Israel Independence: Remembering a failed attack on Jaffa Gate in 1948

It was like somebody watching in a theater when the plot had become complicated and unsolvable, and knowing that now the turn of the deus ex machina had arrived, except I was the one on the stage.

 JAFFA GATE, 1968. (photo credit: National Photo Archive)
JAFFA GATE, 1968.
(photo credit: National Photo Archive)

Like some other Hebrew University students in 1948, I had enlisted in the Hagana and was a member of the communications unit.

On April 17 in the evening, we were called into our room at the Schneller army camp. I was examining my portable wireless set when I noticed an elegantly tailored commander standing in front of me, tickling my chin and asking me in a confidence-inspiring bass voice: “How do you feel?”

I was going to reply that I would feel much better if he stopped tickling my chin, but then I realized that the speaker was David Shaltiel, the Hagana’s chief commander of Jerusalem, who ordered actions without knowing the terrain. He had come to see us off and hand us a flag to be hoisted on top of the Tower of David – a flag that was never hoisted at all.

We went down to the armored buses and started to drive to the commercial center at Tanous House, which had been designated as the starting point for the attack on Jaffa Gate. The moment we entered the armored bus, our communication set stopped functioning. This came as no surprise, since it was a type that was not designed to work inside armored vehicles.

However, since our unit was intended to split into two groups that needed to maintain contact among ourselves, it had been decided that the wireless sets should be used already inside the armored buses to determine the moment to leave the vehicles. This is how it was determined and the operators functioned according to the orders that they had been given. The wireless sets, however, did not exactly obey.

 ISRAELI TROOPS on Mt. Zion, just outside Old City walls, 1948. (credit: National Photo Archive) ISRAELI TROOPS on Mt. Zion, just outside Old City walls, 1948. (credit: National Photo Archive)

We drove toward the commercial center, passing the YMCA and toward Mamilla Street. We started to hear the sound of routine shots from the city walls toward Yemin Moshe Quarter. Suddenly we noticed that our vehicle was alone. The other bus that was supposed to follow us was nowhere to be seen. We tried to locate it using the wireless set, but it did not function. After some deliberations, we turned back and arrived safely at the Histadrut House.

After some moments the other bus appeared – it had gone the wrong way and had taken an alternative side road to the one we had taken. Meanwhile we waited for what was going to happen. The commanders went to the Histadrut House to make some phone calls and get new orders as to how to proceed. It was already 4 a.m. and the black of night had changed to a strange grayish color. Nobody understood why we did not go back to sleep since the night had already passed. That was at the time when it didn’t occur to anybody that a war might be fought also during daytime.

The commanders came back, we returned to the buses, which began to move back toward the commercial center. Somebody wondered aloud whether we should try to make the attack before daybreak, or attack during daytime. Another possibility did not seem realistic, since if the attack was planned for the following night, we should not have been sent out already now when the team was half asleep from exhaustion.

We entered one of the commercial center’s side streets, which led to Bethlehem Road and to the Old City walls. The bus collided with a wire fence that was blocking the road and it stopped. We again heard the routine shots fired from the city walls toward Yemin Moshe. We suddenly stopped hearing the routine shots and instead heard the well-defined shots aimed at our armored vehicle. From the city walls they aimed at us insistently. If ever there had been a surprise effect in the plan of a nighttime attack on the city wall, this had now been gone – should we attack immediately during daytime or wait until the next night?

We jumped from the vehicle into a deserted house, which was not Tanous House, where we were supposed to go. This house was at one end of the street, whereas Tanous House was at the other end. We went up to the second floor and entered the deserted apartment. There was a discarded photo of Egypt’s King Farouk on the floor. In the bathroom tap there was still some water – a sign of life from six months ago when they destroyed the commercial center.

The strange thing about this was, that only in this place – the only place in the whole of Jerusalem, “living water” could be found in the taps. We entered the deserted toilet and pulled the handle – water flowed and we felt very cultured. We went back to the room and stretched out on the floor, got covered in dust and felt less cultured and less anything. We waited. The sun was high in the sky.

From the town, they sent us new wireless sets, as we had informed our superiors that our sets were not functioning. We tried them out in the room and they functioned. Toward evening they brought us a Yediot Aharonot newspaper, in which we read that the Hagana forces had proceeded to the commercial center to launch an attack on Jaffa Gate. We were the Hagana forces. We wondered whether the Arab soldiers, 300 meters from us on the Old City walls, were also reading Yediot. They actually did not need to, as they already knew we were there.

