Ramat David
The brick building that now serves as the Ramat David education center. Photo by Haggai Frid
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The small brick building in the middle of the air force base at Ramat David is not unusual and it reminds everyone who served at Israel Defense Forces bases in the past of those simple, rickety buildings that date from the time of the British Mandate. The technicians, the quartermasters and the administrative people who were hurrying back from lunch yesterday to their offices and workshops did not glance at the small structure. Most of them probably don't know that some of the pages of the first chapter of the history of the Israel Air Force were written inside this very building.

About a decade ago, just before the building was to be demolished, the IDF decided, in a rare move, to restore and preserve the building. Recently the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites completed the restoration work and the site will serve as the education center on the base.

About 70 years ago the British air base was established at Ramat David and the first pilot who landed there was Roald Dahl, who became a famous author ("James and the Giant Peach," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," among many others ). The base replaced an institution for juvenile delinquents that had been operating there in 1939, which in turn replaced an agricultural research station established in 1925.

"Ostensibly this is just a simple and functional British building. However, it is a fascinating building, built of geological strata that make up the history of the Ramat David base, the air force and Jewish settlement in the Jezreel Valley," says Avi Moshe Segal, the curator of the Air Force Museum and the future educational center at Ramat David. "When I walk into the building I imagine the Dakotas warming up their engines on the nearby takeoff runway before the parachute practices of Hannah Szenes and her buddies, the British radio operators receiving secret and exciting messages here, and how Ezer Weizman sat at the desk in his office. This is a building that has seen and heard it all."

According to Omri Shalmon, the director of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, "In 1948 there was an orderly transfer of the base from the British. Yehoshua Gilutz, who had been a maintenance person and a very respected major in the British Army, was appointed as the first commander of the base. For a long time we tried to figure out what the building had been used for originally, until a year ago Gilutz showed us an original map of the base and then we learned that the building had served as a communications center where radio and telegraph messages were received." Segal reveals another detail most people do not know: During World War II the base was divided in two and in addition to the British Royal Air Force, the United States Air Force was also active there, with B-24 bombers taking off for bombings in Romania, Benghazi and Tobruk. In June of 1949, Israel's first combat squadron came to Ramat David and its commander, Ezer Weizman, inherited Gilutz's office. Despite the dry heat of the Middle East, there was a working fireplace in Weizman's office.

A low stone wall the British built around the building has been preserved to this day and adds another element to the British military architecture. According to Segal, it was fortunate that the wall was erected - an attack by Egyptian Spitfires in May of 1948 caused massive destruction on the base.

Eventually the base commander moved into a new building and the historical building was marginalized, until in its last function it became an intake office of reservists. Eventually its doors were locked and it was abandoned.

The Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites heard that the building might be demolished and became interested in restoring it. According to Shalmon, "To our delight, the air force thought preserving it was important and decided to cooperate with us."

Outgoing base commander Maj. R. relates: "We decided to preserve the building and fill it with content. This serves the educational mission we have taken upon ourselves. This is a special building through which we will be able to express values, history and heritage." The educational center will be called Nativ Ba'emek (Path in the Valley ). Part of it will be devoted to reconstructing the history of the building; the base commander's office will be restored.

There are complex challenges, says Shalmon. "The building is literally floating on groundwater and there was a need for reinforcement and foundation work. We have replaced the asbestos roof the IDF installed with a curved roof of rolled tin, like the original." Above all, Shalmon is pleased with the cooperation with the army - something, he says, is not to be taken for granted. The project sparked an interest in preservation in the IDF and today there is already a preservation architect in the building department. Shalmon says that in the wake of the success of this project we now have a list of other buildings for preservation in IDF bases, including the control tower at the Hatzor base, and German Templer buildings at the Home Front Command base in Ramle.