Authors: Dion Nissenbaum
While Israel portrayed the program run by the Jewish National Fund as a beautification project, Jordanian officials knew that tree planting was a political act in Jerusalem, one that could be used to establish the digger's rights to the land. Israel knew it too, and the government approved the move into No Man's Land to demonstrate its claims to the area.
With Israel refusing to stop, Jordan took its case to New York. UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who'd just helped avert a 1956 war in the Middle East by creating a new UN peacekeeping force, privately urged Israel to stop planting the trees. So did London and Washington. Everyone was leaning on Israel to bring the digging to a halt.
On August 28, 1957, as pressure built on Israel, its top leaders gathered to discuss their predicament. Golda Meir, then Israel's foreign minister, painted the whole debate as an absurd overreaction by jittery Jordanians.
“In Jordan during the first days there was great panic, when near the border, very near the border, we went in with heavy equipment, tractors and bulldozers,” Meir told Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders. “Possibly, they were really panicked and turned to all their friends: âFor God's sake, Israel is preparing to attack!'”
Israel wasn't preparing to attack Jordan. But the tree planting had triggered a war of its own. In New York, Meir said, Hammarskjold kept warning Israel to cool things down before they got out of control.
“When someone approached Hammarskjold he said: âYou don't really want a discussion in the Security Council. There is a feeling that America also does not want this discussion any too much,'” Meir told the group. Just that morning, a UN official gave Israel another warning: Stop the tree-planting work or we will bring this before the UN Security Council. Meir urged Ben-Gurion not to bow to the pressure.
“There is no reason to make a commotion,” Meir said during the meeting. “There is no logical reason that we be forbidden to prepare the area and plant trees.”
“They do not want our rights to be established,” Ben-Gurion told her.
“I want to suggest that we continue the work,” Meir replied. They had to stand up to the pressure. “We will go to the Security Council. We will go there. Common sense does not tolerate that we have to stop the work.”
Meir warned that Israel would lose the upper hand if it agreed to stop digging up the hillsides.
“We know that if we stop this one time, it is harder to start again later,” she said. “I think that the best thing we can do is to finish quickly, at the very least, the work with heavy equipment, indeed, bulldozers are not machine guns.”
The Israeli leaders emerged from the meeting ready to fight. The United Nations, America, England and other world powers kept privately prodding Israel to stop the work before they were forced to bring it before the Security Council. No one wanted to see the world superpowers fighting over trees in the Middle East.
“The Americans are afraid that Syria and Russia will be given the opportunity to appear as though protecting Arab interests,” Meir said in another meeting on September 1. Meir urged the Americans to get Jordan's King Hussein to back off. She saw no reason to back down.
“I do not care if Hussein says this is a victory because we took our heavy equipment out of the area,” Meir said. “But to stop crucial workâthat we cannot do. Hussein has to supply sensations to public opinion, we also have public opinion to whom we will not be able to explain why we must stop work that doesn't cause damage to anyone and that there is no objection to our doing this work.”
Neither side would bend. Five days later, Israel was hauled before the UN Security Council to defend its decision.
The 11-member Security Council included Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the American diplomat who would go on to become Richard Nixon's vice presidential running mate when he lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Ambassadors from the Soviet Union, England, the Philippines and Iraq all gathered in the Security Council chambers to hear Jordan's ambassador to the United Nations lay out the ominous implications for peace in the Middle East. This wasn't about trees, he told them. This was about the ground they were planted in. This land wasn't “no man's land.” It belonged to Palestinian farmers forced from their homes by war. Now, the Jordanian ambassador told the Security Council, Israel was using tree planting as an excuse to seize more ground in Jerusalem.
“We are now faced with a particular form of Israeli violation of the Armistice Agreement, the aim of which is the same as that of other aggressions on the part of Israel, namely, to get access to, to exploit and occupy privately owned Arab lands,” Ambassador Yusuf Haikal told the Security Council.
Haikal left no doubt that Jordan was prepared to go to war over the trees if the United Nations didn't do something.
“In the event of the persistence by Israel in the work described earlier,” he warned the council, “my government would have no alternative but to take the necessary steps and measures to ensure the safety of the area and the preservation of the status quo.