WHEN DARKNESS fell some liveliness could be felt – the commanders’ orders could be heard, and the unit commanders gathered their teams to give orders. We went downstairs to prepare for going out. Everyone was glad to move their bodies, to be doing something and to leave the ruin.

Squad commander Moussa (Moshe Salomon) came toward me, radiating self-confidence as always (we called him the “bragger”), and said: “It’s a lot of fun, tomorrow we will walk through the streets of the Old City. You know what that means?” I asked a rhetorical question: “Are you pleased?” Everyone could see that Moussa was pleased. “Oh yes, this is the moment I have been waiting for – just imagine taking part in such an operation,” and he gave me a huge pat on the shoulder.

At 11, the cannon fire on the city wall started – bombardment of three cannon shells. In technical terms this was called a “softening.” To us it seemed as though this was an alarm to inform the Arabs that the attack was about to begin.

We got onto the armored bus that came to collect us and it was completely full. Moussa sat next to me. We proceeded forward leaving the Tanous House on our left and turned left toward Bethlehem Road parallel to the city walls. Bullets started to hit the armored bus. We drove slowly and in front of us was a car with the attacking team. The plan was for that car to get as near to the city walls as possible and then for the team to jump out and to blast the steel door near Jaffa Gate, get inside and go up to the Tower of David. With us behind them, they were to control the area from the tower so that the backup force from Tanous House could join us to secure the Old City while we guarded them from the tower.

At the time of the operation, we were supposed to be in contact with the attacking force by means of the wireless sets. We tried to contact them from the armored vehicle to their car, but we received no reply. The sets that we had tested in the room did not work in the vehicle. We tried to contact the operation headquarters and the backup force using a second wireless set, but no reply. 

We continued to drive slowly with bullets hitting the armored vehicle, when suddenly we saw the attacking force’s car moving as if the driver was drunk. We shouted into the wireless set as if it would help, to find out what had happened to them. 

Next we tried to shout using only our voices, they were 20 meters from us, but we got no reply. The noise of the bullets fired at us from the city walls silenced all other sounds. We saw the car in front of us make a roundabout movement and return in the direction that it came from. Moussa used a sharp swear word and gave the order: “Turn back!”

Our task was to follow the attacking team. The explosives for the steel door were in the car in front of us. They were under the command of Moussa, but as the wireless set did not function, he was unable to give them orders. We had no other option but to follow them. The driver tried to turn around but our vehicle stopped. There were worried cries of “What happened?” What had happened was that the driver and someone else had been hit by a bullet. There were nervous cries to the reserve driver who moved to the driver’s seat and made two courageous movements to get the bus started. 

The bus started moving, then a vibration passed through it and again it stopped completely without a sound. The nervous cries tried to persuade the driver: “You have to move! You have to! Do you understand?” The persuasions were directed toward the engine more than toward the driver. The driver replied: “What do you think? That I want to stay here?” 

But the vehicle would not move and bullets continued to be fired at us. The armored vehicle was impenetrable – something uncommon in Jerusalem in those days. The bullets could not penetrate the armor, but some shrapnel and bullets did penetrate through small openings. 

The machine-gunner tested the automatic machine gun – it coughed half a round. The machine-gunner announced: “The machine gun is not functioning.” The machine gun was the strongest weapon in the vehicle. We tried to contact headquarters at Tanous House to ask for help, but received no reply. (Later on we found out that they heard our calls for help, but we did not hear their reply. In any case it would not have helped, as Tanous House did not have any way to help us.)

Suddenly Moussa said, “I have been hit by a bullet” – and then went quiet. That was the first time that I saw a commander being hit during an operation I took part in and thus I found out what that means. Until that point, people had been self-controlled and disciplined. Together with vigilance, there was also tension in the bus, but also order, even relative quiet. Moussa controlled everyone and they all knew their place and that someone could be depended upon to give orders. No one felt they had to think or even speak, as Moussa did that for everyone. Moussa – who never got excited, who always spoke with self-confidence and who managed to influence everyone around him to stay calm.

But at the moment when he said that he had been hurt, all restraints became loose. All the tension that had before been under control, suddenly became loose. People started to shout, no one knew what and why, agitated, unrestrained, climbing here and there – and all in complete darkness in which nothing could be seen, but only the cries could be heard within the narrow and crowded vehicle, while a volley of bullets hit the bus’s armor from outside. Moussa’s wound turned out to be fatal.

In my brain there was just one idea: Just don’t panic! Just don’t panic! Don’t allow panic to erupt inside the crowded vehicle and for people to lose their self-control. I shouted with my loudest and most authoritative voice “Sheket!” (Quiet!) After three shouts, I realized that they were only adding to the panic and so I stopped. 

