Monday, May 13, 2013

The Battle of Hanita 2

'Darkness Gathers Quickly in the Holy Land'

"The tract of 4,000 dunums had been thoroughly explored and surveyed in the meantime. It would provide a living for 80 families, or 500 souls, if they could engage in mixed farming: sheep raising and poultry breeding, with tobacco the chief crop. All this had been settled by the agronomical experts who had examined the land. One third of the area was to be used for pasturage, and one of the first tasks of the settlers would be the planting of a forest of eucalyptus trees. For deforestation and consequent soil erosion constitute one of the worst blights of the Holy Land. The candidates to take up the work were in readiness, too. The occupation group consisted of 90 young people, 80 men and 10 women. They were to go out before the bulk of the settlers and make the place fit for habitation. The pioneers had been carefully selected from many localities with reference to their fitness and courage for occupying a new tract in a frontier region where only recently fierce battles had raged between government forces and Arab bands.

"The occupation took place in what has become of late years the usual form for establishing a new settlement in Palestine: the colony was completed in all essentials between sunrise and sunset in one single day. All preliminary preparations were made in the workers' quarter in Emek Zebulon, at the foot of Mt Carmel. The caravan of trucks was on the way while the moon still hung over the dark waters of the Mediterranean. Thirty-seven lorries loaded with tents, planks, mattresses, cots, length of iron pipes, provisions, and water rumbled off into the future. The orders were that they must stay closely together, that there was to be no singing on the road, and that no one change from one truck to another. At the head of the procession rode a party of ghafirs, or supernumerary constables, themselves Jewish pioneers. Behind them, in motor cars, were 400 laborers, who were to return in the evening after the colony was established. At the tail end, behind the trucks, trotted a contingent of donkeys needed to carry loads up the hill. A second group of ghafirs brought up the rear.

"The sun came up as the party arrived on the chosen spot. Immediately the workers scattered to tasks previously assigned to them. Some began to mark out the by-road which was to connect the settlement with the Haifa-Beyrouth highway running along the Mediterranean shore, less than a mile distant. Two springs had been discovered by the surveyors. Their waters were now brought to the camp by means of pipes. Tents were pitched, weeds uprooted, stones pried loose for a barricade behind a barbed-wire fence which was going up in the meantime. The high wooden watchtower was set in place with a giant searchlight. Some of the ghafirs stood on guard while the rest hammered and shoveled and got to work, although their rifles remained near by for handy reference, if need be...

"At midday a recess is called. The food is quickly eaten, for there is still much to be done before nightfall. But a few minutes remain before the back-to-work signal will be given, and someone starts to sing Alinu hartza, we have gone up to the land! Instantly the Hora dance circles form, widen, expand, whirl like wheels within wheels, faster and faster. But not for long...

"La avoda, back to work! Hammers pound, saws buzz and rip, picks clang their way into strong ground. All hands are working at top speed. There is not a minute to lose. The settlement must be completed before nightfall, and sun has now passed the meridian. A fresh breeze comes up from the Mediterranean. It must be near five o'clock, the hour when the old-world sea always stirs mysteriously, no matter how calm the weather.

"But then there is an interruption.* A delegation has come to the newest settlement in western Galilee from the oldest in eastern Galilee, bringing a gift of a Sefer Torah, a scroll of the Law. All work comes to a standstill. Quickly a tent is cleared out and converted into a synagogue. Six young men advance and in turn kiss the scroll which is contained in a cylindrical velvet-covered, tubelike box with a ring of little silver bells fastened to the top of its axis. The whole company forms a procession to take the Word of God to its new home.

"All at once the man bearing the scroll breaks into singing: El bene, bene betcha bekarov, build thy house, O God, build it speedily! The congregation takes up the prayerful chant, and they dance as long ago their king, the 'man after God's own heart,' once danced when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem.

"'I was glad.' shouts one man, with arms outstretched and dancing about, 'I was glad when they said unto me: let me go into the house of the Lord!' All the colonists repeat the words of the 122nd Psalm: 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee...'

"Now the sun is going down swiftly. The visitors and helpers from Haifa are leaving. Most of the ghafirs are piling into their cars. That night 5 troopers will remain behind with the 90 young men and women in the wilderness. Darkness gathers quickly in the Holy Land. The colonists are in their new home, for better or for worse..." (pp 211-214)

Will our heroes (and heroines) survive their first night alone in the "howling wilderness" of Upper Galilee or will the sun rise on their torn and bloodied corpses, now food for the vultures and jackals of the desert? Stay tuned for the final, gripping episode of The Battle of Hanita.

[*Needless to say, this "interruption" hardly fits with the reality of the secular kibbutz movement of the time. But, as they say where this kind of stuff plays well, you ain't seen nothin' yet, buddy!]

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