determined and separated local social organization, based upon cultivated agriculture and nomadic grazing.

Biblical Genesis recalls the journeys of the Patriarchs, wandering through Beersheba with their families and herds, mediating agreements with villagers regarding digging wells (be’er meaning well and sheva an oath), and striking covenants with God in which He promised to redeem Israel as a great nation.

George and I sat upon a bench at the top of the tel. I had brought along a map and a compass, and a detailed record from the Australian War Archives – Palestine Campaign. The document graphically described the British artillery assault on the town of Beersheba, and the capture of the strategic tel by brave New Zealand forces followed by the valiant charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade across the plain, as the late afternoon sun wavered on October 31, 1917.

The Palestine Campaign had been proposed against the stagnant, failing theater of trench warfare and carnage in Western Europe during World War I. By default, it encouraged the British command to initiate an alternative front by attacking the German-Turkish Alliance through the Middle East. However, the disastrous and tragic Battle of Gallipoli led to a further change of strategy, resulting in the redeployment of forces in Egypt, with the intention of advancing through Palestine.

George pointed to a hill in the distance – marked today by a water tank and an antenna tower. “I reckon that is where [Light Horse Brigade] Commander [Henry George] Chauvel stood and watched the battle with his binoculars. Let’s go there! He would have had a theatrical view over the whole battlefield.”

Somewhat taken aback, I stammered, “I have a slight technical problem, George.

My rental car does not qualify as an all-terrain vehicle, and I do not have insurance to cover damage for under the chassis.”

All George wanted to do was tear up the ravine, cross the plain over rough ground and climb one of those hills to find general headquarters. My response left him looking forlorn and disappointed.

“All right, George,” I capitulated, “if you agree to the financing, I will take you next door to the Beduin village of Tel Sheva; I’ll stop the first jeep driving down the street and commission the driver to take us to that hill.”

“You’re on!” exclaimed George, with a gleam in his eye.

We entered the Beduin village, a fringe settlement with a blatant sense of disorder – unfinished houses fenced in like stockades, no sidewalks, vehicle carcasses dumped on the side of the road and mounds of unclaimed refuse – home for the urban nomad who prized his independence.

Within 10 minutes of entering the township, we spotted a jeep heading toward us down the dusty, deserted road. I blocked its passage; we caught the driver by surprise with our apparent casual recklessness. I explained our quest and negotiated the fee.

“You can’t leave your car here,” insisted Ali, after introducing himself. “Follow me and you can park inside my walled property.”

George gulped and gave me a puzzled look, which matched my perturbed surprise.

We jumped into the vehicle of my new assistant, and after slamming the doors headed out across the plain with a cloud of dust behind us.

Ali had two wives, five children, and a herd of sheep and goats; he worked as a security guard at a nearby chemical plant.

We conversed in Hebrew as I translated for George – who was perched across the back seat like a dignified sheikh.

We traversed the dry riverbed, bounced across the plain and ascended the side of a hill called Khashim Zanna. The hill had entered local Beduin folklore as the site of the commander’s general headquarters.

George and I stared down from the top of Khashim Zanna while our host Ali prepared a pot of tea.

From behind this hill, the Australian force had entered the critical phase of the battle. It had been a last-minute decision to include them. They were not cavalry; they were comprised of volunteer farmers from rural Australia who were chosen because they were all good horsemen. Later, their virtues would be immortalized in a poem by Banjo Paterson.

As infantry, they would normally ride into battle, dismount and charge with rifle and bayonet. The horsemen were desperate to succeed before darkness and capture Beersheba, or face forced retreat and defeat, with the grim prospect of returning through two days of blistering, waterless desert to their nearest supply source.

With their bayonets waving and spread out in three long lines, they raced their steeds – driving them to a crescendo until they overran the stunned German-Turkish trenches among volleys of enemy artillery and rifle fire. They secured the wells of Beersheba, and victory was theirs! This breakthrough opened the way to Jerusalem, and six weeks later, Gen. Edmund Allenby entered and received the surrender of the Holy City.

