On May 8, 1948, a general ceasefire was proclaimed in Jerusalem, which remained in effect until the British departed. Ben-Gurion was anxious to extend the ceasefire after the end of the Mandate, and when Shaltiel requested permission, on May 11, to launch an attack immediately after the British withdrawal, it was denied. On May 13, Ben-Gurion received the following cable from Shaltiel: 1
Jerusalem is being emptied of Arab fighters, who are exploiting the ceasefire to leave for various other fronts. Request permission to take advantage of this opportunity to capture important objectives, even if this requires us to open fire.
In response, Ben-Gurion gave Shaltiel the go-ahead to launch Operation Kilshon (Pitchfork) after the British withdrawal.
On the morning of May 14, 1948 two British convoys set out from Jerusalem for the last time: one moved through Sheikh Jarrah north to Ramallah and from there through Latrun-Ramleh- Petah Tikva to the final objective, Haifa. The second convoy moved southward through Bethlehem-Hebron-Be'er Sheva to Rafiah. Each consisted of some 250 vehicles with the last of the British officialdom in Jerusalem and the army units which were guarding the convoys.
The departure of the two convoys marked the end of thirty years of British rule in Jerusalem.
In a cable to Washington on May 13th, the American Consul in Jerusalem described the balance of power in Jerusalem before the British left as follows:2
So far the Haganah has not moved outside the limits of the territory allotted to the Jewish state, with the exception of several positions on the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv road and the capture of Jaffa by the Irgun. The situation of the Arabs in the mixed towns is difficult.
If the Jews choose to do so, they can conquer all of Jerusalem, since most of the Arab leaders have fled to the neighboring countries.
It is our estimate that once the British Mandate ends, the Legion and apparently also other Arab armies will invade the area earmarked for the Arab state. They will not risk a serious clash with the Jews.
One should remember the informal agreement between the Jews and Abdullah. Abdullah's desire for additional territory (reference is to the area assigned to the Arab state) and for a good neighbor (i.e. the Jews) will enable the implementation of the agreement. (Italics mine. Y.L)
OPERATION KILSHON (PITCHFORK)
Operation Kilshon commenced in the early morning hours of May 14. Its objectives were two-fold: firstly, to occupy buildings belonging to Jews, but confiscated by the British in order to set up the security zones (known as Bevingrads). Secondly to create territorial contiguity with the isolated Jewish neighborhoods. The plan was essentially defensive, and was aimed at maintaining the status quo and protecting the Jewish community in Jerusalem. No attempt was made to exploit the opportunity to occupy the whole of Jerusalem.
Operation Kilshon was carried out from two headquarters: north and south. The northern headquarters was assigned the task of capturing buildings in the center of the city, within the British security zone, which included the Russian Compound, the Generali Building, the Post Office and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (later Bank Leumi). The second mission, assigned to the northern headquarters, was to seize the Police Academy and Upper Sheikh Jarrah, so as to establish contact with Mount Scopus. The plan did not include the occupation of the Barclays Bank and Notre Dame buildings in the center of the city or the Musrara and Wadi Joz quarters.
The southern headquarters was assigned the mission of occupying buildings in the security zone in Talbieh and establishing territorial contiguity with the besieged quarters of Yemin Moshe, Talpiot and Ramat Rahel. Capture of Abu Tor was not included in the plan.
While the emphasis in Operation Kilshon was on making contact with the isolated Jewish neighborhoods (Talpiot and Ramat Rahel in the south and Mount Scopus in the north), the operational orders made no reference to the most cut off of all the jewish communities, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, whose 1,700 Jewish inhabitants had been under siege for several months.
Operation Kilshon began immediately after the British left Jerusalem.
A day previously, Shaltiel had reached agreement with the Irgun on the joint defense of Jerusalem and now assigned them the task of capturing the Police Academy and Upper Sheikh Jarrah, in 'Kilshon north'. Shaltiel later justified this decision:3
We estimated the Irgun strength as 250 armed men, a considerable force in Jerusalem at that time. I assumed that a force of that size was capable of carrying out the job. I did not want to assign them to an area with a Jewish population, lest they consolidate their rule there.
On the morning of May 14, 1948, the sentinel on guard at the Irgun base in the Feingold buildings noticed that the British were lining up for a final parade in the Russian Compound. After a brief farewell ceremony, the last of the British troops in Jerusalem set out in a convoy. The Irgun fighters immediately left their base and stormed the deserted Generali Building. From there they moved on across Jaffa Street to the Russian Compound.
