The Military Geography of Palestine

By H. Sidebotham

[The Atlantic Monthly, February 1918]

I

The entry of the British troops into Palestine has brought the war into a country which has probably been more fought over than any country in the world. If Palestine had not had greater fame as the Holy Land, its geography might well serve as a textbook for the complete history of military strategy and tactics, so interesting have been the combinations of forces that have met on its few roads and in its narrow valleys, so long and varied the story of its battlefields. The geography of Palestine has been exhaustively treated from almost every point of view save that from which the writer approaches it in this paper. Now that Palestine has become one of the campaigns of the war and that not the, least important, it may be interesting to gather up some of the leading facts in its long military history which throw light on the present campaign and on the political future of the country.

A great advantage which a writer on the geography of Palestine has is that he is dealing with names of men and places that are, to English-speaking people at any rate, as familiar as the figures of his own history, and the names and places of his own country. The United States, indeed, largely owing no doubt to the great part that Puritanism played in its early history, has borrowed very freely from the Bible for its own place-names. It has three Jerusalems and nineteen Salems, two Bethanys, ten Bethels, two Bethlehems, three or four Zions, two Shilohs, six Hebrons, and five Carmels. These are trivial instances, but they show how close the place-names in Palestine have lain to American sentiment and they make of its geography almost a home subject. Some it will offend as a sort of desecration to associate these place-names with the military jargon of this war; but more, it is hoped, will find their reading of Biblical history enriched by a new touch of realism and modernity.

Every geographer has pointed out that Palestine is arranged in longitudinal sections—a coast plain, a hill country which is a prolongation of the Lebanon to the south, the deep depression of the Jordan Valley, and the hills east of Jordan. Between the coast and the blue hills of Moab across Jordan is a distance of barely more than one hundred miles, but in that switchback of a country you pass through every variety of climate. On the coast at Gaza you are really in Egypt, for the sea here is a backwater of the Nile, and the Syrian coast plain is a prolongation of the Nile Delta. From the plain you rise through rolling downs broken by narrow passes, the scene of so much fighting in the early history of Israel and in the Crusades, up the steep wall of the Judæan plateau, stony and barren for the most part, but with here and there a deep pocket of good land, down into the depression of the Jordan Valley, the deepest trench to be found anywhere in the world; and across Jordan are the highlands of Moab and Gilead, where you get keen frosts in winter and fresh heather-scented winds in summer.

From the south side there are only two ways in which Palestine has ever been invaded: one, the way of the Philistines along the coast from Egypt, which is also the way of Sir Archibald Murray and General Allenby; the other, the way from east of Jordan, which was the way of the Israelites when they entered the country, and, later, of the Arabs. When the Israelites crossed Jordan near Jericho, they found the great wall of Judæa straight ahead of them; and for hundreds of years afterwards, until the time of David, they were never able to scale it. They trickled into Judaea by devious paths, and lost their individuality among the tribes of the country. The main body found their way into Samaria, and failing to gain access to the maritime plain, turned north and poured across the plain of Esdraelon into the hills of Galilee.

The whole history of the Old Testament Israelite is the story of the separation of the northern tribes in Galilee from their brethren in Samaria, and of the establishment in Judæa, at Jerusalem, of a new Jewish kingdom markedly different in character from the kingdom of the north: exclusive where it was tolerant and facile, and theocratic, and spiritual, whereas the kingdom of the north was secular and material. The reasons for this difference were mainly geographical. Judæa was separated, not only from the rest of the world, but from the rest of Palestine, by deep ravines and difficult passes; it is the natural keep of the castle, and the same causes that made it so difficult for the early Israelites to capture it, made it later the citadel alike of the narrowest bigotry and of the purest faith. The rest of Israel lay more open to the world; and between Galilee and Samaria ran the great highway of commerce and war in the ancient Semitic world.

This road entered Palestine from the east near Beth Shan, followed the wide plain of Esdraelon which breaks the continuity of the Palestine Lebanon, crossed the hills by a low pass near Megiddo, and so became the coast road to Egypt. This great highway is the most important single fact in the history of Palestine. The Eastern gate at Beth Shan was never in their whole history in secure possession of the Israelites, but always stood wide open to invasion. This was the way by which Gideon's Midianites came, and later the Assyrians.

