Battir: A Palestinian village with a rich, dramatic Jewish history

Battir is named for Betar (sometimes spelled Beitar), the rugged hill location of a Jewish battle for human freedom.

 Palestinian women from Battir collect wood and herbs along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line near the village in 1967. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Palestinian women from Battir collect wood and herbs along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line near the village in 1967.
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

“An explosive charge was discovered on the railway tracks in the vicinity of Battir village near Jerusalem yesterday morning. It was safely dismantled by a police sapper.”  – The Jerusalem Post,  August 19, 1977

Some 46 years ago I visited and explored the area around the Palestinian village of Battir, south of Jerusalem. After an article in The Jerusalem Post reported that an explosive charge was dismantled on the railway tracks of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, several friends and I made an excursion to the area. 

Battir is named for Betar (sometimes spelled Beitar), the rugged hill location of a Jewish battle for human freedom. It is a short distance from Yad Kennedy, built to honor the fallen American hero. 

The railway running down Emek Refaim (Valley of Ghosts), noted in the Bible as the place where David defeated the Philistines (2 Samuel 5), was on Israel’s side of the old Green Line marking the 1949 armistice frontier and demarcation of Israel and Jordan until the 1967 war.

The village Battir, with its Arab population, and Betar, the tel (archaeological mound) alongside and looming over the present town and the tracks, were under Israeli control in 1977. Today they are administered by the Palestinian Authority. However, the stream and railway line then and now have been within the State of Israel.

 Ancient Betar (Khirbat el-Yahud) near Battir. (credit: Bukvoed/Wikipedia)
Ancient Betar (Khirbat el-Yahud) near Battir. (credit: Bukvoed/Wikipedia)

The Kingdom of Transjordan captured the area in its 1948-1949 war with Israel. Soon after, Transjordan’s leaders changed its name to Jordan and coined the name “West Bank” for land it temporarily controlled (until 1967) west of the biblically famed Jordan River.

Transjordan was across the river to the east. The name is a translation and usage of the Hebrew term from the Book of Joshua’s second line – avor et ha’Yarden, meaning “over the Jordan.” The biblical reference was to what is now the Israel side of the river, not the present Jordanian side.

Since the mid-1990s, both Battir and Betar, just beyond the railway line, have been in the area controlled and administered by the Palestinian Authority. From Israel, permission is now required from the PA to visit the area around Battir.

Betar: The sight of dramatic history in the Jewish-Roman wars

Dramatic Jewish and world history took place at Betar 19 centuries ago. At that time, the region was known as Yehuda (in Hebrew), or Judea – from which the word “Jew” is derived as an inhabitant of that land.

On the Friday afternoon that The Jerusalem Post news item was published, three Israeli friends and I left our car in a clearing just east of town and strolled along the railway track into the prosperous-looking Arab-populated village. 

On our weekly trips exploring Israel’s central hill country, Jerusalem’s hinterland, we traveled armed or not, depending on current news and reputation of areas we would traverse and visit.

A second decision was whether to have weapons visible or unobtrusive. That day, I had a Browning pistol in a belted hip holster with my shirt hanging over it so the handgun was unseen. One of my mates had an Uzi submachine gun and extra magazine in an otherwise empty backpack slung on his shoulder.

We proceeded to walk a few hundred meters along pleasant streets to the north edge of town, which was marked by a long, low depressed area strewn with rocks and brush. This was an ancient moat fronting the hill that had been fortified by the Judeans 1,800 years ago. We crossed the moat and picked our way over stone terraces to the top of a hill. The height was Tel Betar.

Betar is symbolic of the Jewish exile from Eretz Yisrael. The dispersion of Jews began in 135 CE. The massive, steeply sloped and rocky but relatively flat-topped hill fortress was the scene of a ferocious last stand by Jewish forces led by Shimon Bar Kochba, leader of the Jews in their last great revolt against the Roman Empire.

