In January 1948 fighting became fiercer throughout the country, with Jerusalem suffering the severest crises. The city was connected to the coastal plain by a narrow road twisting through the hills, with Arab villages on either side. The topography of the road was such that the Arabs could harass any traffic entering or leaving Jerusalem. In addition to this, there were several geographically isolated settlements around Jerusalem: the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem was cut off from the city, with the Arabs controlling the road linking the Bloc with Jerusalem. Atarot and Neve Yaakov north of the city were also isolated and the journey there was hazardous. The village of Hartuv (present-day Bet Shemesh), west of Jerusalem, was also cut off, as were Kalia and Kibbutz Bet ha-Arava on the northern Dead Sea, which were under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem District. In Jerusalem itself, the Jewish quarter of the Old City was cut off and accessible only by convoys escorted by the British army. The remoter quarters of the city, Talpiot and Mekor Hayim in the south, Mount Scopus in the north and Bet Hakerem and Bayit Vegan in the west were also cut off and access risky.
The presence of the British was one of the main factors hampering Jewish defensive action. It should not be forgotten that Mandate government offices, military headquarters and the High Commission were all located in Jerusalem. The British maintained a heavy military presence there in order to protect their institutions and to facilitate orderly withdrawal when the Mandate came to an end. They adopted a 'neutral' policy, which prevented them from intervening when Arabs attacked Jews, but somehow involved the confiscation of arms from Jewish defenders. In one instance the British seized weapons from a post in the Nahlat Shimon quarter and arrested the Haganah fighters manning it. The following day the bodies of all four defenders were found near Herod's Gate in the Old City.
On January 14, the Arabs initiated a heavy attack on the Etzion Bloc. Repelled at great cost to the enemy, the Bloc defenders also suffered casualties: three dead and twelve injured. After the battle, the commander of the Bloc, Uzi Narkis, called for reinforcements of fighters, ammunition and medical supplies. Since the road from Jerusalem to the Bloc was under Arab control, HQ decided to send the reinforcements on foot. On January 15, at 9:30 p.m. a well-equipped platoon of 38 fighters loaded with ammunition and medical supplies set out from Hartuv. One of them sprained his foot en route and was sent back to base escorted by two companions; the remaining 35 continued through the hills towards the Etzion Bloc. Since the platoon had left Hartuv relatively late, it did not reach the Bloc under cover of darkness, and was subsequently spotted by the Arabs. According to Arab eyewitnesses, a large force surrounded the platoon and a fierce battle ensued lasting several hours. Despite putting up a courageous fight, all 35 fighters lost their lives in the battle. The following day their corpses were handed over to the authorities in Jerusalem and the Yishuv was plunged into deep mourning.
THE EXPLOSION IN BEN-YEHUDA STREET
Between January and March 1948, the Jewish community in Jerusalem suffered blow after blow. On January l, a booby-trapped car exploded in Hasolel Street (present-day Hahavatzelet Street) near the editorial offices of the Palestine Post, the Jewish-owned English-language daily. The building was destroyed and the printing press set alight; nearby buildings were damaged and there were many casualties. The Jewish authorities, on the basis of eye-witness reports that British soldiers had set the explosion, openly accused the British of carrying out this horrific act.
On February 22, another tragedy - later known as the 'Ben-Yehuda Street incident' - occurred in Jerusalem. At 6:15 a.m. a convoy of three military trucks accompanied by an armored police vehicle approached the Jewish check-post in Romema. The British soldiers prevented the guards at the check-post from examining the contents of the vehicles and the convoy continued on its way to the center of Jerusalem. It halted at the top of the Ben-Yehuda Street. The soldiers abandoned the trucks and left the site in the armored car. Shortly afterwards, Jerusalem was shaken by a mighty explosion. Four buildings crumbled, their residents killed or trapped among the debris. Jerusalem civilians were summoned to transport the wounded to hospital and find the corpses amongst the rubble. Some 50 Jews were killed, with more than 100 injured.
The city was stunned. From the testimony of the guards at Romema, it was clear that it had been a deliberate and well-planned act of sabotage on the part of the British. Whilst the Haganah command in Jerusalem decided to exercise restraint, the Irgun published a statement asserting that any British soldier or policeman found in a Jewish area would be shot. Armed Irgun groups patrolled the streets, attacking any Englishman they encountered. That day alone ten British soldiers were shot dead in Jerusalem, prompting the British to confine themselves to their security zones and to suspend their patrols. From then on, the Jewish forces (Haganah, Irgun and Lehi) roamed freely in Jerusalem without fear of harassment.
Two days before the explosion in Ben-Yehuda Street, a daring escape had taken place from the central goal in Jerusalem. Lehi prisoners had succeeded in digging a tunnel, which connected up to the old municipal sewage system. On February 20, eight Lehi and four Irgun fighters, all undergoing long prison sentences, climbed down into the tunnel, crawled along the sewage channel and out through an aperture outside the prison area. There friends met them and given uniforms of the Public Works Department; thus attired, they were spirited away to freedom. Some of the Irgun fighters were hidden in the home of "Gandhi" (Levi-Yitzhak Brandwein) in Kupat Am Alley, near Ben-Yehuda Street.
In my room in the Ahvah quarter on the morning of February 22, I heard that an explosion had taken place near the Gandhi home and rushed over to see if everyone was all right. I was relieved to discover that no one had been injured, and was particularly glad to hear that Nurit had spent the night at the home of her friend in Rehavia. Things looked horrific: the apartment roof and ceiling had totally collapsed, and the dust was so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few feet away. I rolled up my sleeves and, together with the boys who had dug the tunnel in the goal, started clearing the debris in Gandhi's home. It was some time before building materials could be found to mend the roof and ceiling, and our meetings meanwhile were held perforce 'under the stars.'
From the beginning of the revolt against the British, Gandhi had been sympathetic towards the Irgun and done everything he could to help the fighters. By the time I arrived in Jerusalem, he was a fully-fledged Irgun man, and meetings of the Jerusalem Command were held in his home. He was nicknamed Gandhi in honor of the Indian soldiers club at the end of his alley.
In addition to serving as a meeting place for the Jerusalem Command, the Gandhi home was a refuge for any Irgun fighter who came to Jerusalem and had not yet found accommodation. For us 'refugees' it was a second home and Mrs. Brandwein, whom we called 'Mother Gandhi,' placed herself at risk by giving us haven. The house also served as a haven for the wounded. Elimelech (Yehoshua Gorodenchik), wounded in one of the Irgun operation, was such a guest. Dr. Kook, who often treated Irgun wounded, was summoned to examine him and decided that it was essential to remove the bullet lodged in the patient's buttock. Since it was too dangerous to take him to hospital, there was no alternative but for Dr Kook to carry out the operation there and then, without anesthetic. Two people held Elimelech down whilst Dr. Kook sliced into the wound with his scalpel and successfully removed the bullet. After the operation, Nurit and I threw his bloodstained clothes into the garbage cans in the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
This was not the end of Mother Gandhi's adventures. One Friday afternoon, resting on her bed after the Sabbath preparations, she heard a knock on the door. She was taken aback when she opened it to see a policeman, who asked in Hebrew if this was the Brandwein residence. When she confirmed that it was, he asked if he could come in, since he wanted to talk to Yoram. Mrs. Brandwein was apprehensive, but remained calm and said that there was nobody there of that name. The policeman insisted and asked if she knew Yaakov (code-name of the District Commander). She again denied it and asked him to leave. He tried to enter, but in light of her behavior, decided that he must have made a mistake and left.
Mrs. Gandhi, who was alone in the house, did not know what to do. She concluded that the place had been discovered by the police, and did not know how to warn Yaakov, who was due to arrive for a meeting shortly afterwards. She was pacing up and down anxiously when he arrived. Before he could say anything, she explained the story and urged him to leave. Yaakov asked her for a description of the man and roared with laughter:
Why did you let him go? He's one of our boys who just escaped from goal!
It was Kabtzen, (Eliezer Sudit), one of the best-known Irgun fighters, who had been caught in one of the actions and sentenced to a long goal sentence. His friends had succeeded in smuggling a policeman's uniform into jail and he had escaped in it without arousing suspicions. He was equipped with two addresses - the Brandwein home was his first choice - but nobody had told Mrs. Brandwein to expect him. Having escaped from the best-guarded goal in Palestine, Kabtzen had been unable to outwit Mrs. Brandwein.