At the sea end of the plain there is another gate near Acre. This was the gate that Egypt held when Sisera, Egypt's 'prancing proconsul,' oppressed the Israelites under Deborah and Barak, by his Canaanitish levies in Galilee. This is the gate that Napoleon tried in vain to close from the sea during his invasion of Palestine. 'If it had not been for Djezzar I should have been Emperor of the East,' said Napoleon. Later in life, Djezzar and the Turks, thanks to the assistance of the English under Sir Sydney Smith, held the gate against all the French attacks, and Napoleon, afraid of leaving it open to a descent from the sea, of which since the battle of the Nile the British had undisputed command, had to abandon his schemes of conquest and beat a retreat to Egypt. Neither was this gate ever in possession of the Israelites.

A third gate into Palestine was at the south end of the Philistine plain at Gaza, and right through Jewish history, down to the time of the Maccabees, an enemy was always in possession at Gaza too.

Thus you had a great trunk road traversing Palestine; and the three principal points in it—the eastern end at Beth Shan, the southern end at Gaza, and a middle bastion in the neighborhood of Acre—were always in the possession of enemies. The Israelites of the Old Testament lived overlooking the bridge between Asia and Africa, and not a single point of vantage on that bridge belonged to them. This was the great cause of their political failure. From the southern end of the bridge came the Egyptian invader, from the eastern end the Assyrians; and the history of the Israelites on either side of the road is the history of a people flooded out of their valleys as the tide of invasion rushed in from either end, and forced them to take refuge in their hills, and then returning to the lowlands as the floods subsided.

It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened if there had been no Philistines between the Israelites and the sea, and the ancient Jewish kingdom had become a maritime state. There is no word for a port in ancient classical Hebrew, and though the Israelites once or twice in their history touched the sea, it was only for a brief period. Despite the Song of Deborah, Dan did not 'remain in his ships;' perhaps, she was only sneering at maritime ambitions which were destined never to be realized. Joppa was never Jewish until Sion Maccabæus took it at the end of the second century B.C. 'He took Joppa for an haven and made an entrance to the isles of the sea'—an exultant phrase that reveals the tardy satisfaction of an age-long ambition. Julius Cæsar, always pro-Jewish, allowed the Jews to keep Joppa, but there was of course no maritime future for them under the Romans.

If the Jews of the Old Testament had had Joppa, the history of the world might well have been different. The sea favors the small nations and enables them to play a bigger part in the history of the world than they could otherwise do. The Jews might have become a colonizing people like the Phoenicians, and have carried over the seas the political independence, which, imprisoned as it was on land, was crushed to death between the great military empires. They might even have fought against Rome side by side with Carthage, have turned the scale in favor of their ally, and have made the Mediterranean a great Semitic lake. In that case the great Mediterranean empire of the Saracens would have been anticipated by fifteen hundred years. The Jews of the northern kingdom, always more easygoing and less spiritual in nature than the Jews of Judæa, would have given their stamp to the national character Palestine would not have been the head of the religious world, and the Jews might have acquired secular greatness at the cost of their fame in religious history.

Yet it is a hard fate for the Jews always to have been compelled to obtain religious fame at the expense of secular misery, and it is no wonder that they should have revolted against always being impaled on the horns of this dilemma. The modern Zionist movement is almost purely secular in its inspiration. It desires a distinctively Jewish culture in Palestine, but it has cut itself loose forever from the ideas of theocracy which Judæa imposed upon the country. If Jewish Palestine is ever to have a great secular future it must have access to the sea and command of it, if not in its own right, at any rate by the proxy of the protecting power.

II

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The long wars, then, between the Israelites and the Philistines may be regarded as a struggle, in which, the Israelites are almost invariably beaten, for the fresh air of the sea. The ambition of the Philistines was to get possession of the whole road between Egypt and the Syrian desert. The most famous of their battles—that on Mount Gilboa in which Saul and Jonathan fell—was fought right at the eastern end of the Plain of Esdraelon, and Saul's body was fastened to the walls of Beth Shan, which, as we have seen, is the eastern gate of the plain. Clearly the Philistines had all but succeeded in their ambition to cut Palestine in two, by their occupation of the great trunk road. And although the rise of Judæa under David restored the unity of Palestine, it was broken after Solomon's death by the division of Palestine into the northern and southern kingdoms—a division which was permanent, for it corresponded with two contrasting national ideals, of material success and of spiritual purity, of easy tolerance and of narrow formalistic orthodoxy, of the Sadducees and of the Pharisees. As a general rule, the northern kingdom, after Syria had been conquered by Assyria, leaned on Egypt, the southern kingdom on Assyria, the political principle being to be friends with next door but one; just as, in the Balkans, Serbia leaned on Russia for protection against her neighbor Austria, and Bulgaria on Austria because Austria was not her neighbor.