In 136 CE, immediately following the war, Roman commander Hadrian conspicuously omitted the usual opening phrase from his after battle report to the Roman Senate: Mihi et legionibus bene (“I and the legions are well”). His army was torn up in its victory, with heavy casualties.

The military campaign over Betar was a bloody, gruesome series of battles and sieges, famine and thirst, with valiant sorties by Jewish fighters who battled with the Roman legionnaires surrounding them. They fought for access to water at the nearby spring at Battir’s town center. 

There were three major Judean wars with Rome within a century. Two were restricted to the territorial area of Judea. The first is the most well known – it spanned the years 66 to 73 CE, when Jerusalem was captured by the Roman army, as were Gamla in the Golan Heights and the fortress at Masada in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea.

The second period of warfare took place 115-117 CE outside Judea, in the wider Mediterranean area, with uprisings of diaspora Jews in Cyprus, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. It is sometimes referred to as the Rebellion of the Exiles, and also as Kitos War, a corruption of the name of the leading Roman general Lucius Quietus, with Kitos deriving from Quietus.

The third and last war spanned the years 133 to 135 CE, again in Judea. The rebirth of modern Israel in recent years is effectively a renewal of sovereignty from the period of that last military campaign in Judea against Rome 19 centuries ago. The pivotal final battle centered at Betar, a major Jewish stronghold.

Although no extensive archaeological excavation took place at Tel Betar before I made my visits in the 1970s, ruins and potsherds clearly abounded in the cultivated rocky soil on the hill and nearby. There had been several brief exploratory digs reported in the past century. “Why was there no major excavation at such an interesting ancient site?” I inquired at an Israel Government Office in 1977 and was told that it was due to the Arab orchard atop the hill.

I learned that another exploratory excavation took place in 1984, several years after my visits. The site was confirmed as Bar Kochba’s Betar. The excavation investigated the defensive stone walls and towers, the moat, nearby Roman-style siege walls and military camp fences.

In August 1977, my party drove back to Israel’s side of the old Green Line and into a beautiful forested area of pine and spruce trees. Again we left the car, and now began hiking up the hill mass north of Battir and Betar.

“I am at the northern reaches of the tribal area of Judah, named for descendants of the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob. The Book of Genesis tells us that after a struggle one night with an angel, Jacob was renamed Israel. The Hebrew word Yisrael means “wrestled with God.”  Some ancient sources explain that the struggle was with an angel named Michael. The Hebrew form of that name translates to “who is like God.” 

The community Eleazar nearby was established after the area’s liberation from Jordan in June 1967, as well as new Jewish communities related to our story and honoring the name Betar. Mavo Betar (“gateway to Betar”) is a small moshav on Israel’s side of the Green Line, set up after the War of Independence by Zionist Betar youth movement settlers from Argentina. The much larger town Betar Illit (“upper”) first took root in 1984 as part of the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion) of Jewish communities south of Jerusalem not far from Tel Betar. Betar Illit now has a population of more than 20,000, mostly Orthodox.

A few miles southwest is the memorial to 35 Palmachniks killed on January 16, 1948, trying to reinforce the Etzion Bloc, which fell a few months later to advancing Transjordanian soldiers and local Arabs, ahead of Egyptian military forces. The fallen men are referred to as Lamed Heh, the Hebrew letters for the numerical value 35.

The first time I gained significant knowledge about Betar’s story was a year earlier within the framework of a Jerusalem seminar run by Yad Ben-Zvi, the institute named for Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who served 1952-1963. The program, called “Jews vs. Romans – The First Revolt until the Bar Kochba Uprising,” ran an intensive four days, with field trips and lectures in English. 

After an introduction to history of the late Second Temple period, there was a review of recent archaeological findings, some not yet published. We learned about Rabbi Akiva, his connection with Bar Kochba, and a description of the warrior leader as a messiah. In Hebrew, mashiach means “anointee” (one smeared with sacred oil); but it is taken to mean “messiah” and implies “deliverer” – but a human rather than a god-like leader.