When his turn came to speak, Israel's deputy UN ambassador, Mordecai Kidron, immediately mocked Jordan for bringing the issue to the Security Council. He characterized the Jordanians as petty rivals who were willing to pick a fight over the most absurd things. Like trees.
“It might appear that the appropriate place for a discussion of this nature is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations rather than the Security Council,” Kidron said, “because, despite the assertions of the Jordan foreign minister, there are no aggressive or other military aspects to the planting of trees in this area.”
Kidron cast Jordan as hopelessly trapped in a pitiful paradigm that made the country's leaders reflexively antiâanything Israel did, even planting trees. He deftly framed Jordanians as reactionary rejectionists who saw dark deeds and hidden agendas on Jerusalem's innocent hillsides.
“We have in Israel a particular feeling about trees,” Kidron told the ambassadors from the world's leading powers. “Among the things of which we are most proud in the history of modern Jewish settlement in the Holy Land is the conversion of large stretches of barren hills and rock strewn mountains into verdant forest.”
Kidron went on at some length about the importance of trees to Israelis. They planted them when people were born. They planted them when people died.
“Trees are for us symbols of life and of growth,” he told the Security Council. “It was thus with a particular feeling of amazement and lack of comprehension that we heard that Jordan wished to put a stop to the planting of trees in the former Government House area.”
There was nothing nefarious about the tree planting, Kidron said. It was little more than Israel doing on its side of No Man's Land what Jordanians were doing on their side. When Kidron was done, Arkady Sobolev, the Soviet Union's ambassador to the United Nations, leaned in on Jordan's side. Like the Jordanians, Sobolev saw Machiavellian hands pulling hidden strings. He blasted Kidron for trying “to belittle the significance of these works” that the Israeli leader “seemed to regard . . . as a joke.”
This was no laughing matter to the Soviet ambassador. Sobolev agreed with Jordan: This wasn't about trees. It was about Israel doing America's bidding by stirring up conflict to keep the Middle East in a constant state of chaos.
“Aggressive circles in certain governments are interested in the maintenance of such tension and are using Israel as a tool for the implementation of their own plans,” Sobolev said.
When he decided to speak, America's ambassador ignored the Soviet implications entirely and backed calls for continued UN examination of the situation.
“We do hope,” Lodge said in time-tested, mealymouthed diplomatic speak, “that . . . both parties would refrain from taking any action between the armistice lines that would tend to increase tensions.”
With the United Nations punting, Israel was able to keep planting. For the rest of the year, UN officials kept tabs on every tractor, bulldozer, young tree and soldier that entered the area between the lines. UN observers drew detailed maps documenting the tree-planting efforts that showed the Israeli work stretching across hundreds of acres in No Man's Land, from the edge of Abu Tor to the south. When the issue came back to New York in January 1958, the UN Security Council unanimously backed a US-crafted resolution that called on Israel to suspend the tree-planting project until the United Nations could carry out a new survey of No Man's Land that would examine whether Israel was planting trees on land owned by Palestinian Jerusalemites.
“Israel should not be allowed to use Arab-owned properties and Arabs should not be allowed to use Israeli-owned properties,” the resolution read.
The UN action was meant to defuse tensions. In reality, it did almost nothing to curtail Israel's work in No Man's Land. By the time the UN Security Council voted on the dispute, Israel had been working on the tree-planting project for six months. New “facts on the ground” were taking root. When Israel seized control of East Jerusalem in 1967, the JNF declared part of No Man's Land next to Abu Tor, where the 1957 tree-planting project had taken place, to be a new “Peace Forest.”
“The Peace Forest was intended to connect the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem, representing the reunification of Israel's capital city in 1967,” one Israeli tour guide wrote on a tourism website. “Its name reflects a wish that all of Jerusalem's residents will be able to live together in harmony, and its location serves as an ideal gathering place for people of all walks of life.”
The Peace Forest's origins have long been forgotten. When I asked the JNF in 2014 about the history of the forest, the group hired an Israeli geology professor, Yossi Katz, to investigate. Katz looked over JNF records and checked Israeli government archives before reporting back to the JNF. Katz said he could find no evidence that the JNF planted trees in the disputed No Man's Lands that later became the Peace Forest. The geologist couldn't explain why detailed UN maps in 1957 showed the Israeli tree-planting project expanding across the area now known as the Peace Forest. He couldn't say who did the work, but it wasn't the JNF.
