Reviving Burma Road
Israel's First-Ever Railway Tunnel Revives 1948 Trauma
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Banal as this seems, this is a dramatic step forward in the development of Israel and is closely linked to the events that shaped the state. The first tunnel is aimed to bypass the narrowest point along Highway #1. This highway links Jerusalem with Tel Aviv, and is definitely Israel’s jugular vein. Between Latrun and Shaar HaGay ("Gate of the Narrow Valley" in Hebrew) the valley along which the highway passes is barely wider than the dark asphalt spoiling it. The new tunnel would allow trains to travel without disturbing the busy road. However, it keeps alive Israeli military strategies used since the late 1940s.
Gush Dan—Tel Aviv’s Metropolitan area—and Jerusalem are connected by a narrow corridor along Israel’s Highway #1. This is one of the most strategic fault lines of the State of Israel. Breaking it apart is a real possibility, especially at "Shaar HaGay," where Jerusalem’s mountains connect the seashore plains. For years now, Israel is trying to widen the corridor connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv through the construction of a secondary access road. This is known as Route 443, which links north Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements with the city of Modi'in-Maccabim-Re'ut and Tel Aviv. The other attempt of Israel to secure its jugular vein, is adding a fast railway parallel to the route of Highway #1. The railway would be able to deliver troops and weapons to a Jerusalem under siege when the time comes; the tunnel will assure that the new route is more defensible than Highway #1.
The origin of the railways in the Holy Land dates back to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans built the Hejaz Railway, which operated between 1908 and 1920, connecting Medina in modern Saudi Arabia with Damascus in modern Syria; it was an extension of the line connecting Istanbul with Damascus. Some may claim that the private Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway dating back to 1892 preceded the Ottoman line. Technically, they are right. However, the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway would barely classify as a metropolitan area transport (scarcely 60km separate Jaffa from Jerusalem), while the Ottoman line was a serious engineering accomplishment. Moreover, the private line was annexed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Following WWI, the empire disintegrated and Palestine became part of the British Empire. Under this new order, the Jaffa-Jerusalem, the Jezreel Valley, and the Acre branches of the Hejaz Railway were unified into Palestine Railways, a company that operated until 1948, when the system practically collapsed following the war between Israel and its neighbors. Israel Railways inherited this system, doing little more than constructing a coastal line connecting Tel Aviv and Haifa in the 1950s. A reminder of its British past, its trains run on the left hand tracks, opposite to road vehicles in Israel. Until recently, the Tel Aviv-Haifa line was the backbone of the system, with a branch leading to the chemical industries in the south being another key part.
The system serves two main purposes. First, it provides inexpensive transport for raw materials and products of the extensive chemical industry that developed near the Dead Sea. These include such exotic products as methyl isocyanate produced at Makhteshim. This extremely toxic substance is used in the production of pesticides. It became famous during the night of December 3, 1984, when it was spilled in the Bhopal, India, installations of a company now owned by Dow Chemical. Defined as the worst industrial disaster in history, it caused the death of thousands, many more were crippled and the ground there is still contaminated. Dow Chemical learned nothing from the disaster; it is now a major provider of Oil Refineries, Makhteshim, Agan, Dimona Nuclear Research Center and ICL (more details in The Cross of Bethlehem). Israel Railways also operates the weekly transport of soldiers on Sundays, between 6:00 and 9:00 AM. The system transfers about twenty thousand soldiers between Tel Aviv and Haifa, working at roughly twice its capacity. The situation has become so acute, that Israel Railways began renting buses to help it in this gargantuan task. Both activities are a reminder that Israel Railways may look like a civilian company run by the state, but its core business is security and related industries.
In recent years, the 1,000km long system has been expanding. That means mainly the addition of a light rail in Jerusalem and the construction of a fast railway connecting Jerusalem with Tel Aviv. In 2017, the first passengers are expected to reach the underground Jerusalem Railway Station, deep below downtown Jerusalem. Elevators and escalators will help them to ascend the eighty meters separating the railway from the surface. This sounds similar to the soviet nuclear bunkers disguised as metro stations in Moscow. In fact, this is another Israeli attempt to camouflage Jerusalem and prepare it against a possible answer to an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel still lives the Burma Road trauma.
Where are the Generals?
"How come there are no generals mentioned in this article?" regular readers of this website may be asking now. They are right; generals hide behind crucial parts of the story. Two high profile generals are related to Latrun. David Daniel Marcus was a United States Army colonel who assisted Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and became Israel's first general. He was killed by an IDF soldier when he was mistaken for an enemy infiltrator while returning to Israeli positions at night, near the Monastere Notre Dame de la Nouvelle Alliance in Abu Ghosh, between Latrun and Jerusalem. He died just one day after the inauguration of the Burma Road, which he had helped to plan and execute. This was a path which allowed reaching Jerusalem through the convoluted terrain surrounding the city, and was used to deliver supplies and forces during the 1948 war. The road was named after the road built during the Second Sino-Japanese War that later served the Allies to transport goods from Burma to China during World War II.
Better known than he is Ariel Sharon. After the British withdrew in 1948, the fort of Latrun was handed over by them to the Arab Legion. Subsequently, the Jews lost access to Jerusalem from the coastal plains. On May 24, 1948, days after Ben Gurion declared independence, the fort was assaulted by the combined forces of Israel’s newly created 7th Armoured Brigade (still active), and a battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade. Ariel Sharon, a platoon commander, was wounded at Latrun along with many of his soldiers. The assault was unsuccessful, sustaining heavy casualties. On June 1, 1948, a second attack failed. Many of the Israeli fighters were young WWII survivors who had just arrived in the country and had no military training; they were slaughtered. It was neither the first nor the last time Ariel Sharon committed war atrocities. The horrific events were commemorated in a Hebrew song which was oddly named in Arabic: "Bab el-Wad," which means—of course—for "Shaar HaGay," "Gate of the Narrow Valley." It is still very popular during memorial days, and despite the intentions of its writer, it is probably one of the best anti-war songs ever written. The failure of the two Zionist attacks, led to the opening of the Burma Road on June 9, 1948.
Ever since, this has been the most strategic spot in Israel; losing it means the slicing of Jerusalem from the coastal plains, where Israel’s strength is concentrated. Highway #1 is meticulously maintained, Road 443 is constantly developed, and a fast railway using deep tunnels is being constructed. Yet, it doesn’t matter how many transport projects Israel develops in order to erase its utter defeat at Shaar HaGay; Bab el-Wad is an indestructible reminder that Zionist forces can be defeated. They have been defeated by the inheritors of those who brought technology to the Middle East and constructed the Ottoman Railway.
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