Each day included a field trip. We crawled through the tunnels of Herodion, visited caves near the Dead Sea where artifacts had been found connected with the war period, and various other locales in ancient Judea used as camps or hideouts by the fighters against Rome. And we hiked around and atop Betar. At all the places, Judean and Roman coins and other period artifacts have been found.

I noticed that at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew word bathar is used and perceived as symbolic importance. The word “bathar” appears in Genesis 15:10, the chapter known as “Covenant of the Pieces” (Brit bein Hab’tarim). The linguistic root of “bathar” includes the three letters bet, tav and resh, the same as Betar the place, and has meanings related to bisect, cleave, dismember, divide, part, and tear.

These passages provide a core of the Jewish covenant with God and the Land of Israel. At the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, 132-135 CE, it is worth repeating that the country was Yehuda in Hebrew and Judea in Greek, and that a Jew is a Judean, named for this particular land.

In 1948 when the new (renewed) State of Israel was declared as the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, to provide direct continuity the new state might have been named Judea.

For some years, this land instead has been referred to by some as “Palestine.” When the British controlled the area for three decades after WW I, their official documentation for the local government included headings in three relevant languages – English, Arabic and Hebrew. The terms used were Palestine Mandate in English; Falastin in Arabic; and Alef and Yod, the Hebrew letters which begin the words “Eretz Yisrael.”

The lecturers at the Yad Ben-Zvi seminar agreed that the last Roman war (its third) against the Jews, in the 2nd century (133-135 CE) culminated the long conflict between Judaism and Roman institutions and power. Rome represented an amalgam of Hellenism, pagan materialism, advanced engineering and organization, widespread slavery, and an imperial brutality.

Emperor Hadrian decreed circumcision (the sign of the Jewish covenant with God) illegal upon pain of death, and he began constructing a pagan temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount about 130 CE. (There are parallels here with the Maccabean war from three centuries earlier.) Hadrian soon renamed Jerusalem, choosing Aelia Capitolina, a name that did not endure. Hadrian’s clan name was Aelius.

There is a common misconception about a result of the first unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73 CE, during which the Second Temple was destroyed by Roman legions, Jerusalem burned, and Masada finally conquered. Many Jews were killed in the fighting and others taken as captives to Rome; but at that time, the Jews were not exiled en masse from Judea. The majority of the Jewish population remained in the Land of Israel. However, following the conquest of Betar in 135 CE, a genocide was carried out, the clear proportions of which are not fully known.

Jewish numbers in magnitude of half a million were reportedly killed by the Romans in the war. 

At the time of Bar Kochba’s defeat upon Betar’s fall, Judea was made nearly Judenrein. The Jewish dispersion – forcible exile by the Romans – from the land Judea occurred then. That genocide may have affected a larger percentage of world Jewry (probably half to two-thirds) than the one in the 20th century (one-third, six million out of about 18 million).

It was not until nearly 1,900 years after Bar Kochba’s battle at Betar that Jewish statehood was reestablished in Judea – in our own times. Is it a coincidence that the current period sees a renewed appreciation by and closeness of many Christians with Judaism?

The Emperor Hadrian took several actions following his victory over the Jews during the war led by Bar Kochba. Hadrian had sought to weaken and perhaps destroy Judaism by prohibiting circumcision. After conquering Betar, he slaughtered many and exiled most other Judeans. And he tried to destroy the linguistic linkage of the Jewish nation with its land – Judea. While expelling/transferring Judeans from their land Judea, the land of their roots and identity, Hadrian also tore the place name Judea from its subject – the land itself.

What name did Hadrian choose to replace Judea? He searched back through history and found the name of an extinct people which 1,000 years earlier (nearly 3,000 years before our own days) was an enemy of the ancient Israelites and Judeans. He renamed Judea with a word from distant history – “Palestina,” upon which the current word Palestine is based. He renamed the land for the Philistines, who were invaders from the sea when the Hebrews were returning from slavery in Egypt. How ironic that the Philistines’ very Hebrew name Plishtim means “invaders,” with the word root having connotations of trespassing and invasion.