Only a few minutes passed like this, although it seemed much longer at the time. It was dark and the bullets hit the armor outside continuously. An occasional hand grenade exploded outside. I understood that our time was running out. It was a cool certainty that penetrated me, without a trace of excitement. Simply a fact, beyond the limits of discussion or argument. Those were perhaps the quietest moments of my life. I was sitting on my bus seat – not wounded, healthy in body and in mind, and I knew that I had only a few more moments to live.

 THE RUINS of the Mamilla commercial center outside Jaffa Gate, 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) THE RUINS of the Mamilla commercial center outside Jaffa Gate, 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The calculation was logical and clear: here we are – crowded, imprisoned, detached and closed inside a narrow armored box – a lonely bus standing in front of the Old City walls, a visible target for the gunfire directed at us. This was an entirely dead spot – the possibility of help from outside was something that did not even cross my mind. The possibility that we could still function also did not cross my mind. We sat there waiting, not knowing what was going to happen. Some curiosity crossed my mind as to what was going to happen and how.

It was like somebody watching in a theater when the plot had become complicated and unsolvable, and knowing that now the turn of the deus ex machina had arrived, except that in this case, I was the one on the stage. Somehow I did not believe that the deus ex machina would arrive. Indeed the logic calmed me entirely and let me believe that it all was a matter of only minutes, not how but when. 

But this logic was not convincing. I could not believe even for a moment that this was really the end. Although there did not seem any possibility for the continuation of the plot, for some strange reason, this logical train of thought did not succeed to overcome some entirely illogical childish stubbornness that said “it is not possible.” I expected the deus ex machina.

My comrade, the wireless operator, asked me if he should destroy the wireless set. Destroying the set was the standard order for cases when the equipment or the operator or both, were in danger of falling into enemy hands. I understood that he too was thinking what I was thinking. His question annoyed me. I did not feel like answering. I did not feel like thinking about the question or certainly not making a decision. After all, both of us were of the same rank – why should he ask me for instructions? He might decide whatever he wanted, without forcing me to decide. Logic said to destroy. I did not want to let logic prevail and to control me. I was quiet and pretended not to hear.

After some moments, Avrahama’le, Moussa’s assistant, succeeded in getting his voice to overcome the din. This was an extraordinary experience – chaos that started to assume a defined form – the order of a single person opposite a crowd. “Friends!” said Avrahama’le. He really said “Friends,” as if he was in a youth movement assembly. It seemed as though he had also tasted the satisfaction of pervading order and taking control. “We cannot waste time. There are two options – to stay here and defend the vehicle till our last drop of blood or – to leave the vehicle and retreat.”

Once the words were spoken, the situation assumed a strange comicalness. “To defend the vehicle” – even “to our last drop of blood” – and that in a vehicle that was unmovable, alone and visible to the enemy in front of the Old City walls, while the machine gun and the wireless set were not functioning. “To defend the vehicle”? What for? Who even needs the vehicle? Who will ever use it? 

The people started to get up and proceed toward the door. Confusion reigned – nobody knew in which direction to jump. Nobody knew where the Old City walls were, where the city was and where we were. The people crowded around the door and did not know where to proceed.

At that moment, Moussa was the one who, in spite of being wounded and exhausted, gained the privilege of being the one to save the lives of everyone in the bus. He had already lost much blood and lied crumpled and uncomfortable on the seat. Now he started moving and asked for water. After he drank he started to speak. Like a magic formula, everybody announced “Moussa wants to speak!” 

Within a second there was complete silence in the vehicle. Moussa said only 10 words: “Jump in the direction of the vehicle’s nose. Good luck!” A strong feeling of relief filled the vehicle. The first one jumped out, while somebody else fired from the machine gun toward the Old City walls, in a pretense of “covering.” We jumped out one after the other in the direction of the vehicle’s nose.

Fresh air and a cool breeze were the first impressions outside. Quiet. The quietness of bullets that were not hitting the armored vehicle. The way back to our positions – a way that nobody knew – neither the way to our positions nor the positions of the enemy – that is an adventure story of its own.

After several hours, Moussa arrived at the base. In the morning it was announced that the remains of a burnt-out bus were seen on the road toward the Old City. Moussa, who had sat beside me in the armored car, died a few days later in the hospital.

Fast forward 19 years to the Six Day War, which reunified Jerusalem. Given the opportunity for the first time, I went to see our stranded vehicles. They were still there in the same place just as we had left them.

Two days later they were already gone. Somebody may have been interested in removing these silent witnesses of a wrongly planned and failed attack on Jaffa Gate. 