Peace and security – an ongoing Australian quest

The Battle of Beersheba created a strong link between Australia and Israel, a connection that continues to this day.

Battle of Beersheba 311 (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
Battle of Beersheba 311
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
On this day, 94 years ago, some 120,000 Australian, New Zealand and British troops faced the Battle of Beersheba. Their decisive victory marked a turning point in the World War I Palestine Campaign. It allowed Allied forces under General Allenby to outflank the Ottoman defensive line stretching from Gaza to Beersheba, opening the way for the capture of Gaza and Jerusalem, Nazareth, Tiberias and ultimately Damascus in the months that followed. The taking of Beersheba was the first step in bringing an end to Ottoman rule in Palestine. It and subsequent battles of the Palestine Campaign are widely recognized as critical on the long road toward the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Throughout the morning of October 31, 1917, Allied troops attacked Beersheba, meeting fierce Ottoman resistance. In the afternoon, with time running out to capture Beersheba and its coveted water wells before dark, Australian Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel ordered the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment, a mounted infantry unit, to make an unconventional mounted attack straight toward the town.
Just on sunset, 800 Australian cavalrymen cleared the ridge southeast of Beersheba. Armed with riflemounted bayonets, they galloped across the plain, through a hail of machine gun and rifle fire. The momentum of the surprise attack carried the Australians through the Ottoman defenses. By nightfall they had captured the town and its water wells.
The critical victory at Beersheba and those that followed came at a heavy price for both sides. There are 1241 Commonwealth soldiers, including 175 Australians, buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beersheba.
The City of Beersheba, which holds a special place in the history and hearts of Australians, continues to commemorate the Australian contribution with commitment and affection. Today, members of the Australian community in Israel will gather with the mayor and people of Beersheba to honor the fallen and remember their sacrifice.
World War I took a large toll on a young Australian nation, federated only 13 years before in 1901. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 Australian men enlisted, including 2,304 Jewish Australians – 10 percent of the total Jewish population at that time. Over 156,000 Australians were wounded or taken prisoner. Over 60,000 Australians were killed.
Their names are written on memorials in the public squares of Australian towns and cities. Their graves lie scattered across far-flung fields of Europe and the Middle East.
ALMOST A century on, the sacrifice of these young Australians says something about Australia’s values and its vision of its place in the world. During World War I and other major conflicts of the twentieth century, young Australian men and women answered the call of duty in faraway places.
Australian military personnel continue to do the same today, working to bring peace and security to the regions of the world torn by conflict. Since 1947, Australia has committed 65,000 personnel to more than fifty UN and other peace and security operations.
Today, more than 3,500 Australians are serving in peace and security operations across the globe, including in Afghanistan, where Australia is the largest non- NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force.
Australia’s military engagement in the Middle East, which began with our contribution to the Palestine Campaign in World War I, continues today. In the ongoing quest for peace and security between Israel and its neighbors, Australian military personnel have participated in five peacekeeping and truce supervision forces created at various critical points in Israel’s history.
These include: the UN Truce Supervision Organization, where Australians have served continuously since 1956 as military observers stationed in Israel, Lebanon and Syria; and the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai, an organization established in 1981 to monitor compliance with the 1979 Israel- Egypt Peace Treaty, to which Australian was a founding contributor, and where Australians have served continuously since 1993.
Today, as in 1917, Australia is a country of strong, democratic values. It believes in good international citizenship. This means doing our part, as a middle power with the world’s thirteenth largest economy, fourteenth largest defense budget, and a tradition of innovative diplomacy, to build a more peaceful, stable and prosperous global order. Australia is geographically distant from the Middle East, but we believe, as we did in 1917, that our interests are directly engaged here. We continue to work for a peaceful and secure Middle East, and Australia remains unshakably committed to Israel’s security, as it faces its many challenges.
The writer is Australia’s ambassador to Israel.