The Is­raeli ‘ground zero’, 60 years on

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

THE RU­INS on the windswept hill­top are not eas­ily dis­tin­guish­able. The few re­main­ing walls of the Cru­sader fortress sup­port a ru­ined build­ing, the ground slop­ing steeply up to a sum­mit criss-crossed with the trenches of a Jor­da­nian army post oblit­er­ated 40 years ago.

La­trun is the ground-zero of the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict. Next week is the 60th an­niver­sary of UN Res­o­lu­tion 181, which rec­om­mended the par­ti­tion of Pales­tine into two states, with Jerusalem an in­ter­na­tional city. The 33-13 vote in favour was greeted with joy by Jews around the world and anger among the Arabs. Over the years, the He­brew date ac­quired an al­most myth­i­cal qual­ity, with streets through­out Is­rael named Kaf-tet Be-Novem­ber (Novem­ber 29).

But this year, the an­niver­sary will pass with scant pub­lic at­ten­tion in Is­rael. All eyes are on the up­com­ing An­napo­lis sum­mit, and the gov­ern­ment is still ag­o­nis­ing over how to mark the state’s 60th an­niver­sary next year.

Nei­ther are the Pales­tini­ans very in­ter­ested in com­mem­o­rat­ing this date in their na­tional tragedy. Had they ac­cepted the UN res­o­lu­tion, they would have the west­ern Galilee, the south­ern coast of the Mediter­ranean, part of the north­ern Negev and the en­tire area around Jerusalem. Dozens of Jewish vil­lages would have had to up­root them­selves or re­main un­der Pales­tinian sovereignty.

The UNSCOP re­port that rec­om­mended par­ti­tion an­tic­i­pated two coun­tries linked by econ­omy, de­mog- ra­phy and ge­og­ra­phy. La­trun, where the Jerusalem hills end and the coastal plain opens up, would have been the main cross­ing-point and a bustling com­mer­cial cen­tre. In­stead, it saw the bat­tle for the road to Jerusalem that be­gan the day af­ter the res­o­lu­tion. The fort and sur­round­ing strongholds changed from Bri­tish, Pales­tinian, Is­raeli and Jor­da­nian hands, and re­mained en­emy-con­trolled un­til 1967.

Six months af­ter the par­ti­tion dec­la­ra­tion, La­trun saw a rout in which 142 Is­raeli sol­diers were slaugh­tered.

Ari e l S c hein­er­mann, a young pla­toon com­man­der, was crit­i­cally wounded and car­ried back through en­emy lines more dead than alive. Fifty-three years later, he came back to La­trun as Prime Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon and told an as­ton­ished au­di­ence that “Is­rael wants to give the Pales­tini­ans some­thing that no other na­tion, not the Turks, the Bri­tish, the Egyp­tian nor the Jor­da­ni­ans, ever gave them — the op­por­tu­nity to have their own state.”

“We were told that we are go­ing to open the way to Jerusalem and that this is the most im­por­tant bat­tle of the war,” re­mem­bers Yaakov Bu­gin, then a 17-yearold sol­dier in the Alek­san­droni Brigade. “It was a ter­ri­ble de­feat. We didn’t even know there were two fully equipped Arab Le­gion bat­tal­ions there.”

Mr Bu­gin was in the lead pla­toon com­manded by Mr Sharon. Wounded in the jaw and shoul­der, he dragged his semi-con­scious com­man­der to safety. “Out of 35 sol­diers in our pla­toon, only four emerged un­scathed,” he re­calls. “Fif­teen were killed, 11 wounded and five taken pris­oner.”

To­day, La­trun is a mil­i­tary mu­seum and con­fer­ence cen­tre. The trau­matic bat­tle of 1948 is men­tioned only in a mi­nor ex­hibit.

“I went to La­trun a few months ago and was very an­gry to see so lit­tle about our heroic bat­tle,” says Mr Bu­gin. “Some­one doesn’t want to re­mem­ber.”

There is one place where time has al­most stood still. The Trap­pist monastery, built in 1890, cur­rently has a pop­u­la­tion of 18. The old­est, Le­banon­born Fa­ther Basil Ramy, was a 26-yearold novice in 1947.

He re­mem­bers talk of La­trun be­com­ing a cross­ing-point, “but we knew it was never se­ri­ous, war was in­evitable”. Nowa­days, the pic­turesque monastery is packed on week­ends with Is­raelis buy­ing wine and olive oil.

“We saw them all come and go, Jor­da­ni­ans, Bri­tish, Is­raelis. None of them came here or harmed us; they knew we had noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics or any­thing. We just car­ried on pray­ing for peace,” smiles Fa­ther Ramy.

To­day the clos­est vil­lage to La­trun is Neve Shalom, founded in 1977 and the only joint Jewish-Arab com­mu­nity in Is­rael.

“None of the gov­ern­ment agen­cies were will­ing to give us land, so we had to buy it from the monastery,” says Ei­tan Kre­mer, one of the vil­lage’s founders. “But it would be nice to think that this is the place where a cross­ing point be­tween the two na­tions might be pos­si­ble one day.”

PHOTO: ASAP IMAGES

A cer­e­mony on me­mo­rial day in La­trun — where, in 1948, 142 Is­raeli sol­diers were killed

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