He fared better at his second address, the Greenwald family. There he changed his clothes and waited until he was smuggled out to Tel Aviv.
When fighting began in Jerusalem, Gandhi was placed in charge of supplies for the Irgun bases in the city. It was amusing to see him in the Betar club, which became a supply depot, with a small caliber revolver on his imposing stomach.
THE EXPLOSION IN THE JEWISH AGENCY BUILDING COURTYARD
On March 11, 1948, a tremendous explosion shook the Rehavia quarter, and reverberated throughout the city. A booby-trapped car had exploded in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building, killing 12 people and injuring 44, and causing great damage.
Investigation revealed that the Haganah Intelligence Service had been in contact with an Arab named Anton Daoud Karmilo, who was a chauffeur for the American Consulate in Jerusalem. He told the Service that he could supply them with arms and duly produced three revolvers, for which he was paid. He then told them that he could get hold of two machine-guns, rare acquisitions in those days. Anton proposed the Jewish Agency buildings as the place of assignation, since he claimed that he might be recognized and harassed elsewhere. Subsequently, Anton Karmilo arrived in the courtyard of the building on March 11. His liaison person told the guards at the gate to let him in with his car, which belonged to the American Consulate and was flying the US flag. Anton parked his car in the courtyard, got out holding a bag and handed it over to the liaison officer. Anton told him that there was only one machine-gun in the bag, and that the other one was waiting elsewhere in Jerusalem. The two set out in the liaison officer's car, leaving the American consulate car in the courtyard.
When they failed to return, the guards went over to check the American car and discovered a suspicious parcel inside. They drove the car out of the courtyard and parked it in an empty lot to conduct a more thorough check, without summoning a sapper. After the inspection, they returned the car to the courtyard, where it exploded several minutes later.
The explosion stunned both the general public and the leaders of the Yishuv. After the booby-trapped cars near the Palestine Post and in Ben-Yehuda Street, the nerve center of Jewish government had now been penetrated. This meant that there were no secure places in Jerusalem.
The Arabs stepped up their activities outside Jerusalem as well, and attacked Jewish convoys en route to the isolated settlements around Jerusalem. On March 18 a supply convoy set out from Jerusalem for Hartuv. It included four trucks loaded with supplies, escorted by four armored cars. The convoy reached Hartuv and unloaded the supplies without a hitch, but on the way back to Jerusalem, armed Arabs attacked it. In the exchange of fire, one of the armored cars was hit and remained stranded, while the others beat a retreat to Hartuv and summoned aid from Jerusalem. Reinforcements arrived in the evening, and rescued the convoy. In the exchange of gunfire, 11 fighters were killed, and two armored cars were lost.
Two days after this catastrophe, the Arabs set fire to the Shimshon cement factory near Hartuv and fired on the settlement. The defending force at Hartuv was not able to withstand repeated Arab attacks, and on April 16 the CO Jerusalem District received permission from national HQ to evacuate the settlement.
Arabs also attacked a convoy, which set out from Jerusalem for Atarot. The two armored cars, which accompanied the convoy, hit mines, and 14 fighters were killed and 9 injured in the fierce gunfire directed at the convoy.
The Haganah's failure to repel the Arab onslaughts had an impact not only on the Jewish community in Palestine, but also on the US Government, which decided to withdraw its support for the November 29 UN resolution.
On March 19, the US representative to the Security Council announced that since there was no possibility of implementing partition by peaceful means, the plan should be shelved and in its place Palestine should become a UN trusteeship.
THE DEBACLE AT NEBI DANIEL
In March 1948, the national HQ decided to significantly reinforce the Etzion Bloc to prepare it for siege. To this end, a large convoy was planned, carrying supplies, military equipment and fighters. Surprise tactics were deemed necessary to prevent the Arabs from attacking the convoy en route. The plan was for the convoy to leave Jerusalem at 4:30 in the morning, to reach the Etzion Bloc within an hour, to unload as rapidly as possible (within 15-30 minutes) and then to set out on the return journey. According to this timetable, the Arabs would not have time to set up roadblocks and the convoy could return safely to Jerusalem. But things did not go according to plan.