In the end, it didn't really matter who planted the forest along the Jerusalem ridgeline. The dispute became one more reminder that feuds over small things along the unsettled border, from toilets to trees, could become the spark for a major confrontation, if not a new Middle East war.
Italicized quotes in the book are based on memories of one or more people who were part of the conversation.
In the beginning, there was a hillside. It rose steeply above the Old Testament's accursed Valley of Slaughter, high enough to give people living there an enviable view of the Middle East city where G-d created Adam from the dust, Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
This hillside may have been the place where Judas cut a deal with Jerusalem's high priest to betray Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. It may be named after a Muslim warriorâbut it's not entirely clear which one. Some Israelis say it is named for a revered Jewish high priest who lived and died here.
If you ask the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, he might tell you this neighborhood on the hill, Abu Tor, isn't named after a famed Muslim fighter general at all. It's named after a Greek Orthodox saint known for healing the city's animals. Some researchers say the hilltop actually draws its name from pagan worshippers who carved out stone caves where they paid homage to their gods 3,000 years ago.
In Abu Tor, people tell different stories about the neighborhood's name. So it's not surprising that people can't agree on what has actually happened here. Some researchers will stake their reputations on saying that Abu Tor is the place where Judas conspired with the Jewish high priest Caiaphas to bring down Jesusâa place known as the Hill of Evil Counsel.
Abu Tor would have been a perfect place for plotting and scheming. From the open vista, it feels like you can almost jump over the valley and land inside the Old City's walls. On quiet mornings, the sun rising over the Judean Desert casts the Old City in silhouettes of domes, minarets and steeples washed in a hazy indigo-apricot hue. The city's crowded neighborhoods roll out below Abu Tor as the echoes of howling dogs and crunching tires ricochet through the streets. Winds the color of iodine sometimes slam into Abu Tor, battering the hillside with endless waves of desert sand. It feels like the kind of place where you might conspire to bring down a heretic who claimed to be the Son of God.
Some tour guides and historians say the
Hill of Evil Counsel lies farther south, on the ridgeline used first by the British to rule postâWorld War I Palestine and then by the United Nations as it tried to keep the peace in the Middle East. Even if the UN Government House doesn't actually sit on the Hill of Evil Counsel, it's a good story for tour guides.
The Tomb of Abu Tor
In English, the Arabic name
is usually translated as “Father of the Bull” or “Father of the Ox.” In this case, it is believed to have referred to a fierce Muslim general who fought alongside Saladin as his fearsome army rousted Christian Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187.
Depending on who you ask, the general's full name might have been Ahmad Bin Jamal ad-Din or Sheikh Shehab ad-Din el Cudsi. In either case, he was given the name Abu Tor for riding a bull into battle with Islam's most celebrated warrior. As a thank-you for his bravery, Saladin gave Abu Tor a small village on a hillside outside the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Even after the war, the bull remained loyal to the general. When Abu Tor needed things from the market, he would tie a note around his faithful bull's neck and send it lumbering toward town. Without fail, the bull returned to the hillside every time with all the things that Abu Tor needed.
Some longtime residents of Abu Tor say that both those stories are wrong, that the real Abu Tor is Abu al-âAbas Ahmad ibn Jamal al-Din âAbdallah ibn Muhammad ibn âAbd al-Jabar al-Kudsi, who helped Islam's second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, conquer Jerusalem the
time, in 637.
Little known to most people, even many of those living in the neighborhood, is that, whoever he is, Abu Tor is buried at the top of the hillside in a small stone crypt that has been transformed into a backyard storage shed.
(Even this is sometimes disputed by the Greek Orthodox Church. The man buried there isn't Muslim, the church leaders might argue. He's a sixth-century Christian martyr.)
Abu Tor's final resting place is in the shadows of a broad fig tree, under a cement-and-stone block shed that's used to store bikes and gardening tools, right next to a plastic garbage can.
