Fence and Defense

Pillboxes and dragon's teeth were only two of the devices used by the British army in its campaign to quell the Arab gangs and Jewish undergrounds in Mandatory Palestine. The conceptual issues of that time, are still relevant today

These relics reflect a variety of defensive needs. Then as today, there was talk about terror, self-defense, fortification and separation, and the British developed a series of physical means for contending with these problems, including fences, defensive walls, roadblocks and firing positions.

Although the scope of the problems faced by Israel in its continued struggle to defend its borders and battle terrorism has expanded over the years, there are parallels between the periods. Several of the fundamental issues that occupied the governments of the past are every bit as relevant today to the Israeli defense establishment.

During the Mandate, as today, the British government was forced to fight along two fronts: one external - defense of the country's borders; and the other internal - protection of installations and civilians from acts of terrorism committed by Arab assailants and Jewish underground groups.

Currently, there is much discussion about erecting separation fences to prevent incursions from Palestinian Authority areas into Israel for the purpose of committing acts of terror and hostile actions against civilians. During the Mandate period, the British put up structures for policing and deterrence in southern Palestine, in order to prevent raids by Bedouin. They also employed the modern military innovations of the time, including spotter aircraft and armored cars.

One of the founders of the system of defense and security in Palestine at the time was Charles Tegart, a British police officer and colonial official who had gained much experience battling underground organizations and terrorism in India's Bengal region. In late 1937, Tegart was dispatched to Palestine to assist the British police and army in arranging defense of the country's borders and fighting the Arab gangs.

Within three months, 1,000 Jewish laborers had erected a continuous fence along 47 kilometers of the northern border, which became known as "Tegart's fence." Along the length of the fence, Solel Boneh (the collectively owned construction company) paved an asphalt road.

The planners and constructors of the fence contended with problems similar to those faced by present-day authorities: the measure of resistance of the fence to attempted incursions, and obstacles encountered in the course of erecting it. After a British paratrooper unit managed to penetrate the border fence in a matter of hours, Tegart requested that there also be patrols along the border fence. Three hundred Jewish sentries were enlisted for the sake of protecting the northern border fence, to repel incursions by insurgents from Syria and Lebanon. Although the fence was guarded day and night, Arab gangs managed to dismantle and destroy unfinished sections of the fence, stealing the metal posts and other equipment.

Tegart's plan called for the construction of 16 round mini-fortresses and five police fortresses (called Tegart fortresses) along the length of the northern road, primarily in areas where there were no nearby "tower-and-stockade" settlements. The police stations planned by Tegart elsewhere in Palestine were large, rectangular structures that were two stories high. They had thick, reinforced-concrete walls, and were equipped with watchtowers, surveillance posts and firing slits. These fortresses were built at strategic points - major crossroads (for example, at Beit Dagon) or high points that afforded geographical domination (such as Mt. Canaan in Safed).

Tegart also designed a standard system of roadblocks and defensive positions that was established in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country. One of the better known defensive facilities was the pillbox, which were built during the 1936-39 riots to defend the main traffic arteries leading in and around the city. It is a round defensive position that rises to a height of 5 meters, and has a diameter of about 3.5 meters and a flat roof. Entry to the pillbox is by way of a reinforced steel door. Inside, a steel stairway leads to a raised, poured-concrete loft, which served for surveillance of every direction. The soldiers in the pillbox could fire their weapons through slits in the square steel windows that were set into the concrete wall.

Only three such positions remain standing in Jerusalem - one at the southern entrance to the city from the direction of Gilo and Bethlehem, at the end of Hebron Road; the second in the Reuveni nursery, near the railroad crossing at the intersection of Emek Refaim and Pierre Koenig streets; and the third in the park at the corner of Herzog and Tchernikovsky streets. A fourth pillbox, near the entrance to the Sanhedria cemetery, was demolished in the mid-'70s, to facilitate the paving of the road to Ramot.

As a defensive device to protect against car bombs, the British erected prefabricated roadblocks made of reinforced concrete, one meter high and wide, that were shaped like rounded, truncated cones. These roadblocks, placed in rows along main thoroughfares and around strategic installations, were known as dragon's teeth.

Some of them may still be found in Jerusalem's Russian Compound, which until 1948 served as the center of British rule in Israel, and was known as Bevingrad, after the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. These roadblocks are also known as Montgomery's teeth, named for the British field marshal who used them along the fortified Allied line in the Western Desert during WWII, against Rommel's armored corps.

Between the late `50s and early `60s, several "long train" tenement buildings were built along the borders of the divided city. Their thick, reinforced-concrete walls were designed to serve as protective walls facing the Jordanian positions. These tenement/fortresses can still be found in Katamon Tet (opposite the Arab village of Beit Safafa), Hebron Road in Talpiot (across from the Jordanian positions at Mar Elias), and in Shmuel Hanavi (facing the Jordanian police school and the Legion's positions on Ammunition Hill). Parapets around the roofs of the Shmuel Hanavi buildings were raised, and gun slits installed, so that the city's defenders could - when need arose - use them as defensive positions. The courtyards between the buildings were designed to enable the amassing of large military forces for a possible assault on Ammunition Hill, just over the border. Nevertheless, none of these security mechanisms was ever utilized in the Six-Day War.

The most prevalent construction style in post-1967 Jerusalem is the neo-Oriental style, whose world of forms and shapes aspires to break free of the standard straight, boxy, monotonic forms and angles that was so widespread in the `50s and `60s. The style strives to create a locally rooted architecture influenced by the architectural language and forms of the Old City and the traditional Jewish neighborhoods constructed in the late 19th century. Characteristic features of this style include inner courtyards, gates, Crusader-era sloped defensive walls and gradients, massive stone walls, intrusions and extrusions, arcades and a plethora of arched apertures of various shapes, including pseudo firing slits. The two most prominent examples of the style are the series of large residential buildings designed by architect Salo Hershman in Gilo in the mid-'70s and the fortress-like mega-structure of the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, built at the same time.

The neo-Oriental style of the 1970s, rich in form, integrated well with the characteristics of the international Brutalist style that arrived in Israel at the same time, 10 or 15 years behind the rest of the world. Brutalism, with its wealth of "nervous" plastic-sculptural forms, dovetailed nicely with the form-based character of the local neo-Oriental style.

Interestingly, some of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, like foreign architects who visited the city at the time, viewed the powercentric architecture of Hebrew University and some of the buildings going up in the new neighborhoods built in a ring around the city, as political neo-Crusader expressions of Israeli expansionism, bemoaning the fortification of a fortress-like line of defense that looked out at the Arab population.

This extreme and erroneous interpretation distorted the architectural intentions of the planners. Although the fortress-like neo-Orientalist style drew some inspiration from the sense of invincibility and air of victory and euphoria that followed the Six-Day War, it was in fact the expression of a design/style fad that was devoid of political and security meaning. In an era of missiles, helicopters and tanks, toward the end of the 20th century, stone fortresses no longer bear any relevance, just as the extrusions and intrusions of a building can no longer serve a phalanx of archers or guards atop the gatehouse pouring boiling oil on their enemies.

Today, rather that defending itself behind walls of sandbags, the army uses defensive barriers made from modular pre-cast reinforced-concrete units that can be moved from place to place. These elements, each of which measures approximately 2.5 meters high by 1.5 meters wide, are placed alongside one another to form a long protective wall. The best-known specimen of this type has been erected along the length of Ha'anafa Street in Gilo. A pastoral landscape has been painted on the wall; it depicts the homes of the village of Beit Jala, which is itself hidden behind the wall.