The convoy - 33 armor-plated trucks carrying supplies, 4 armor-plated buses carrying unarmed fighters to replace those at the Bloc, and 14 escorting armored cars - set out two hours late. They reached the Bloc an hour later without incident and the supplies were rapidly unloaded. However, instead of starting back to Jerusalem after fifteen minutes, the convoy was delayed for two hours. The delay was caused by attempts to load the fuselage of a damaged Piper light aircraft onto one of the trucks, as well as a stubborn bull, which was to be transported to Jerusalem.
This unnecessary delay, in addition to the delay in setting out, sealed the fate of the convoy. By the time it left, the Arabs had succeeded in setting up roadblocks en route to Jerusalem, making progress virtually impossible. Near Nebi Daniel, several kilometers southwest of Bethlehem, the convoy encountered an impassable roadblock and came to a halt. The convoy remained stranded on the road, unable to move. The Arabs, positioned on both sides of the road, opened fire, and the fighters abandoned their vehicles and took up positions in an isolated house. Since the command vehicle had withdrawn to the Etzion Bloc, there was nobody to organize the force holed up in the house, whose casualties were increasing by the minute.
When word of the fate of the convoy reached Jerusalem, it was decided to order Shaltiel, CO Jerusalem district, to contact the British and ask for their help. The British were in no hurry to respond, and troops were not sent to rescue those trapped at Nebi Daniel till the following day. The British stipulated that the Jewish fighters had to lay down their arms and return to Jerusalem unarmed. Only after all their demands had been met, did the British rescue the fighters and transport them to Jerusalem, while the weapons and armored cars were handed over to the Arabs.
Jewish casualties at Nebi Daniel numbered 15 dead and 73 wounded. 150 weapons were lost. Also lost were 10 armored cars, 4 armored buses and 25 armor-plated trucks - most of the Haganah's fleet of armored transport vehicles.
The damage to the Haganah's military capacity in Jerusalem was severe, but even graver was the blow to the morale of fighters and civilians. The defeat at Nebi Daniel undermined the self-confidence of the defenders and leaders of Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM LEADERS ARE AT A LOSS
The battle of Nebi Daniel undermined the self-confidence of the leaders of the Jerusalem Jewish community, who sent desperate appeals for help.
On March 28, the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem sent a cable to the Department Head, Moshe Sharett (Shertok), who was then in New York. The cable read, inter alia: 1
We feel that it is our duty to tell you the truth about the current situation in Jerusalem. The conditions vis a vis supplies and equipment are close to catastrophic. After the Etzion Bloc tragedy, we lost all the city's armored vehicles. Contact with Atarot, Hadassah and even Talpiot is problematic...There are long lines for bread. Morale of the population is very low and the dissidents [i.e. Irgun and Lehi] are benefiting from the situation...The Jewish Agency has almost totally forfeited its authority. We urge you to do whatever you can to expedite the negotiations for a truce in order to avert the severe threat to Jerusalem.
A day later, Golda Meir (Meyerson) dispatched a message from Jerusalem to David Ben-Gurion, who was then in Tel Aviv:2
The situation in Jerusalem is very grave. The debacle on the Etzion road has undermined public morale...the worry because of the shortage of food supplies and petrol has caused panic. As milk has vanished and bread begun to disappear... some people are saying that it is essential to ask the English to stay in Jerusalem or to seek a way of arriving at a settlement with the Arabs.
This was outdone by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Chairman of the National Committee (and later President of Israel). In a memorandum sent at the beginning of April to members of the Jewish Agency Executive convening in Tel Aviv, he wrote:3
[...] Since I have neither the practical opportunity nor the emotional ability to leave the besieged and isolated city of Jerusalem and to come to the Executive meeting, I have decided to express my views in writing...
In March, the acts of hostility reached their peak, and it seemed that the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) could no longer endure the blows inflicted by the Arabs. The irregular Palestinian forces controlled all the inter-urban routes, the road to Jerusalem was blocked and the city was under siege. The settlements of the Galilee and the Negev were also cut off. Murderous onslaughts were launched on convoys, and the numbers of Jewish victims grew from day to day. Some 175 Jews were killed throughout the country in January, 176 in February and 312 in March.
