The road up to Jerusalem, part 2

Off the Beaten Track: Learn the story's of modern Israel's first existential fight, as told by the land itself.

Castel (photo credit: Joe Yuden)
(photo credit: Joe Yuden)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
Leaving the Tel Aviv metropolis of “Gush Dan” (the Dan Enclave) on route 1 heading southeast, passing the airport and starting a slow ascent up the Judean Hills between Ramle and Jerusalem is an interesting drive. There seems to be a story around every twist in the road, in the wadis, the dirt roads that crisscross the hills, the ruined buildings and burned out armored vehicles. Just twenty minutes outside of the city, on a one mile stretch of the main road to Jerusalem just past the intersection with Highway 6, you are officially entering first into what was “No man’s land” between 1948 and 1967 and then the West Bank. Looking out to the north you can see where Israeli towns and villages stop amongst the trees, gardens and blossoming fields of the kibbutzim, and the beige desert like conditions of the Palestinian areas begin. Approaching Latrun Interchange you will see the hill to the south and an old British police station, now an Armored Corp base and memorial called Latrun. There are no Palestinian villages on this small stretch of highway, and the ride up the mountains, through Shaar HaGuy and into Jerusalem is pleasant, safe and beautifully green. However it wasn’t always this way.
In February of 1947, The British threw their hands up and turned over the future of the former Ottoman District of Palestine to the United Nations. This newly created body would decide its fate which had been run by the British since the end of World War I by mandate of the League of Nations. On November 29th, 1947 The UN voted to divide what was left of Palestine (what is now Jordan had been lopped of Palestine by the British in 1921) between Jews and Arabs based on where the two populations lived while trying to maintain contiguous territory for both nations. The Jews celebrated and accepted this plan, the Arabs rejected it out of hand and the very next day Jews all over Palestine were attacked.
As you drive up to Jerusalem between Latrun and Castel, you will see some of the battle scars of this civil war in Palestine between the local Jews and Arabs. Dozens of burnt out Israeli armored vehicles were strewn across this road as the Arab villagers who once lived in the hills far above the road, blocked it from Jewish travel, shooting at anyone who dared try to get up to Jerusalem. The Jewish forces of the Hagana didn’t have tanks or other heavy vehicles to try to break the blockade, and the British army kept their ban on weapons intact until their withdrawal on May 15, 1948, so the Jewish underground had to make do with what they had in order to try and break the blockade of 100,000 Jewish civilians in Jerusalem who were now without food, water and electricity. All they had were pickup trucks. The Hagana tried to make their own armor by soldering two steel sheets on the trucks which earned them the name “sandwich trucks”. The steel only slowed down the Arab villagers’ bullets enough to stop them from exiting the trucks – the bullets would ricochet around inside. The trucks soon earned the name “deathtraps”. These trucks are scattered about Shaar HaGuy (Bab al Wad) which contains the road you are traveling on. Look out for these trucks, now monuments to the fallen soldiers trying to free Jerusalem. They are painted reddish-brown and beige.
Between the end of November and mid April 1948 the Jews were on the defensive and the local Arab forces would attack Jews wherever they could: on buses, in the work place, on the roads, in their homes, etc. It was basically a guerrilla war against Jewish civilians -  not about conquering territory. In early April the Hagana went on the offensive. One of the key battles was at Castel, an Arab village at the top of Bab al Wad overlooking the main roads to Jerusalem. If the blockade was to be ended and Jerusalem freed, this village would have to be conquered.
Operation Nahshon (Nahshon was the biblical character who was the first to step between the parted waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus from Egypt) began on the night of April 2nd and 3rd. A “Special Forces” unit of the Hagana called the Palmah - or “Strike Force” - conquered the small hilltop village of Castel without meeting much resistance. Other villages along the road were captured in the next few days and many Arab villagers began to panic and flee. On the 5th of April, the first convoy of food, water and medical equipment made its way on this road up to Jerusalem.
Castel’s Palmah soldiers were relieved and second line troops with no combat experience from the Etzioni Brigade were stationed there. Kadir al-Husseni, the commander of the Palestinian “forces” realized the importance of Castel and immediately amassed hundreds of militiamen, both locals and volunteers from as far away as Iraq and started to pick away at the Jewish soldiers. The British who had sent a force in to stop any further violence, silently withdrew. For the next three days the Etzioni Brigade at Castel were bombarded and the village had become completely empty of civilians. No reinforcements ever came. On the night of the 7th and 8th the Arabs attacked with hundreds of forces reaching the first row of houses but the Etzioni Brigade beat them back. The following morning a fog had set in over Castel and al-Hussieni approached to find the outcome of the battle. Seeing a man approaching the Hagana sentry thought it was reinforcements and called out in Arabic “Up here boys!” Al-Husseini responded “Hello boys!”. Recognizing that the accent was not Jewish Meir Kariyol fired his rifle through the fog killing the Arab commander.
Knowing only that their leader was missing, buses, trucks and donkeys began arriving at Castel with thousands of Arabs and their weapons. By noon Castel was under a major assault on all sides. As the Etzioni Brigade finally began their retreat, the Palmah reinforcements finally arrived.  The Arabs now controlled the high ground. The Palmah officers ordered all troops to retreat as the officers themselves took up positions to cover the retreat of their own soldiers. The officers were soon overrun but they fought until their deaths; some of them taking their own lives rather than being captured, tortured and abused.
The Arabs soon found what they were looking for: al-Hussieni’s body. They carried it up to Jerusalem to the Temple Mount for burial. Almost every Arab in the area followed the funeral procession. Yigal Yadin, Hagana general (and archaeologist-excavator at Masada) saw an opening and commanded the Palmah to retake the Castel and reopen the road to Jerusalem which they did on April 9th. There was no resistance. They did find however plenty of Palmah bodies – 75 had died in the battle - dismembered and mutilated. The village was leveled, its inhabitants not allowed to return.
Castel is accessible by exiting to the south at the HarEl Exchange off of route 1 just before the Motza turn in the road to Jerusalem. Check out the “Mukhtar’s home at the summit, as well as the model of Bab-al Wad, the model of the sandwich trucks, the trenches, the bunkers and the memorials to those who fell on both sides of the summit.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.