The buildings in the Compound had been built in the 19th century to serve the Russian pilgrims who visited Palestine. During the Mandate, the Compound was taken over by the British and became one of the most fortified areas in the city. It housed the CID 4 (which was attacked and destroyed several times by the Irgun and Lehi), as well as by the British Police, who cast their shadow over Jerusalem. At the end of the Russian Compound, a building in the shape of three sides of a rectangle, built originally as a hostel for women, served as a central prison during the Mandate period. Underground fighters often found themselves incarcerated behind its stonewalls.
The Irgun fighters who broke into the Russian Compound made their way to this jail. The building itself was deserted, since all the prisoners had been transferred; the Jewish prisoners were sent to the Atlit detention camp, where they remained until the British left the country. Among the fighters who broke into the Compound were some who had spent time inside the jail - an irony, which was not lost on them.
Word of the British departure spread like wildfire and Jewish forces began to advance towards the evacuated areas. In Mea Shearim, the Irgun fighters left their base and made for the nearby Italian Hospital building. They then turned to the Arab quarter of Musrara, but were commanded by the Haganah to halt, since Musrara was not included in the battle plan of Operation Kilshon.
I was stationed at the Etz Hayim base at the time and was instructed to take my men to the Pagi buildings (near the Sanhedria quarter) to take part in the capture of the Police Academy. We boarded a large Leyland truck (confiscated from the British) and set out through the deserted Jerusalem streets. At the sound of our singing 'On the Barricades', windows opened, and people cheered us on.
When we reached the Pagi buildings, I realised that my unit was not large enough to take the Police Academy, particularly in light of the rumor that an Arab unit had already entered the camp from the other side and settled in. I phoned the Irgun headquarters in town and was told to wait nevertheless. Another unit arrived an hour later and we now totalled sixty. Among the arrivals was Gal (Yehoshua Goldshmid) who, as Irgun Operations Officer in Jerusalem, took command of the entire operation.
My unit was selected as the spearhead, whose role it was to break into the camp, while the others stayed behind as cover. We crawled through a hole we had cut in the camp perimeter fence and found the camp empty (the rumor of an Arab unit proved unfounded). The entire force followed us and we searched the numerous huts. We found tables laid with unfinished food, an arms depot and considerable quantities of fuel. But we had no time to deal with such matters. After completing the first search of the camp, Gal called the three unit commanders: Giora (Ben-Zion Cohen), Menashe (Yehuda Treibesh) and myself. We climbed onto the roof of the central building in the camp, and Gal explained his plan. He instructed us to advance towards Sheikh Jarrah in three units, with twelve fighters in each unit, equipped with light weapons (the heavy weapons, including two Bren guns, were left behind for the defense of the camp). I tried to explain that this was too risky and that more fighters and weapons should be assigned to each unit. But he was in a state of euphoria, and my arguments were dismissed.
We had no choice but to set out as ordered. I had the hardest task, because open terrain separated us from our objective. I climbed down from the roof and returned to my unit. As we began our advance into the open terrain, snipers attacked us and my fighters were given their first opportunity to put their intensive field training into practice. The only casualty was a fighter suffering from shock. After moving forward in a crouch for several hours, we reached our objective and met with little resistance. In a very short time, Upper Sheikh Jarrah was entirely ours and the road to Mount Scopus was open!
In the evening we were relieved by another unit and returned to the Etz Hayim base. I desperately wanted to share my experiences with Nurit and went along to the 'villa', where she was taking part in a commanders' course. After telling the cadets about my experiences the day after the Mandate ended, Nurit accompanied me to my car.
While we were in action at the Police Academy and Sheikh Jarrah, Haganah units in southern Jerusalem captured Talbieh and the British security zone, which stretched as far as the David building near Yemin Moshe.