I will not conceal my opinion: I view our situation with dread. One of the reasons may be that I am not in Tel Aviv, in the territory of the sovereign state, but in the besieged city of Jerusalem, and that I am familiar with the situation at first-hand and not through rumors. Every hour of the day and night I live under siege together with the one hundred thousand Jews of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is cut off from the outside world and split from within.
There has been neither access to nor exit from Jerusalem for the past ten days, except on the wings of eagles [reference to light aircraft operating between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem]. We do not see the Tel Aviv newspapers. There are no convoys, no regular food supply, no regular mail, almost no telephone connection with the outside world, and though important steps have been taken to safeguard the road to Jerusalem, there are no immediate prospects that the situation will improve. On the contrary, it may be assumed that it will worsen considerably.
And inside the city?
The city is divided. For the past four months the Old City has been under enemy rule, and the entrances are occupied by armed Arabs. Nobody enters or leaves. The Jewish inhabitants are surviving on the meager rations brought by tortuous routes with the help of the [British] army, and its defenders are courageously trying to maintain the status quo.
The northern and southern quarters are also cut off from the city.
To the north: Hadassah and the University are within range of enemy gunfire, which threatens to burn them down, and the route to the Mount of Olives cemetery is blocked. To the south - Mekor Hayim and Talpiot, Ramat Rahel and the Training Farm, are cut off and the defenders are maintaining contact with those parts of the city with great difficulty.
The entire city is cut off. We feel the shortage of supplies, and hunger has begun to make itself felt. The whole of Jerusalem is in the same situation as the Old City.
And what is more: the danger to Jerusalem is two-fold: external and internal. Let us not forget that half of the population is from the Eastern communities, among whom the 'dissidents' [i.e. Irgun and Lehi] have long since found a haven. And as for the Ashkenazi community - half follow the Agudah [Agudat Israel which was opposed to Zionism]. Among all these elements national discipline is lax, and demoralization is setting in - and cannot be ignored. Violent incitement against the national institutions has begun, and there have been threats of establishing separate institutions, and even attempts to go out with white flags to appeal to the Governor and the Arabs.
It is true that great efforts have been made by the authorities in the past few days to rally forces, to organize the population into a national framework and to impose Zionist discipline, both economically and organisationally. But we cannot ignore the internal danger, and there is no guarantee that when the situation worsens, we will be able to hold fast on this front.
We need a ceasefire, first of all in order to save Jerusalem (Italics in original).
We are anxious for food, ammunition and people. We urgently need fortifications. We must remember that the Arabs have free access to the villages. Food, weapons and people are available to them freely, without impediments.
Without reinforcements of manpower, food supplies and arms we cannot hold on and we will be faced with a decision which will be fatal for Jerusalem, a decision which augers ruin and destruction of the Jewish community in Jerusalem...
To sum up: we are interested in an armistice, first and foremost in order to save Jerusalem. The Arabs are not interested, but the British have an interest in an armistice: they will lose nothing thereby but at the same time it is not a question of life and death for them
The dispatch of armed escorts with convoys had not proved effective, and most armored vehicles, which had been gathered with great difficulty, had been destroyed or lost. The Arabs were taking the initiative, and were aided to no small degree by the 'neutrality' of the British, who were doing nothing to maintain law and order in Palestine.
Irregular forces streamed into the country from across the border and reinforced the Palestinian units already active there. Kaukji, who had arrived from Syria at the head of a large force, operated in the north, and a large unit led by Hassan Salameh was active in the center of the country. Abdul Kadr Husseini, who used Iraqi volunteers who had crossed from Transjordan, as well as deserters from the British army, commanded the Arab forces in the Jerusalem region.
The brunt of the suffering was borne by the Jews of Jerusalem. The city was surrounded by Arabs, who harassed the inhabitants of the widely dispersed Jewish neighborhoods, greatly restricting the area in which Jews could move safely. It should be recalled that although British troops had been evacuated from all the Jewish settlements in the country in February, the British remained in Jerusalem until May 14, 1948, hampering the maneuverability and defence capacity of Jewish forces. The indifference of the British and their reluctance to intervene made it easier for the Arabs to attack the Jewish community.
