Arab Raiders Attack Tel Hai
Joseph Trumpeldor. Photo: Public Domain

March 1, 1920

A Shiite Arab militia, accompanied by local Bedouins, attacks the Jewish agricultural settlement of Tel Hai, which has served as a border outpost in the Upper Galilee between British-controlled Palestine and French-controlled Syria since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The Battle of Tel Hai, part of the Franco-Syrian War of 1920, is the first armed conflict between Arabs and Zionists.

Under a border settlement in 1919, Tel Hai and other parts of the Upper Galilee shifted from British to French control. But the Jews living there want to be under British control and thus in position to be part of a future Jewish state. Local Arabs, meanwhile, are primarily concerned with ending the French Mandate of Syria.

Fighting breaks out between a force of hundreds of Arabs and the comparatively few Jews living in Tel Hai after the Arabs, fearful that the relatively new settlers from Europe are pro-French, ask to search for French soldiers. Eight Jews and five Arabs are killed in the battle. The Jewish casualties include Joseph Trumpeldor, who commands a detachment of reinforcements from a nearby kibbutz, Kfar Giladi. Trumpeldor is shot in the hand and stomach and dies while being evacuated.

Born in Russia, Trumpeldor rose to prominence in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. After immigrating to Palestine in 1911, he teamed with Ze’ev Jabotinsky to form the Jewish Legion and Zion Mule Corps to help the British in World War I. These organizations become the forerunners to the Haganah and the Israel Defense Forces. He is remembered for his final words, “Never mind, it is good to die for our country,” although the authenticity of that statement is disputed.

After the battle, the Jews flee, and the Arabs ransack and burn the settlement. Trumpeldor and the seven other fatalities become martyrs, and the battle alters the Zionist defense calculus. Kiryat Shmona (City of Eight) in northern Israel commemorates them. Tel Hai is now an unpopulated area attached to Kfar Giladi.