Whether from lack of enterprise or from policy Egypt in Biblical times, never realized her opportunities in Palestine. The oldest letters in history—the Tel Anarna tablets—are full of complaints from the feudatory kings of Canaan about Egypt's refusal to protect them against marauders from the desert, including among these the Israelites themselves. Egypt often overran Palestine, but she never maintained her rule there; and when an enemy came, her friends in Palestine were left to look after themselves, like the Bedouin tribes on the Sinai frontiers in this war, when we retired to the Canal before the Turkish invaders. Yet there can be no doubt that, if Napoleon was right a hundred years ago in regarding Gaza as the key of Palestine and of Egypt too, the construction of the Canal, the railway (the great conqueror of the desert), and the aeroplane; have vastly strengthened this view. The Sinai Desert, never impassable, is now, given time and command of industrial resources, hardly a serious obstacle. Some rectification of the Egyptian frontier there will have to be after this war, and the only question is, whether the frontier should be withdrawn from El Arish toward the Canal, or whether it should be extended so as to include Palestine. It is hardly conceivable that the British should withdraw from the Egyptian frontier to the Canal after a campaign in which they have been successful; and if the frontier is to be changed it is much more likely to be moved forward so as to include the maritime plain and the plateau of Judæa.

There is a school of thought in Great Britain which is prepared to go much further than this. It is argued that under modern conditions of warfare there is no real security for Egypt unless the protecting power is also the protecting power in Palestine. But such an extension of military responsibilities in itself is highly distasteful, not merely to Liberals, whose traditional policy it is to oppose any changes that would involve the country in foreign complications, but also to many Imperialists; and Conservatives, who dislike the addition of fresh protectorates which are unsuited to form part of an Imperial Union.

For this and for other reasons, the idea of annexing Palestine has, in certain unofficial quarters, sought to ally itself with Zionism, and it is maintained that by settling the Jews in the country, and reviving the old Jewish state, Great Britain could at one and the same time greatly strengthen her most dangerous land frontier in Egypt and render a service to humanity by removing its oldest national grievance. A society has been formed, with its headquarters at Manchester, which runs a magazine called Palestine, to promote these ideas, and which has had a succès d'estime. The British government has not yet fully disclosed its official policy, but undoubtedly this new alliance between Zionist ideals and British interests in the East is gaining ground and may have a profound effect on international policy. In consenting to this alliance, Zionists are of course thinking of the interests of Jewry, not primarily of the British Empire, for they are an international and not a1 national organization; but it is interesting that they should at present see in Great Britain their best hope of realizing their national ideals and should aspire to the status of a British dominion as that which gives most promise of its early fulfillment.

But circumstances of course may change, and one suggestion which has been put forward is that Palestine should be internationalized and that the best international managing trustee would be the United States, precisely because it is remote and has no selfish interests to serve. However that may be, it is curious to find this thousand-year-old problem of the relations between Egypt and Palestine still persistently awaiting its solution.

The maritime plain, which, in the hands of the Philistines baffled the ancient Jewish ambitions toward the sea, is valuable because it gives access to Esdraelon. To many, Jerusalem is the capital and centre of the country, but in fact it lies apart from the best and most valuable districts. There is no country in the world at once so open to invasion and yet so plenteously provided with strong places. Judæa toward the sea is protected, first by a sheer wall of hills, and then, in front of that, by a range of downs known as the Shephelah, crossed by few narrow and difficult passes. It was in these passes that the great historic battles of Palestine's history took place. The most famous of them all is Ajalon, just north of the route now taken by the railway from Joppa. It was here that Joshua bade the sun stand still so that he might have longer light to smite his enemies. It was up this valley that the Philistines pressed when their invasion made a crisis in the history of Israel which led to the establishment of the monarchy. Here Judas Maccabæus won his greatest victories over the Greeks, and here Saladin and Coeur de Lion fought their battles.