The tomb's location can be found in the UN archives on copies of the cease-fire map used by Dayan and Tell in 1948, where it is marked as that of
“Sh. Ahmad et Turi,” Sheikh Ahmad of the Bull. Sometimes old Muslim men from the neighborhood down the hill will come to the narrow stone alley outside Abu Tor's tomb and raise their hands in quiet prayer.
Some locals say there is good reason to stay on Abu Tor's good side: He will haunt the people who don't look after his tomb. Bad things happen to those who don't take good care of his final resting place. And so Abu Tor's tomb remains. He has been buried alongside one of the neighborhood's most captivating homes: a one-story stone house with a central domed roof and high ceilings that may have served as a mosque, a Greek Orthodox patriarch's home, and a brothel.
Others say the origins of the neighborhood's name can be traced back much further than the seventh century. Some people say the name Abu Tor dates back thousands of years, to the time of Canaan, when pagans worshipped gods like Baal, a deity often depicted as a bull. As in the Valley of Slaughter below, some locals say, small cults used the Abu Tor hillside to honor their gods with fiery offerings and bloody sacrifices.
One of the suspected sacrificial spots is near Eliyahu Goeli's home, inside the walled compound that has been owned by the Greek Orthodox Church for centuries. For the Greeks, for all Christians, this spot holds special significance beyond its reputation as the Hill of Evil Counsel. Hidden beneath the sloping hilltop is a claustrophobic catacomb that once held the bones of some of Jerusalem's important Christian pioneers, one of whom was beheaded in the fourth century when he refused to betray his faith.
The small stone monastery is built above a beautiful, long mosaic floor that some people say is a clear sign that the hillside was an important spiritual center in days gone by. The monastery seems to be jammed into the hillside at an angle, like it's been yanked around a few times. The building, with its short, narrow, arched stone entrance and its rusting crucifix hanging from the heavy iron front door, dates back to the seventh century when Saint Modestus restored Jerusalem's decimated holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Modestus wasn't just a Christian hero: Church leaders say he protected and healed animals. For that, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch has said, Modestus was the one from this hillside known as the real, the original, Abu Tor.
Of course, there are some modern-day residents of this neighborhood who say that the original name is actually Givat Hananya, the hill of Hananya, a Jewish priest from the city's Second Temple era who had a summer home there. But most people, Arab and Jewish, simply know this place as Abu Tor: home of the stubborn-headed.
The Gates of Hell
Until the late nineteenth century, many people thought this hillside was too far from the Old City to be safe from marauders. Though only a half mile from the safety of the Old City walls, Abu Tor is on the far side of an ignominious valley with steep drops that make it difficult to quickly move through by foot, horse or car.
The Old Testament refers to it as the Valley of Slaughter. On this the city's Jews, Christians and Muslims can agree: This rough-stoned valley leads to the Gates of Hell. This is where the wicked will be held to account for their deeds.
It is among the spotty grass and olive trees that Jewish kings are said to have once sacrificed their sons. The choking smoke that once rose from the darkened valley floor came from innocent children thrown by pagans into funeral pyres to honor their gods.
It may be the valley where an inconsolable Judas hanged himself from a tree after realizing the result of his betrayal of Christ. It may be where Judas bought a potter's field and had a mysteriousâand fatalâfall. It's a place known in the New Testament as the Field of Blood.
To the southeast of Abu Tor is the city's Peace Forest, a plunging ridgeline filled with hundreds of acres of pine, eucalyptus and olive trees. The modern-day forest promenade has been the setting, depending on the level of tension, for everything from Jewish-Muslim musical performances to small-time criminal dognapping rings, from Palestinian kids' malicious stone throwing to fatal Palestinian stabbing attacks on Israelis out for a walk in the park.
In 1887 a German banker and two Jewish partners decided to build a block of affordable housing on a ridgeline in Abu Tor. They got halfway through the construction of Beit Yosef before they gave up. In the 1920s, about ten Jewish families were living in Beit Yosef when the city was hit by a wave of tension focused on restricted Jewish access to the Western Wall. Though local residents tried to protect the Jewish families in Beit Yosef, a bloody 1929 revolt sparked by the tensions made it clear that Jewish families were imperiled.