In the period circa 1,000 BCE, the Philistines generally controlled the Mediterranean coastal areas of Eretz Yisrael. These were the Philistines fought by Samson and defeated by David, not so long after which they are no longer mentioned in the biblical narratives. The people called Philistines of the biblical period disappeared from history more than seven centuries before the decree of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Philistine population apparently died off, assimilated, disappeared as a separate people. No people any longer after the First Temple period claimed or defined themselves by that identity.

Geographically, the coastal area of Eretz Yisrael was occasionally referred to as the Philistine Coast, from the stories of its inhabitants during periods of biblical history. Hadrian apparently chose the name Palestina as a calculated linguistic assault on the Judeans and applied it to their land as a whole to psychologically complete his physical conquest. Following the Roman reduction of the Betar fortress, Hadrian renamed Judea using the designation “Syria Palestina.” The name “Syria” derived from the ancient Assyrians of that region, mentioned in the Bible, and Palestina from the extinct Philistines.

Ironically, with British resuscitation of the name Palestine in the late 19th century, the first modern people who called themselves Palestinians were Jews of early modern Zionism in the late 1800s through the 1948 declaration of Israel statehood, when they began referring to themselves as Israelis. The WW II military formation known as the Palestine Brigade that proudly served in the British Army comprised Jews of the Holy Land, not Arabs of the region. 

Local Arabs of the area before the 1960s commonly referred to themselves as Arabs, Syrians or Bedouin. In those days, the term “Palestinian” referred to the Jews in the land; today “Palestinian” refers to Arabs. 

In our own time, Syria has periodically claimed all Palestine – including Israel and Jordan – as part of Syria. Is this an echo of Hadrian? Interestingly, during the 1970s when I explored Israel’s back country, I often conversed with Bedouin. In response to my question “Of what people are you?” the Bedouin usually answered “Arab” or “Syrian” or occasionally simply “Bedouin,” not once mentioning or using the term “Palestinian.”

Hadrian’s renaming of Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” did not endure. Jerusalem has remained Jerusalem, and Jews pray toward it. 

Battir is alongside the railway track in the famous valley that in 1977 Palestinian terrorists sought to bomb. There in Emek Refaim, King David of the tribe of Judah had vanquished the Philistines while unifying the nation, Judah and Israel, by establishing Jerusalem as a new capital city.

With how many historic themes were this explorer/writer and his friends linked as they walked the region of Battir and Betar? One: the ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, and Judea. Two: the Covenant of God for the Hebrew, Israelite, Jewish peoples with this particular land. Three: the third war of Judeans versus Romans, which heralded the expulsion of Jews from their homeland Judea. Four: the Arab and Muslim perspective and behavior positing through the PLO Covenant that Jews have no historical or religious connection with this land. Five: the fallen American president who was the first to send military equipment to Israel. Six: proximity to Hadassah Hospital, representing Jewish contributions to society and world health, the facility supported by Jews worldwide and treating Arabs no less than Jews. All this is within a mile or two in the hills just southwest of Jerusalem.

The first notes for this essay I scribbled in a journal 35 years ago while sitting on a rocky timbered slope in Judea near the Israeli memorial for American president John F. Kennedy. 

According to Jewish tradition, the fortress at Betar was breached and destroyed by the Roman army on the date of Tisha Be’av, the day of mourning for the destruction of both the First and Second Jewish Temples (This year it is commemorated on July 26-27). The defeat of Betar led to the Jewish exile, which was only reversed significantly in the past century.  ■

 Michael Zimmerman is an American writer and lecturer who lived in Israel in the 1970s. He served in the US Army and earned degrees from MIT and the London School of Economics. He has worked as a political analyst and business executive, and lectured and wrote about military and security affairs in the Chicago area.