Gisart, of the Crusaders, is the Gezer where David smote the Philistines; and here, too, just before the final cataclysm at Jerusalem, the Jews won a startling victory over Cestius Gallus, the Roman general. A second pass, the Vale of Sorek, which the railway from Joppa to Jerusalem follows, was the scene of many of Samson's exploits, and the recurrent battlefield of Ebenezer was in this valley. In the next valley, coming south, David killed Goliath, and further south still is the valley in which Sennacherib's army was stricken by the plague and came to grief. This last is the Wadi el Bizair, running across the hills from Hebron to Ashdod, and it was by this valley that the Turks in the last engagement in Palestine rushed down the reinforcements which saved Gaza for a time from the British attack.

The Hebrew prophets, who preached a policy of splendid isolation from the quarrels of Egypt and Assyria, were undoubtedly right if we accept their point of view in secular politics, which was conceived in the narrow selfish interests of the southern kingdom and its maintenance as a citadel of the pure faith. So difficult is Jerusalem to approach, that it would have been quite possible for the southern kingdom if it had pursued a strictly prudential policy, to maintain itself in isolation almost indefinitely. In his wars with the Greeks, Judas Maccabæus never had more than a mere fraction of the people actively on his side, but he managed to hold these difficult passes with the merest handful of men; and when he was finally beaten it was by a characteristically clever manœuvre of the Greeks, who marched right round the mountain walls of Judaea and slipped into the country by a pass in the southwestern corner.

Napoleon very characteristically cut all these difficulties in his Egyptian campaign. He advanced northward along the shore, taking Gaza and Joppa on the way, crossed the hills at the low and easy pass of Megiddo into Esdraelon, threw out one detachment on his left to seize Haifa and besiege Acre; and then boldly advanced into the hills of Galilee, defeating the Turks under Mount Tabor. He entered Palestine in the second, week of February, 1799; was at Gaza in the third week and at Joppa in the fourth week; began the siege of Acre on March 5; seized Safed in Galilee on March 31; and was ready for the Turks at Tabor at the end of April. Had he captured Acre and secured himself against the descent from the sea, there is no doubt that he would have kept Palestine. Holding the great trunk road from Gaza to Beth, Shan, he had only to wait until Jerusalem, isolated from its supports, surrendered. The calculations of Vespasian and Titus seem to have been much the same, for they thought by occupying the great trunk roads to compel the surrender of Jerusalem and avoid the necessity of a siege.

Since this paper was written the world has learned with profound emotion of the capture of Jerusalem by Allied forces under General Allenby, who succeeded Sir A. Murray as commander-in-chief in Palestine. Having taken Beersheba and Bethlehem to the south, he reduced the port of Gaza which had successfully resisted Murray in the spring. Joppa soon fell, and Allenby, marching eastward into the hills, threatened Jerusalem from the northwest, while the force at Bethlehem, working to the northeast, completed the isolation of the Holy City, which was evacuated by the Turks and entered by the Allies in December, 1917.

III

Unless Palestine remains under the sovereignty of the Turk—and after all that has happened that seems exceedingly unlikely—its most probable future is as the home of the revived Jewish state—a state, which, in its governing principles of polity, will have far more in common with the old northern kingdom than with the narrow theocracy of Judæa. Arrangements would have to be made for the custody of the Holy Places, of which there are many, both Christian and Mohammedan, and only a Jewish state whose ideas have been strained of everything resembling religious bigotry, could, with fairness to other creeds, be set up in Palestine. About that there is not likely to be very much difficulty, for the Jewish character, in its long period of adversity, has lost its ancient religious intolerance, and indeed its besetting sin now is a too great adaptability and a too ready assimilation to other civilizations.

More serious, however, than the religious difficulties are the conditions under which the new Jewish state might be expected to become strong and self-supporting, whether as a dominion of the British Empire, or as an American territory (for this alternative should not, in the opinion of many Englishmen, be left entirely out of account), or as an internationalized state under the guaranty of a league of nations such as President Wilson contemplates. One of the conditions of progress which has already been discussed in this paper, is access to the sea such as the ancient Jewish state never had. The whole of the coast of Palestine as far north as Carmel, and including both sides of the great bay to the north of Carmel, Haifa, and Acre, would clearly have to be Jewish. The coast northward from Acre is cut off from Palestine by the range of the Lebanon, and is essentially a part of Syria rather than of Palestine. If the ancient glories of Tyre and Sidon, and of Antioch, are revived, it will be not by a Jewish state, but by the power that holds Syria, and the maritime aspirations of the new Jewish state will be satisfied by the possession of Haifa and the ports of the Philistine plain, and by an outlet at the head of the gulf of Akbar, the old Ezion-Gaber to which King Solomon sent his ships.