We parted company from Ali, recovered our vehicle and headed into Beersheba to visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery.

There are 1,200 graves in the city center, surrounded by modern, expanding neighborhoods; until relatively recently, few people have been aware of the contribution and sacrifice these men had made as part of the British, Australian and New Zealand forces, which had secured Palestine in World War I and brought the war’s end closer.

George thoughtfully ambled between the neatly manicured lines of graves, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones of the young men who had fallen in battle.

I had been searching for the connection between George and this dramatic tale.

He stopped in front of one of the small mounds, his finger tracing the letters on the tombstone, and I learned that his uncle had fallen in the battle. George stood before the grave in silent contemplation, an abstract hand wiping the corner of an eye.

The elderly Australian had no memory of his uncle, but it was this symbolic edifice and the action it represented that had reunited them again from far across the seas and time.

“Well, I think we can call it a day,” allowed George, feeling satisfied.

To be continued… Be a VIP for a day – all you need is an El Al credit card Holders of the new Fly Card are in for a series of surprise treats, if they can get them • By AMY SPIRO Jerusalem Post correspondent ROME – Have you ever had kosher caviar on a flight? How about while in economy class? And did I mention the ticket was free? That was the experience 180 holders of the six-month-old El Al “Fly Card” had last week, on a “bonus” trip to Rome that filled up within four minutes of opening up.

The flight to Italy – for which passengers had to pay just the taxes – was a unique surprise made available to the 70,000 people who have signed up for a Fly Card, El Al’s credit card offering that turns points into flights.

And it was clear from check-in to landing that this was not just any other departure. At Ben-Gurion Airport, travelers were served at a separate counter, complete with bowls of wrapped “Fly Card”-decorated chocolate – and a reminder to sign a photography/videography release form, if they hadn’t already.

Right before boarding, the lucky passengers were greeted with an elaborate dessert bar that invoked the envy of those poor travelers at the surrounding gates.

Several tables topped with mini-glasses of chocolate mousse, cheesecake, fruit salad and other delicacies – plus a selection of fruit juices – were laid out and waiting. It wouldn’t be a flight full of Israelis without at least one argument over when the eating was allowed to begin, but it was quickly resolved.

The festivities only continued as a photographer took a photo of every traveling pair, which were turned into magnet souvenirs before boarding. At the entrance to the plane each passenger was personally greeted by El Al CEO David Maimon and Yael Goldman, the model and actress who serves as the face of the Fly Card.

On board the three-hour flight, guests were entertained by magician and mind reader Lior Manor – who at one point had the vast majority of the passengers playing along with one card trick. A film crew and photographers circulated throughout the short ride, making it seem at times like the whole event was designed to produce a video clip.

But the real highlight of the time in the air was the food, a festive breakfast for all the passengers designed by El Al head chef Segev Moshe – who also circulated among the guests throughout the flight. The meal was served on real plates and in cute little jars, and included fresh strawberries, yogurt, granola and honey; a salad of asparagus, tomatoes and baby mozzarella; smoked salmon with cream cheese and caviar; labaneh with olive oil and zaatar; spinach burekas with tahina and harissa; plus a mini-tiramisu.

Passengers could return on any El Al flight they chose – albeit without the elaborate spread and entertainment.

While this exact experience may not be replicated, Lior Tanner, manager of El Al’s Matmid frequent flyer club, said the airline is planning surprises every few months for cardholders.

“We’re looking to think strategically and long-term, and to build a loyal customer base,” Tanner told The Jerusalem Post on board. He said the next offering is not yet set, but his team is brainstorming options.

“Like we promised when launching the card,” he said, “we’re offering our customers surprises and special experiences.

This is the first move in a series of activities aimed at maximizing the added value for cardholders, and fulfilling the promise Fly Card is based on – making your shopping more worthwhile.”

The writer was a guest of El Al

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