The Israeli ‘ground zero’, 60 years on
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.”
A ceremony on memorial day in Latrun — where, in 1948, 142 Israeli soldiers were killed