Military Wiki
Battle of Tel Hai
Part of The Franco-Syrian War and the Sectarian conflict in Mandatory Palestine
The Lion of Judah, Joseph Trumpeldor's memorial in Tel Hai
DateMarch 1, 1920
LocationTel Hai, Occupied Enemy Territory Administration
Result Arab victory
  • Yishuv militia

Flag of Kingdom of Syria (1920-03-08 to 1920-07-24).svg Arab Kingdom of Syria

  • Arab Shia militia
Commanders and leaders
Joseph Trumpeldor Kamal Al Hussein
Dozens Hundreds
Casualties and losses
8 killed 5 killed

The Battle of Tel Hai was fought in March 1920 during the Franco-Syrian War between Arab irregulars under the banner of the Arab Kingdom of Syria and Jewish defensive paramilitary force, protecting the village of Tel Hai in Northern Galilee. In the course of event, a Shiite Arab militia, accompanied by Bedouin from a nearby village, attacked the Jewish agricultural settlement of Tel Hai. In the aftermath of the battle eight Jews and five Arabs were killed. Joseph Trumpeldor, the commander of Jewish defenders of Tel Hai, was shot in the hand and stomach, and died while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi that evening. Tel Hai was eventually abandoned by the Jews and burned by the Arab militia.

The event is perceived by some scholars as the first significant outbreak of violence, eventually leading to the Arab–Israeli conflict three decades later.


Tel Hai had been intermittently inhabited since 1905 and was permanently settled as a border outpost in 1918, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.[Clarification needed]

The area was subsequently subject to intermittent border adjustments between the British and the French. The Franco-Syrian War took place in early 1920 between Syrian Arab nationalists, under the Hashemite King, and France. Gangs ('isabat) of clan-based border peasants, combining politics and banditry, were active in the area of the loosely defined border between the soon to be established Mandatory Palestine, French Mandate of Lebanon and Syria.[1]

Joseph Trumpedor had served as an officer in the Russian Army during the Russian-Japanese War of 1905, being one of the few Russian Jews to gain a commission under the Tzar. He had also commanded a Jewish auxiliary unit fighting together with the British Army during the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War. As such, he was a well experienced military man, whom the Zionist movement could send to command the threatened outpost.


At the beginning of the Franco-Syrian War, the Upper Galilee was populated by several semi-nomadic Bedouin Arab tribes, the largest residing in Halasa, and four tiny Jewish settlements, including Metula, Kfar Giladi, Tel Hai and Hamra. While the Arab villages and Bedouin allied with the Arab Kingdom of Syria, the Jewish residents chose to remain neutral during the Arab conflict with the French.

Early on the war, a Kfar Giladi resident was killed by armed Bedouin, greatly increasing tension in the region. Jewish villages were regularly pillaged by the pro-Syrian Bedouin on the pretext of searching for "French spies and soldiers." In one incident, Trumpeldor and other Jews were stripped of their clothes as a public insult by an Arab Bedouin militia.[citation needed]


On March 1, 1920, several hundred Shiite Arabs from the village of Jabal Amil in southern Lebanon marched to the gates of Tel Hai together with Bedouin from Halasa and their Mukhtar, Kamal Affendi. They demanded to search Tel Hai for French soldiers. One of the farmers fired a shot into the air, a signal for reinforcements from nearby Kfar Giladi, which brought ten men led by Trumpeldor, who had been posted by Hashomer to organize defense.[2] Joseph Trumpeldor and his ten men attempted to influence the Shiites and roving village militias to go away through negotiation.

In mainstream Zionist historiography, the Arabs' demand to search Tel Hai was a ruse, and the real intention was intelligence-gathering, murder and driving out the Jews. Kamal Affendi was allowed to enter the village to search for "French soldiers." He encountered one of the female Jewish residents named Deborah who pointed a pistol at Kamal, apparently surprised to see an armed Bedouin in the village. A shot was discharged during the struggle (unclear whether from the pistol or by another weapon) and a major firefight erupted. Trumpeldor was shot and seriously wounded, while the sides barricaded themselves in the village. Kamal Affendi asked to leave, saying it was all a misunderstanding, and the Jewish force approved the cease-fire. During the Arab retreat, one of the Jewish defenders, unaware of the agreements by his comrades and hearing-impaired by the previous firefight, shot at the Arab party, and the exchange of fire recommenced.

Six Jews and five Arabs were killed in the fighting. Trumpeldor was shot in the hand and stomach, and died while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi that evening. The survivors of Tel Hai found their position untenable and had no choice but to withdraw, whereupon the Arabs set fire to the village.[3]


The eight Jews, killed at Tel Hai (this number including two killed in a previous probing attack in January 1920), were buried in two common graves in Kfar Giladi, and both locations were abandoned for a time.[2]

On 3 March Kfar Giladi was also attacked by a large group of bedouin. The defenders abandoned the position and retreated to the Shia village of Taibe where they were given shelter and an escort to Ayelet Hashahar which was under British control.[4]

The Franco-Syrian War entered its last stages in July 1920, with the defeat of Hashemites in the Battle of Maysalun. The border in the area of Upper Galilee was finally agreed between the British and the French, and this area was to be included in Mandatory Palestine. It was thus possible for Tel Hai to be resettled in 1921, though it did not become a viable independent community and in 1926 it was absorbed into the kibbutz of Kfar Giladi.

With a national monument in Upper Galilee, Israel commemorates the deaths of eight Jews, six men and two women, including Joseph Trumpeldor. The memorial is best known for an emblematic statue of a defiant lion representing Trumpeldor and his comrades. The city of Kiryat Shemona, literally Town of the Eight was named after them.


The incident is often considered the first violent incident of the Arab–Israeli conflict. Idith Zertal has written that it marked 'the dramatic initiation of the violent conflict over Palestine.'[5]

Trumpeldor's heritage

Trumpeldor was severely wounded and died after several hours. He is traditionally credited with having said before dying "No matter, it is good to die (tov lamut) for our country" ("אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו") words which in Zionist and Israeli collective memory remain closely associated with the names "Trumpeldor" and "Tel Hai". A recent theory has argued that Trumpeldor's last words were in fact a pungent curse in his mother-tongue Russian, reflecting frustration with his bad luck, namely 'Fuck your mother' ((Yob tvoyú mat'),:ёб твою мать! ).[6]

The words attributed to Trumpeldor, moreover, are clearly a variant of the well known saying "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"), derived from the Odes of the Roman poet Horace – lines with which Trumpeldor, like other educated Europeans of the time, may have been familiar with.

See also


  1. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol.1, Fayard, Paris 1999 p.502
  2. 2.0 2.1 Segev, Tom (1999). One Palestine, Complete. Metropolitan Books. pp. 122–126. ISBN 0805048480. 
  3. Cohen, Aharon (1970) Israel and the Arab World. W.H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-00003-0. p.178. Names the other dead as: Dvor Drachler, Benjamin Toker, Benjamin Munter, Sarah Chijik and Zeev Scharf.
  4. Cohen. p 178.
  5. Idith Zertal, Israel's Holocaust And The Politics Of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 2005 p.5.
  6. Yael Zerubavel, 'The Historic, the Legendary, and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel,' in John R. Gillis,Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press, 1994 pp. 105–126, p. 115.

External links

Further reading

  • Zerubavel, Yael (1991). The Politics of Interpretation: Tel Hai in Israeli Collective Memory, AJS (Association for Jewish Studies) Review 16 (1991): 133-160.

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