Secret road across the sands

‘Metro’ follows ‘Derech Habitahon’ – a Hagana road that led across the dunes to the Hosmasa fort to enable Jewish supply convoys to reach Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

Hosmasa 521 (photo credit: Holon Historical Museum)
Hosmasa 521
(photo credit: Holon Historical Museum)
As Holon basks in its well-earned international recognition as a forward- thinking cultural hotspot, it has not forgotten its history.
It’s perhaps hard to imagine that this thriving city, Israel’s poster child for cultural regeneration, was once a tiny frontier town in the fledgling country’s struggle for existence. Yet if you know where to look amid the smart new buildings sprouting up across the city like mushrooms after rain, there are plenty of clues to Holon’s wartime past.
Running across the city’s famous sand dunes are the remains of a once-secret road that bypassed Arab attacks to convey Jewish supply trucks safely between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Completed in January 1948 and used for just a few months, Derech Habitahon – the Security Road – ran from Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, past Mivke Yisrael and across the dunes via the Hosmasa fort and the Moledet neighborhood to Beit Dagan.
Emanuel Aharoni, a former Hagana soldier in the Givati Brigade, knows pretty much everything about the Security Road – after all, he helped build and defend it in 1948. A lively 85-year-old, Aharoni also knows how to tell a good story – as I find out when I catch up with him in the Holon branch of the Hagana Members’ Association.
“When the UN declared it wanted to partition the country in 1947, the Arabs understood immediately that controlling the roads was essential,” Aharoni explains, as he points out key locations on a detailed map of the Tel Aviv-Holon area. He shows me how, by controlling the roads around Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Arab fighters easily blocked passage southwards to Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the Negev.
Led by Hasan Salameh, a commander in the Holy Army of Jihad (Salameh’s son, Ali, went on to become chief of operations of the terrorist group responsible for the Munich massacre), Arab fighters from Abu Kabir and Tel Arish on the border of Tel Aviv, and Yazur near Mikve Yisrael, began to attack any Jewish car – civilian or military – passing along the road to Jerusalem.
From the Pillbox, a watchtower on the summit of Tel Arish, Arab snipers controlled the Holon Junction.
“Lots of people were killed by sniper fire from the Pillbox,” says Aharoni. “Not only soldiers. Civilians too, ordinary people.”
The sustained ambushes caused severe problems for Jewish supply lines, eventually cutting off access to Jewish populations in Jerusalem and the Negev. The situation was critical. What could the Hagana do about it?
“[David] Ben-Gurion decided to redirect the road through a place where there were no Arab villages,” says Aharoni. “That meant the sand dunes.”
The Hagana’s new road bypassed Abu Kabir by running through the sands via Mikve Yisrael in the direction of Beit Dagan. Building a passable road on sand dunes was tough going, but everyone pitched in.
“Every morning, Holon residents joined us to help build the road,” remembers Aharoni. “The local council helped get everyone organized.”
To help vehicles navigate the narrow road, the Hagana placed barrels at each side as markers. Some of these are still in place today.
AN IMPORTANT way-station in the middle of the dunes was Hosmasa, a Hagana training ground, watchtower and well house built in the Bauhaus style popular in Eretz Yisrael at the time. Standing tall like a lighthouse amid the rippling sea of dunes, Hosmasa’s trendy Bauhaus curves must have been a welcome (if rather odd) sight to the weary wartime travelers.
Hosmasa is still standing, today transformed into a museum commemorating Holon’s role in the War of Independence. As the ever-growing city swallows up the sands, the former fort is now surrounded on all sides by posh apartment blocks and villas. It’s hard to imagine how isolated it once was.
“Even just seven years ago there was sand here,” Smadar Spector-Danon, Holon’s city archivist and manager of the Holon History Museum, tells me when she gives me a tour of the fort.
“Originally, Hosmasa was a Beduin well in the middle of the dunes,” she says. The water is good to drink and the well is still in use today – albeit by city dwellers, not Beduin nomads and their camel trains.
Hosmasa was transformed from a well to a fort in 1934, when two Jewish pioneers of the Agrobank neighborhood purchased it from the Beduin. The Hagana immediately saw the location had great potential. What better than a secret military training ground in the middle of nowhere?
