Katamon - Independence Day miracle

On April 29, 1948, during the battle for Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, platoon commander Rafael (Raful) Eitan was shot in the head

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 green shutters.

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 to death.

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 Arab girls.

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 British administration.

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 Serot.

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 Hotel.

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 vice-consul.

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 retreated.

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 mortars.

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 headquarters.

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 through.

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.