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The Road to Jerusalem
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel National news radio commentary
April 20, 2001

Here in Israel, the days surrounding Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) are days which heighten awareness of our Jewish destiny.

The seemingly never-ending spate of Holocaust related stories, testimonies and even Shoah political intrigue receive top priority media coverage. It doesn't escape too many here that "we are still fighting for our lives," as Cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh notes at Yad Vashem, over the sounds of gunfire and shelling from the battles raging at Rachel's Tomb and Gilo.

For many, it's a time to retrace the steps of earlier stages in the Arab-Israeli conflict, both to remember those who gave their lives for the Jewish state, as well as to understand and appreciate the land itself.

Last week I went along on one such trip, retracing the costly 1947-48 battles to keep open the road to Jerusalem. As we sat on the lower hills of the Castel, a key outpost to the west of Jerusalem, our guide, Canadian born Ruchama Alter, knowledgeable and passionate, described the conditions in the country at the time. "Jewish civilians were under constant attack on the roads-1200 people were killed in four months," she said. She described the lives of the 100,000 Jerusalemites who lived under siege and relied on the armed convoys that brought supplies, medicine and water to the city.

We climb the pathway through meadows of wildflowers to the top of the Castel, and the strategic importance of the site is immediately apparent. From here there's a commanding 360-degree view of the surrounding area, but most important is the vantage point over the main Tel Aviv -Jerusalem highway. Whoever controls the Castel controls access to Jerusalem. It took several brigades of Palmach and Haganah forces to finally capture the hill in April 1948. The Jewish brigades killed renowned Arab commander Abd Elkader El Husseini (father of present PA minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Faisal Husseini) and opened the road to the Holy city as the Arab soldiers flocked to Jerusalem for Husseini's funeral.

Around the back of the hill are memorial plaques bearing the names of the fallen Palmach soldiers-today, three young Arabs are raking the grounds.

As we travel the highway towards the Harel Outlook, we pass the "cherry-picker" trucks with workers hoisting the flags that will flutter over the length of the highway until after Yom Haatzmaut.

The Harel Outlook, a serene, forested spot on the Beit Shemesh-Ramla thoroughfare, offers views over the Burma Road-Israel's original by-pass road. (Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, many roads have been constructed all through Judea and Samaria to by-pass hostile Arab villages. Today they are among the most dangerous roads in Israel, those who utilize them subject to drive-by shooting and stoning.)

The building of the Burma Road was a feat of endurance and ingenuity. It was conceived and engineered by the legendary American WWII vet, Mickey Marcus and constructed by gangs of young Jews brought in from Jerusalem who surreptitiously hacked and bulldozed the lifeline out of the steep terrain. At first, a three mile gap between two sections of the road proved impossible to bridge, so hundreds of men would traverse this area at night on foot, hauling heavy sacks of flour to Jerusalem.

Today, on the hills of the Burma Road across from the Harel Outlook, oversized silhouette figures have been placed to recall the fortitude of those night shleppers. Just inside the entrance to Harel, a simple plaque nestled amongst the trees honors those American volunteers who fought in the War of Independence.

We move on to the fields below Latrun, graveyard of hundreds of Jewish soldiers. Many of those who fell at Latrun, a Mandate police fort, pumping station and key point on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, were Holocaust survivors, recently released from the Cyprus detention camps. The men were untrained, spoke little Hebrew and had no chance against the Arab Legion's superior artillery and firepower.

One of the young commanders of a division who tried to come to the rescue of the untrained survivors was Ariel Sharon. Badly wounded, he managed to scramble to safety with the remnants of his platoon, through the open wheat fields below the Latrun fortress. Sharon describes the awful battle in his autobiography, "Warrior."

In the book, Sharon recounts his astonishment during a short leave in Tel Aviv from army duty. He is amazed to see people relaxing in the cafes and strolling on the beach, while just a few miles away, his forces struggle for every inch of the land. [Today, many residents of communities under attack in YESHA feel the same way.]

A short distance from Latrun is the military cemetery at kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. It's a quiet place on a slope just past the cowshed of the kibbutz. Here lie the boys of the Harel brigade, laid to eternal rest at the place that served as their home base during the War of Independence.

A glance at the gravestones indicates that the Harelniks were indeed just boys. The orderly rows of Jerusalem stone bear the names and ages of the fallen. 15, 16, 17 year olds who lied about their age in order to enlist to fight for a Jewish state. Many of the boys were new immigrants from the devastated Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. It's safe to assume that they may have been motivated by the idea expressed by Education Minister Limor Livnat at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Yad Vashem: Jewish sovereignty as a way of eliminating helplessness.

These places and these days of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance of Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Haatzmaut serve to give us hope in difficult times. Things have been worse-much worse, and we have persevered and have much to celebrate. We have paid a heavy price for self determination, independence and continuity-but this is Jewish destiny, and we are privileged to be part of the first generation in thousands of years to witness the emergence of a flourishing, albeit troubled, Jewish state.