But quite as important to the future of the Jewish state as access to the sea is a strong natural frontier to the north and a foothold east of the Jordan. The natural frontier of Palestine on the north is the old Dan, the modern Baneas, where the Leontes and the Upper Jordan are separated by the towering ridge of the Lebanon range. Baneas is the key of Upper Palestine, because it commands the only entry from the north. The Egyptian Ptolemies won Palestine from Syria at Gaza. Antiochus of Syria won it back from them near Baneas. The Franks and Saracens contended for it fiercely in the days of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and an expedition sent by Louis, in the Ninth Crusade, after conquering all the Jordan Valley, had to withdraw because it failed to conquer Baneas. In possession of Baneas, the Jews, if they abandoned, as they should, all pretensions to the Syrian coast north of Acre, would have a natural frontier in the great range of the Lebanon and command of the only entrance from the north.

There are two military causes of the failure alike of the ancient Jewish kingdom and later of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. One is the failure to establish this natural frontier on the north, and the other the failure either to hold Damascus themselves or to keep it in the hands of a friendly power. All was well with the Kingdom of Israel so long as it was on friendly terms with Damascus. But when Damascus fell to Assyria, Palestine too succumbed to the military despotism. Precisely the same thing happened to the Latin kingdom. Damascus in the hands of friends made a splendid bulwark, but its fall to the Turks was the beginning of the end of Latin rule. Damascus is to the north what Gaza is to the south—the port of the Syrian Desert as Gaza is of Sinai Desert; and it is most desirable, in the settlement of the northern frontier which follows the war, that the Jewish state should not only be firmly established on the hills of Upper Galilee as far north as Baneas, but should have friends at Damascus, which may be in the hands of the Arabs, but more probably will fall to the lot of the French.

If the arrangements in Galilee are satisfactory, we can imagine the Jewish state falling heir to the economic advantages which the Germans hope to secure by the project of the Bagdad railway. This railway was to drain the trade and wealth of Mesopotamia—which under wise rule is destined to have a future as great as its past—to the north and Constantinople. In the future this trade may be diverted through Galilee, along the 'way of the sea,' to Haifa. It is not generally realized how great a part Galilee played in the life of the Jews. Constantly overrun in Old Testament times, the Jews of Galilee were outside the main stream of national history. Later, it was the seat of an opulent Greek civilization, which the Maccabees missed no opportunity of ravaging; but when the great rebellion came under Nero, it was the Jews of Galilee who offered the most obstinate resistance from their mountain fastnesses, and sent the most gallant contingent to the defense of Jerusalem.

The rule of the Romans, who built roads to secure free communication from end to end of the land, brought about a greater degree of unity among the Jews than they had ever known before; and perhaps the Jewish rebellion was not the mad outburst of fanaticism that it is usually supposed to have been. Indeed, had the Jews been able to establish a working alliance with the Parthians, there is no reason why they should not have thrown off the Roman yoke. Nearly a century later, when the second great rebellion took place while Trajan was campaigning in Mesopotamia, it was the descendants of the Jewish exiles in Babylon who offered the fiercest resistance to his arms. With better organization, the Jews were numerous enough and able enough to do in the East what the Arabs did later. The Arabs, in fact, stepped into the shoes of Jews massacred by the Romans, just as the Turks later stepped into the shoes of the Arabs massacred by the Mongol invaders. In these later and tragic chapters of Jewish history under the Romans, Galilee, not Jerusalem, was the headquarters of Jewish nationalism; and Galilee, not Jerusalem, will be the great commercial and economic centre of any new Jewish state.

All the more important, therefore, is it that any new Jewish state should have room enough in Galilee to move freely and a friend at Damascus who will give her a footing on the great inland sea of the Syrian Desert, the Mediterranean of the Semitic world, with rich and prosperous Semitic communities, Arab and Jewish, dwelling round its shores.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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