The Lehi, which had not arrived at agreement with Shaltiel, operated independently. Immediately after the British departure, a Lehi force advanced up Jaffa Road and seized the Barclays Bank building, moving on from there to the Notre Dame monastery. After capturing Notre Dame, the Lehi fighters tried to advance towards the Old City, but encountered fierce gunfire and suffered heavy losses. Yehoshua Zetler, Lehi commander in Jerusalem, appealed to Shaltiel for aid, saying that with minimal reinforcements it would be possible to enter the Old City and link up with the Jewish Quarter there. Shaltiel turned down the request, arguing that the sites, which Lehi had taken, were not included in the battle plan of Operation Kilshon. Zetler went from Shaltiel to Raanan and asked the Irgun for reinforcements, but he discovered that all the Irgun units were deployed in the mission assigned to them as part of Operation Kilshon, namely to capture the Police Academy and open up the road to Mount Scopus. Disappointed, Zetler returned to the Notre Dame area, where the Lehi was fighting alone. The next day, the Lehi was forced to retreat, and only some time later was the monastery retaken by a Haganah unit.
At that time, the Consular Truce Commission, appointed by the Security Council to try to obtain a ceasefire, was visiting Jerusalem. The commission was composed of three consuls who had served in Jerusalem: the Belgian Consul J. Nieuwenhuys, the Chairman, the US Consul T. Wasson and the French Consul, R. Neuville.
On the morning of May 14, at the height of Operation Kilshon, Walter Eitan of the Jewish Agency Political Department wrote to the Chairman of the Commission to inform him that Jewish armed forces had received orders not to attack or move into areas in Jerusalem inhabited by Arabs, unless Jews or Jewish property were the target of attack in those areas:5
Under these conditions, the Jewish Agency agrees to order the extension of the ceasefire in Jerusalem, so as to give the Truce Commission the opportunity to conduct negotiations for a truce.
That same day, Leon Cohen from the Jewish Agency sent the following cable to Ben-Gurion: 6
We have acceded to the consuls' demand to continue the ceasefire for eight days, to facilitate the completion of negotiations for an armistice according to your statements. It is highly possible that we will be forced to give our final reply as to the armistice before midnight to preclude the possibility of an attack on Jerusalem by Abdullah's forces. Please empower us to give the final reply according to your general policy and to sign if this is necessary. Give corresponding orders to the district commander.
Ben-Gurion's reply arrived the following day:
[...] We agree to continuation of the ceasefire in Jerusalem. If it is essential to arrive at an armistice agreement in Jerusalem, you are empowered to do so, on condition that you do not exceed the orders despatched to you several days ago.
Exchanges of fire between the sides went on all night, and the next day Operation Kilshon focused on the south of the city. The German Colony, Baka and the Allenby Barracks were captured. Thus the siege of Talpiot was lifted.
Operation Kilshon, which had lasted three days, was over but not completed. Yitzhak Levi (Levitzah), a senior Haganah officer in Jerusalem in 1948, summed up the operation as follows: 7
One might say that Operation Kilshon offered us a golden opportunity to conquer Jerusalem and to block access to it. This opportunity was not exploited properly. The British had left: we were facing irregular Arab forces, without military leadership and lacking heavy weapons. By employing a more daring approach, we could have taken the whole of Jerusalem within one or two days...
The History Book of the Palmach says of those same three days in May:8
[...] The British had evacuated the city, and their 'security zones' were now in our hands. The Arabs in the city had not recovered from their defeat in the battle for Katamon, and in effect there was no Arab fighting strength in Jerusalem. But due to various political considerations and because of lack of initiative on the part of the Jewish forces, I believe that an assured military opportunity to capture the entire city was squandered...
Was it in fact 'lack of initiative' or was it deliberate policy on the part of Ben-Gurion, carried out meticulously by his loyal associate, David Shaltiel?
It will be recalled that on May 12, 1948, three days before the end of the Mandate, Ben-Gurion had refused to yield to Shaltiel's request to go into action in Jerusalem after the British departure. When he finally did give the go-ahead, he forbade Shaltiel to capture any territory in Jerusalem, the exceptions being occupation of Jewish buildings, which had been vacated by the British, and establishment of contact with the besieged Jewish neighborhoods. Thus, to outward appearances at least, the ceasefire, which had been proclaimed on May 8 by the British High Commissioner, would be observed. In line with this policy, Walter Eitan informed the Chairman of the Truce Commission that the Jews would not invade areas inhabited by Arabs. Indeed, Arab neighborhoods such as Musrara and Wadi Joz were not attacked, and no attempt was made to break into the Old City.
Walter Eitan claimed, in the name of the Jewish Agency, that the German Colony and Baka were occupied solely in order to establish contact with the besieged neighborhood of Talpiot and that this action should consequently not be regarded as a breach of the ceasefire.
1. Jabotinsky Institute,k-4 1/11/5