Jerusalem – A City Under Siege

By Gideon

Jerusalem is not the largest city, nor the richest one, but it is the most desired city in the world, if judged by the number of times it was attacked by enemy forces.

“Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.” (Wikipedia)

The most known sieges on the city start with the siege by King David in 1000 BCE when he capture the city and made it the capital of Israel. The event is described in the Bible (2 Samuel).

In 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, captured the city, destroyed the temple and the city, and forced prominent Jewish people into exile in Babylon. The last king of Israel before the destruction of the first temple, King Zedekiah, and his followers, attempted to escape, but were captured. After seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded and taken captive to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until his death. This event is described in the Bible (2 Kings).

The most talked about siege on Jerusalem is the Roman siege in 70 CE when the Roman captured the city and destroyed the temple for the second time. It was the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Israel for 2000 years. During this period the Jewish people were divided into many different religious groups with different political and national views. It was also the time of the beginning of Christianity in Jerusalem. Without strong leadership to navigate the nation, militant groups challenged the Roman Empire in a failed attempt to win independence. The consequence was beyond anyone’s worth nightmare.

The Jews tried one more time to break free from Roman control in 132-135 CE. They failed again. It resulted in a complete devastation of the Jewish nation. “The population of Jerusalem was estimated at 600,000 persons by Roman historian Tacitus, while Josephus, estimated that there were as many as 1,100,000, who were killed in the war. Josephus also noted that 97,000 were sold as slaves. After the Roman victory over the Jews, as many as 115,880 dead bodies were carried out through one gate between the months of Nisan and Tammuz.” [Wikipedia]

A less known, but perhaps the most important, siege on Jerusalem began in November 1947. Immediately after the approval of the November 1947 UN partition resolution. Arab militias initiated a siege on Jerusalem, preventing supplies from reaching the city by blocking and ambushing the roads connecting Jerusalem to the rest of the country.

At that time about 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalem; 2,000 in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City  and  98,000 in the western neighborhoods. Jewish presence in the old city declined form a peak of 19,000 in the 1880, as people moved to the newer neighborhoods outside the walls. In 1947, the Jewish population in the Old City was mostly of old and poor people who couldn’t move.

In May 1948 the Jewish Quarter in the Old City was isolated from the rest of Jerusalem. Transjordan Arab Legion, a well organized army (trained by the British), attempted to capture the entire city of Jerusalem, shelling it and cutting off its Jewish residents from the coastal plain. On May 28, 1948 the rabbis of the Jewish Quarter negotiated a surrender agreement with King Abdullah and the Old City fell to the hands of the Transjordan army.



the jewish quarter

The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem after it was captured by the Transjordan’s forces.

The essential lifeline road, to the western neighborhoods of Jerusalem was blocked by Arab Militia in 1947. The road passed through Bab-el Wad (Sha’ar HaGai in Hebrew) ,a narrow valley surrounded by Arab villages on both sides of the hills.

As soon as the state was declared, the British-trained Transjordan Arab Legion, assisted by British officers, and the Egyptian Army, joined the local militias in enforcing the blockade.  The 100,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem were isolated from the rest of the country.

The blockade brought the Jewish population in Jerusalem to the brink of starvation. The Jews outside of Jerusalem organized convoys and attempted to break the blockade and bring relief to the desperate city. The siege was eventually broken by constructing, under difficult conditions, the by-pass “Burma Road”, named after the World War II road from Burma to China. The siege ended on July 11 after Jerusalem had been isolated for three month. It took additional 19 years to complete the process: In 1967 the old city was freed from Jordanian control and was reunited under Jewish control.



The Jewish Quarter liberated by Israeli forces in 1967

How symbolic is the fact that after the Jewish nation was devastated and almost  vanished when the Roman sieged Jerusalem, the rebirth of the Jewish nation in 1948 began with breaking a siege on the same city?

There is another symbolic difference between the siege of 70 CE and the one of 1948 CE. The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple was blamed on infighting among the Jewish people when extremists took control and executed their own people to prevent desertion. In 1948 the Jewish people came to the aid of their trapped brothers and sisters; they fought together to free the city and they won.

The last siege on Jerusalem began in 2000, during the Second Intifada. Palestinians terrorists launched repeated suicide attacks on the city, causing devastation and fear. Attacks on Israeli citizens during the second Intifada were not limited to Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem was a primary target, as if it had a symbolic importance in the eyes of the terrorists.


The most remembered attacks include the suicide attacks on public buses, full of  innocent passengers, and the suicide bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in the center of Jerusalem, on 9 August 2001. In the attack on the restaurant, 15 civilians were killed, including 7 children and a pregnant woman, and 130 wounded.


I visited Jerusalem few times during the Second Intifada. The city that strives on local and international tourism looked like a ghost town. At that time there were hardly any tourists in Israel. One day, during the same trip, I visited Masada with a friend. Masada is either Israel’s number 1, or number 2, tourist attraction.

I couldn’t believe my eyes; the site that is usually packed with tourists was deserted.There were total of four people on the mountain that morning; the two of us, and another couple. They caught my attention since they spoke Arabic. I was surprised to see them there during the Intifada, vising  such a symbolic site for Jewish courage; a place where Israel swears in many of its combat soldiers. I’m not sure they knew that. In any event, it reminded me that not all Arabs are terrorists, and that not all of them hate Israel.

In the past year I visited Jerusalem twice. I went to places that used to be the hot spots during the Second Intifada. Places like the Machane Yehuda Market and the narrow alleys of the Old city. I drove around the city’s busiest streets in a rental car, and I used public buses several times. The city was once again full of tourists from all over the world. The buses were crowded with people. The streets were full with cars. On two occasions, the buses were so full, that I had to stand in the center aisle. There was no long-lasting memory of the Second Intifada. The city was once again a safe and fun place like any other major tourist attraction around the world.

Was this the last siege on the city? I certainly hope so. In any event, one thing is certain; there isn’t, and there will never be, a military power strong enough to keep the Jewish people away from their city.

Jerusalem 2014

Jerusalem in 2014



To read more click on the following links:

How Jerusalem became the capital of Israel

The Remarkable Story of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus