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Middle East Kevin Dispatch

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Safed: A Battle of Living History
January 15, 2000


As the bus climbed over the large rolling hills of Israel's Galilee, I got excited about finally reaching Safed. It is the highest city in Israel, and it soon became clear that I was passing through very green country, no longer hot, dry desert. My bus was full of soldiers, and when they all got off I figured it was my stop as well. I was sorely mistaken, however; they were simply transferring to another bus bound for the northern border with Lebanon and Syria. Alas, I was left alone to walk the rest of the way into Safed. Woe was me. While walking along the winding road I thought about soldiers of past generations. Unlike battles fought deep into Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian territory, I tried to imagine the battles fought right here in Safed!

Expert Fact


Did you know that today, Safed is famous as an artists' colony?

Provided by: Geoffrey Aronson, Foundation for Middle East Peace(FMEP)

When I noticed that the trail I was hiking was fast becoming Jerusalem Street, the main avenue of Safed, I wondered if I would ever be able to understand the complex history of the foundation of Israel. Would Safed be like Tel Aviv, showing very little sign of historical tension? Or would it be more like Jerusalem, where neighborhoods are divided by differing opinions and world views? My guidebook suggested a stroll through the Artists Quarter which was once the Arab section of town. It also mentioned the Tiferet Gallery, once the headquarters of the Haganah, the Jewish underground army that eventually became the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). What? An art gallery that once housed military headquarters? And what ever became of all of the Arabs? How was I to get to the bottom of all this history when things now seem so completely different from what it must have been 50 years ago?

Animosity - a feeling of ill will arousing active hostility
Siege - surrounding the town in order to take it over
Riddled - full of

I decided to start with the art gallery located at what's marked as Kikar HaMaginim (Defender's Square). I looked around the square, and then up and down the four streets which converged there, but there was no sign of any Tiferet Gallery. Only a run-down, three-story building stood in a square which showed no signs of life and didn't appear to be of any historical significance. As I tried desperately to see this shack in a different light, an old man began to speak to me in Hebrew as if to tell me its story. Although my Hebrew is not yet fluent, all of the Middle East history that I remembered from books seemed to merge with his tale. As he spoke on, I began to understand everything he was saying…

Click image for larger view
A stairway that divided 2 peoples

"Back in the spring of 1948, Safed was a predominantly Arab town where we 1,600 Jews lived among 12,000 Arabs. We had our own quarter of town known as the Synagogue Quarter, and all that separated us from them was a long, steep stairway descending from the heights of the Citadel into the valley. This stairway divided our two peoples much like the approaching war would soon divide Palestine.

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Safed's Arab Quarter is gone

For decades we had warm relations with our Arab neighbors and we used to celebrate the festivals in Safed together. But then, in the 1930s we grew fearful of violent acts; such as the one in Hebron where Jews were wounded and killed, their homes and shops set on fire. Here, too, in Safed there were riots against us and our fighting back only escalated the conflict, leaving people dead on both sides.

We understood their animosity towards us to a certain degree-they must have resented the large number of European Jewish immigrants buying up and settling on their land. However, we Jews have had a connection to Safed off and on since the Spanish Inquisition. At the time of the Inquisition, Jews were forced to either flee or die. So, many of us came to Palestine where we could continue to study Kabbalah, our Jewish mysticism. You see, Safed is one of our four holy sites along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias. Anyhow, just before the British left Safed in the 1930s, they turned over control of the Citadel and the Police station to the Arabs. We expected the city to become part of our new state (in accordance with the UN-proposed partition plan), but our small numbers must have convinced the British otherwise. When the Arabs laid siege on the Jewish Quarter, we were faced with only one option: fight for the city.

My wife Ayela, a determined fighter in the Haganah, was guarding the Jewish Quarter from the top balcony of the building you see before you. She, along with 200 other Haganah members and 50 fighters of the Irgun (a militant Zionist organization which had fought to oust the British from Palestine), was barely able to defend the quarter from artillery and enemy fire-we were badly in need of reinforcements.

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This police station looks like Swiss cheese!
Then suddenly one night, a small group of 35 Palmach fighters (the strike force of the Haganah) sneaked into the Jewish Quarter under cover of darkness. One of the Palmach commanders, Yigal Allon, convinced us that winning Safed was the key to conquering the rest of the Galilee, and we became determined to do so. We first tried to storm the Citadel at the top of the mountain, but we were totally unsuccessful. We also attacked the Police station--the building is still riddled with bullet holes to this day. But then, one rainy night we made overwhelmingly effective use of our Davidka mortar which had always seemed to cause much more noise than actual damage. This time, however, it served to shock the Arab fighters immensely. When dawn broke on May 10th the siege was lifted. We had forced the Arabs to flee from Safed and we celebrated our control of the town.

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My Wife's story is as real as Israel is today

Throughout the land other units of the Haganah succeeded in driving out the Arabs like we did in Safed. Places like Haifa and Jaffa, which once had large Arab populations, wouldn't be ours today had it not been for the victorious outcomes of the fierce battles we fought so many years ago. I have lived (along with my wife until her recent death) in Safed ever since. I'll always remember how proud she was of "liberating" Safed-in effect, helping create our new country. By defending that Haganah headquarters, she never doubted that she was fighting for the Zionist dream and the birth of Israel."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Relevant Links:
Check out the photo gallery of the ancient city of Safed

Abeja - Can't We All Just Get Along?
Kevin - Setting the Stage for War
Monica - Under the Sacred Rock
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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