Coordinates: Tel Hai (Hebrew: תֵּל חַי, meaning "Hill of Life" in Hebrew; Tal-ha in Arabic) is a name of a former Jewish settlement in northern Israel, the site of an early battle in the Arab–Israeli conflict, and of a noted monument, tourist attraction, and a college. It is currently part of kibbutz Kfar Giladi.
The Battle of Tel Hai on 1 March 1920, which gave Tel Hai its long-enduring fame, was significant far beyond the small number of fighters involved on either side - mainly due to its influence on Israeli culture, both inspiring an enduring heroic story and profoundly influencing the military of the Yishuv and political strategies over several decades.
In retrospect, it can be regarded as the first military engagement between the New Yishuv (later to become Israel) and Arab rebels (of what was to become Syria), though at the time itself combatants on either side did not regard it in such terms.
Tel Hai was settled as a border outpost in 1918, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The area was subsequently subject to intermittent border adjustments among the British and the French.
In 1919, the British relinquished the northern section of Upper Galilee containing Tel Hai, Metula, Hamrah, and Kfar Giladi to the French jurisdiction. The Zionist movement was greatly displeased with this, since it would have left the sources of the Jordan River outside the borders of British Mandatory Palestine, where the Jewish National Home envisaged in the Balfour Declaration was to be established. Therefore, the few isolated settlements in this territory assumed a strategic value from the Zionist point of view. Still, there was a fierce debate among factions and leaders of he Yishuv, some of whom advocated letting Tel Hai and the other outposts hang on at all costs, while others regarded their situation as untenable and advocated withdrawing them.
Arabs in this area at this time were not primarily involved in activities against the Yishuv, but in strongly opposing the imposition of the French Mandate of Syria, which they regarded as betrayal of the promises made during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule. By present-day definitions some of these villagers would be defined as Syrians, some as Lebanese and some as Palestinians. These definitions did not yet exist at the time, however; the people concerned had been until shortly before part of a single political unit, the Ottoman Empire, and wanted to be part of the newly proclaimed Arab Kingdom of Syria rather than live under French rule.
The Zionist pioneers in Tel Hai, headed by Joseph Trumpeldor were in fact neutral in this conflict - they wanted the area to be neither Arab-ruled nor French-ruled, but restored to British rule which they hoped would eventually lead to its becoming part of the future Jewish state (which indeed ultimately happened). However, as being newcomers to the area recently arrived from Europe, they were evidently suspected by the local Arabs of being pro-French, which ultimately led to armed clash.
On March 1, 1920, several hundred Shiite Arabs from Jabal Amil in southern Lebanon attacked Tel Hai. They first demanded to search Tel Hai, and while the Jews attempted to maintain neutrality, they signalled for reinforcements from the kibbutz Kfar Giladi. Joseph Trumpeldor and ten men attempted to drive the Shiites and roving village militias away.
At the end of a verbal dispute, an armed confrontation did break out, in which six of the Tel-Hai defenders were killed and the survivors found their position intenable and had no choice but to withdraw - whereupon the place was burned. The total number of killed was 8 Jews - 6 defenders and 2 unarmed villagers, and 5 Arabs.
The border in the area was finally agreed between the British and the French, and this area of Upper Galilee was to be included in Mandatory Palestine. It was thus possible for Tel Hai to be resettled in 1921, though it did not become a viable independent community and in 1926 it was absorbed into the kibbutz of Kfar Giladi.
Tel Hai monument
A national monument in Upper Galilee, Israel commemorates the deaths of eight Jews, six men and two women, among them the one-armed Jewish fighter, a Russian Jew named Joseph Trumpeldor, who died in an engagement on 1 March 1920, with Bedouins, who had been attacking settlements in the area. The resolute actions of Trumpeldor and his colleagues against a much larger attacking force inspired the Jews of Jerusalem. The memorial is best known for an emblematic statue of a defiant lion representing Trumpeldor and his comrades. The city of Kiryat Shemona, literally Town of the Eight was named after them.
- Wasserstein, 1991, p. 62;"These attacks were not directed specifically or mainly against Jews" citing Zionist report, Galilee, 13 May 1920 CZA L4/276 III.
- Wasserstein, Bernard (1991). The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-17574-1
- Zerubavel, Yael (1991). The Politics of Interpretation: Tel Hai in Israeli Collective Memory, AJS (Association for Jewish Studies) Review 16 (1991): 133-160.
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