Safed War of Independence
(Hebrew: שחרור צפת / Pronunciation: Shi’ich-rur Tz’fat / Other Names: Milchemet HaAtzmaut, War of Independence, 1948 Battle for Safed / Definition: Jewish Liberation of Tzfat / Description: Battle to Liberate Tzfat during Israel’s War of Independence)
As World War II drew to a close the Jews of Palestine began to exert increased pressure on the British to end their Mandate and leave Palestine. This would allow the Jews to establish an independent Jewish country. At this time the leaders of the “Yishuv” -- Jewish Settlement of pre-State Israel -- prepared for war with the Arabs who opposed the creation of a Jewish State. Both the Jewish and Arab forces considered the capture of Safed as a vital goal which would allow them to advance their position in northern Israel.
Events Leading Up to Safed' Battle for Independence
In 1948 the population of Safed was estimated to be approximately 12,000 Arabs and 4,000 Jews. The Jewish community had been gearing up for the expected battle for years, making and hiding weapons in clandestine cellars and in the nearby settlement of Biriya. After the United Nations voted to recognize a Jewish country in Palestine in November 1947 the Haganah and the Irgun, two Jewish underground self-defense organizations active in Tsfat, increased their preparations for battle.
British Pro-Arab Policies
After the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections, the British began to prepare to leave Tzfat. During this time, from November 1947 to April 1948 the British did whatever they could to advance the Arab cause.
Hostilities between the Arabs and Jews began in December 1947 The British often intervened, generally on the side of the Arabs.
The Arabs blockaded the roads leading into Tzfat, reducing supplies to the Jewish community. The British made no effort to end the blockade and when a Haganah convoy from Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar tried to bring supplies into Tzfat, the Arabs attacked the convoy and killed seven Haganah soldiers. British forces arrived and disarmed the surviving Jews and arrested the two Arab attackers.
Shortly afterward, Haganah fighters were able to stop the British jeeps. They killed the Arab attackers. From that point on, the British behaved in an openly-hostile manner to the Jews. The situation was so tense that the Jews would not allow British patrols to enter the Jewish quarter unless they searched the jeeps first to ensure that they were not loaded with explosives.
A Jewish driver, Haviv Dahan, managed to bring supplies into Tzfat by maneuvering his truck into British convoys which traveled the roads leading into and out of Tzfat. The British were furious but were unable to stop him.
The British prepared to depart Tzfat on April 16th 1948. As they left they turned over four high points in the city to Arab forces, including the Citadel fortress, the two police stations, one on the main street and one on the Cana’an mountaintop and the Beit Shalva building that guarded the entrance to Tzfat.
The British advised the Jewish population to evacuate the elderly, women and children from Tzfat as they left. They told the residents that they would not be responsible for the ensuing slaughter that would take place after they pulled out.
The Haganah, under the leadership of Elad Peled, was opposed to any sort of evacuation. The Haganah felt that the fighters would fight more effectively if they knew that the lives of the Tzfat residents rested in their actions.
The Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Podhenhotz, was consulted. In 1929 he had advised against an evacuation in the face of possible Arab riots and his advice, not to evacuate, had left the Jews in the path of Arab rioters who massacred many Tzfat Jews.
The question was raised again in April 1948 and Rabbi Podhenhotz again advised against evacuation. The residents listened to the rabbi’s advice and the British pulled out of Tzfat without taking any Tzfat residents.
Underground Fighters Enter Tzfat
The defense of Tzfat came under the command of Elad Peled, a Haganah commander who managed to bring 35 fighters into Tzfat through back trails and paths. The residents of Tzfat greeted the fighters with cakes and relief.
Commander Peled quickly organized the town to ready them for the coming battles. He placed the civilians of Tzfat under Haganah command and stationed Haganah fighters in defensive positions throughout the town. These included ancient sites such as the ARI Sepharadi synagogue which defended the western edge of the Jewish quarter from the Arab neighborhood of Harat a-Romana. The fighters opened firing slits in the stones of the southern facade of the ARI Sepharadi synagogue. The ARI Ashkanazi synagogue was set up as a field hospital. It was also one of six stations where women, children and other non-combatants were quartered during the fierce battles that raged in the city.
After the Haganah took control of the city, many aspects of day-to-day life began to stabilize. Food was rationed and price controls were instituted. A local police force took care of mundane issues in the town. Mail was sent out of Tzfat using homemade stamps which were honored throughout the country. The Tzfat “Post Office” cancelled the stamps with a hand-made cancellation implanted in the heel of a shoe. A local newspaper, “Kol Ha’Ir” was published regularly.
The civilians were put to work digging bunkers which gave the Haganah fighters some protection during the battles. Rabbi Avraham Heller, a leader of the Tzfat Ashkanazi community, gave dispensation for the Tzfat residents to work on the Sabbath because the work could save lives.
The Tzfat Jewish cemetery was visible to the Arabs and burials had to be undertaken at night under dangerous conditions. One account describes the burial of a Haganah soldier, Faraj Ohana. The mourners crawled into the cemetery on their stomachs, in the dead of night, in order to bury Ohana.
The leadership of the civilian community became more and more agitated as the situation worsened. The Arabs rolled barrels filled with explosives from the Citadel into the Jewish Quarter. Rabbis and other civilian leaders of Tzfat drafted two letters to the head of the Yishuv, David Ben Gurion, asking for more help. They held off sending the letter for as long as possible, but when the residents began to dig wells to locate drinking water, they decided that the time had arrived to send the letter.
The Haganah decided to take the offensive in the battle for Safed. The Haganah commander of the Northern region, Yigal Alon, admired the tough residents of Tzfat who had not left the city after the 1929 massacre. He was aware that the Arab commander of the region, Haj Amin El Hussani, had already declared that Safed would serve as the Arab capitol of the north and was bringing in reinforcements from Lebanon and Iraq. He knew that the Arabs planned their final strike for May 10th. He decided to strike first.
Opening the Road
The Haganah attacked Beit Shalva which guarded the road leading into Tzfat. They succeeded in capturing the building. Together with the capture of the nearby towns of Ein Zaytim and Biriya, the Haganah was able to relieve the siege of Tzfat and allow supplies to enter the city.
Yigal Alon rounded up approximately 100 vehicles in Kibbutz Ginnosar, along the shores of the Kinneret. He set out towards Safed at night and the long trail of headlights gave the impression that a huge convoy of reinforcements was coming to relieve the Jewish forces in Safed. This act of psychological warfare succeeded in unsettling the Arabs who believed that the Jews were now heavily armed.
Among the assortment of old weapons that comprised the Haganah’s arsenel was a Czech artillery piece. The Haganah named it the “Davidka” in recognition of the reality of the situation -- David was going up against Goliath.
The Haganah fired the Davidka several times. The weapon did little actual damage but made a tremendous noise. When it began to rain after the weapon had been fired, Peled circulated the rumor that “everyone knows that it always rains after an atomic blast.” Soon, the Arabs had all heard that the Jews had an atomic bomb. The entire Arab population fled Tzfat.
After their civilian population left, the morale of the Arab fighters deteriorated. On May 10th the Haganah captured the Citadel and within days, they captured the police station at the summit of Mt. Cana’an. The Battle for Safed was finished and the Jews of Safed could live in safety.