Over the months, the Jews of Jerusalem had absorbed blow after blow: the death of thirty five members of a convoy en route to the Etzion Bloc region; the explosions caused by booby-trapped cars, first in Hasolel Street near the Palestine Post offices, then in Ben-Yehuda Street, and finally the explosion in the office building of the Jewish Agency. Moreover, the debacle at Nebi Daniel had a crushing effect on morale in Jerusalem. At the end of March, Jerusalem had its first taste of siege. Contact with the coastal plain was severed and provisions began to dwindle. The exhilaration occasioned by the November 29 UN resolution had given way to grave concern and disillusionment. By the end of March, some 850 Jews had been killed throughout the country (out of a Jewish community numbering 600,000), most of them in Jerusalem.
I should be remembered that most of the Jewish community in Palestine was concentrated in the coastal plain, while the Arabs were clustered on the hillsides. Jerusalem had no hinterland of Jewish settlements and was totally dependent on the coastal plain. A narrow, winding road, surrounded on both sides by Arab villages, connected the city with Tel Aviv. Only a small number of Jewish settlements were established west of Jerusalem (such as Kiryat Anavim, Maaleh Hahamisha and Motza), and they controlled only a small section of the mountainous road. The Arabs were well aware of Jewish Jerusalem's dependence on the coastal plain, and hence, every time they wanted to harass the Jews, they attacked traffic bound for Jerusalem.
On March 31, 1948, all national efforts were directed towards liberating the road to Jerusalem. The focus shifted from escorting convoys to seizing fortified positions on both sides of the road. Armed escorts put the initiative in enemy hands; Jewish forces were now on the offensive and would determine the course of events.
This was the background to Operation Nachshon, whose name derived from an inspiring biblical figure. When the Children of Israel fled Egypt and found themselves helpless on the shores of the Red Sea, Nachshon Ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah took the initiative and leapt into the Sea, whose waters parted. The breakthrough to Jerusalem was seen in analogous terms.
Operation Nachshon began on April 6 and included, for the first time, a pre-emptive military attack by a brigade-size force. Some 1,500 fighters were concentrated for the operation, whose aim was to open up the road to Jerusalem and to facilitate the transportation of food, fuel and military materials to the besieged city. It was the largest operation conducted till then and laid the foundations for further wide scale action.
The plan for Operation Nachshon was to take over all the Arab villages on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, thus freeing the road for the convoys. Deir Yassin was listed among the Arab villages to be occupied during this Operation.
To further these objectives, the Arab village of Kastel, located on a steep hill overlooking the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv road, was attacked. Vehicles climbing the hill were forced to slow their pace and very few escaped Arab fire.
Kastel was first captured on April 3. There was fierce fighting and the village passed from hand to hand several times. On April 8 the Arabs launched a large-scale onslaught on Kastel, in the course of which the noted Arab leader Abdul Kadr el Husseini was killed. The Arabs attacked with a large force and could not be repelled. First they captured the positions around Kastel and then launched a direct onslaught on the village. At midday the local Jewish commander decided that the attackers could not be checked and ordered a retreat. In the course of the withdrawal, 29 fighters were killed, and many others were injured.
On the following day, April 9 (the day on which Deir Yassin was taken), a Palmach company set out to recapture Kastel from the Arabs. The Palmach fighters captured the village without a fight, since the Arabs had left to attend the funeral of their commander, Abdul Kadr el Husseini.
In the wake of the conquest of Deir Yassin, the Arabs retreated from the villages of Kolonia and Bet Iksa, which overlooked the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv road, and a Palmach force without a fight took the villages. The road was now fully controlled by Jewish forces, and two large 225-truck convoys with supplies succeeded in reaching the besieged city.
1. History Book of the Haganah, volume 3, p.1403
2. Political And Diplomatic Documents, December 1947 - May 1948, p.559 , ISRAEL State Archives
3. Plitical And Diplomatic Documents, December 1947 - May 1948, p.491, ISRAEL State Archives