The Jewish families moved away from Abu Tor and a new Palestinian business class moved in. The neighborhood became a magnet for merchants from Hebron, who settled in Abu Tor and built many of the stone homes with arched windows, mosaic floors and high ceilings that still define its historic character.
Finding Martin Buber in a War Zone
In the run-up to the 1948 war, Abu Tor had little strategic value. It had served mostly as a staging ground for a few militant attacks along Hebron Road, the busy route on the edge of Abu Tor that connected the Old City with Bethlehem and Hebron to the south. It also connected the British Mandate headquarters, on the ridge some called the Hill of Evil Counsel, with central Jerusalem. Militants planted roadside bombs, hit the government printing press building on Hebron Road and launched small attacks on the railroad station right next door.
When Israel's new army made its push to control Jerusalem's Old City in 1948, it swept through Abu Tor with relative ease. The soldiers faced little resistance on the hillside as Jordanian fighters fell. Most of the families had fled. And it wasn't a place where Arab forces could easily hold ground. Israeli soldiers held just enough of Abu Tor to protect the train station and government buildings on the western edge of the neighborhood along Hebron Road.
As Israelis moved from house to house in Abu Tor looking for enemy soldiers trying to hide among the civilians, they ran into an unexpected resident: Martin Buber, the famed existentialist philosopher known for his wild, white beard, which sometimes made him look like a deranged, homeless prophet.
“He had a weird look,” said one Israeli soldier in a military report unearthed by Doron Oren, an Israeli researcher who wrote a dissertation on Abu Tor. When the Israelis asked Buber why he hadn't sought safety somewhere else, he apparently told them he wasn't worried.
“He was sure no one would hurt him,” the soldier said.
Buber moved away from the new border drawn by Dayan and Tell. The crown of Abu Tor became the eastern edge of Israel. The houses abandoned by the Palestinian merchants were given to dozens of low-level Israeli government clerks who had been forced to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Many of them weren't happy to be moving from their more temperate coastal lives in Tel Aviv to abandoned homes on Israel's new border with Jordan. The clerks filed complaint after complaint asking the new Israeli government to fix up their houses. When the government dragged its feet, the clerks banded together in protest.
They complained about being placed on the border; they said they couldn't help noticing that other government workers, those with connections and more responsibility, had been given nicer homes away from the border in Katamon. The complaints and protests usually went nowhere.
As more and more people began moving to Israel, a country the Jewish people could finally call their own, its leaders struggled to find homes for them all. Abu Tor became the new neighborhood for scores of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. The new families came from Iran, Morocco and Tunisia. They began to take over homes right on the barbed wire border separating Israel from No Man's Land and the Jordanian soldiers beyond.
Waiting for Santa Claus
Down the hillside, below the narrow stretch of Abu Tor No Man's Land separating Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, Arab residents retained their connection to work and life in the Old City across the valley.
Many took buses and walked to their jobs as cobblers, shopkeepers and sandwich makers. They all knew there was a new country at the top of the hill. It wasn't clear how long it was going to stay. Arab leaders across the Middle East assured their citizens that Israel wasn't going to last. Jordanian soldiers moved into the neighborhood and took over Palestinian homes to use as forward posts along the new border with Israel. They rolled out barbed wire to mark the western edge of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a newly independent country that freed itself from British rule in 1946.
Right beyond the barbed wire, as the hillside pitched up sharply, was No Man's Land. Most of the homes there were empty. Loose metal shutters slammed against stone walls when storms swept across Abu Tor. For the kids living below the barbed wire, No Man's Land was a No-Go Zone. It was dangerous. It could be deadly. They knew Israeli soldiers were keeping watch from positions hidden in the tree line above them, but they could rarely see them. They knew, as some say in Islam, that Allah was as close to them as their jugular vein.
Saliba Sarsar was born in East Jerusalem seven years after the city was split by Dayan and Tell. Saliba grew up on the lower slope of Abu Tor, where he would sometimes sneak into the deep, wide fields and forests in the more lightly guarded No Man's Land to the south of Abu Tor, out where the United Nations had its headquarters. But Saliba and his friends steered clear of the dangerous gash of No Man's Land that ran above their neighborhood.