Hagana soldiers from Holon, Tel Aviv and beyond took part in secret training maneuvers at Hosmasa, and built vital weapons silos – called sliks – there. During the British Mandate, people realized that the time had come to stockpile weapons. “Local residents also had small sliks inside their houses,” adds Spector- Danon.
The sliks were kept top-secret and were not marked on any map – “in case we were captured and interrogated by the British,” says Aharoni.
During the brief life of the Security Road, Jewish convoys would stop at Hosmasa to pick up arms and information en route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It’s possible to pick up the trail of the Security Road at Hosmasa on Rehov David Eliezer. Where the city finally gives way to dunes, the road turns into a tiny, single-track path now used by trucks traveling to and from a slaughterhouse on the edge of the sands.
A couple of Hagana watchtowers – mizkafim in Hebrew – still stand along the road. The most easily visible are the concrete towers, but they weren’t all so fancy. Running up one of the eucalyptus trees by the side of the road is a simple wooden ladder that disappears into the foliage. It could be a children’s tree house. Yet it was here that Hagana women soldiers – many young teenagers – took responsibility for the life-and-death task of keeping lookout and signaling back to their comrades at Hosmasa.
“We called the girls ‘monkeys’ because they climbed that ladder so fast,” recalls Aharoni, with a sudden cheeky grin. “Us guys would stand at the bottom and, you know, we’d flirt a bit with them, bring them gifts of chocolate and newspapers.”
DESPITE THE watchtowers, Jewish convoys were still under threat.
Under cover of darkness, Arab fighters would plant mines along sections of the road. Each morning, Aharoni and his fellow Givati Brigade soldiers had the unenviable task of clearing the road of booby-traps before permitting the convoys to continue.
On one horrible occasion, Arab fighters succeeded in laying a bloody trap for the Jewish convoys.
“It happened near Beit Dagan, near a villa belonging to Abu Jabein, a very wealthy Arab,” relates Aharoni. “One night, a gang from Abu Kabir planted mines and piled up stones to make a roadblock.”
The enemy fighters then hid out in Abu Jabein’s villa, wiring their mines to a detonator.
The next morning, a bus carrying Jewish civilians was forced to stop at the roadblock. From the safety of their hideout, the Arabs detonated the mines. In the horrible explosion that followed, a number of passengers were seriously wounded.
“We said, enough is enough!” recalls Aharoni with feeling. “That night, our boys went there and blew up half of that house.”
The Hagana captured the well house and made use of it. It’s still possible to see the remains of Abu Jabein’s villa on the grounds of the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research at Beit Dagan.
The Hagana finally captured the Arab village of Yazur during Operation Hametz on April 30, 1948, removing the blockade on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Road. With the threat from Arab fighters over, there was no longer a need for the Security Road; yet Aharoni is still proud of the role it played in the war, and of the patriotism and communal spirit of his fellow soldiers, so many of whom gave their lives.
“Such people they were, incredible people,” he says.
Today, the city of Holon is doing its best to remember these incredible people and ensure that their legacy is passed on to the youngest generation of Israelis. Even as the city expands, its museums are helping not just to preserve the past, but to keep it alive.
In the Hosmasa Museum, Spector-Danon and her colleague, Elisheva Adelman, have created interactive exhibits to engage Holon’s schoolchildren, who imagine they are Hagana fighters, take part in mock training sessions, look for sliks and signal to each other using semaphore and Morse code.
“We want to give a human face to the people who trained and fought here,” says Spector-Danon.
The Security Road is being preserved too. The remaining section on the dunes – now sadly covered with litter – is to become part of the city’s planned Holot Park, a nature reserve on the sands.
Yet another small section running through Kiryat Pinhas Elyon, next to Hosmasa, has been transformed into one of the city’s Story Parks. Once used by military convoys carrying supplies to those fighting for Israel’s independence, this little piece of road is now a playground for children.
Could there be a better tribute to the brave soldiers who built it?
The Hosmasa Museum (Hebrew) website can be found at: