Sunny Tiberias Looks at Its Dark Past

The skies above Tiberias began to turn gray yesterday afternoon, signaling the coming of rain and sending people near the city's northern entrance scurrying to bus stops. They encountered a small knot of people outside a local Bank Leumi branch and heard about the assassination drama that took place on the spot 70 years ago. On October 27, 1938, an assassin shot and killed the city's first Jewish mayor, Zachi al-Hadif.

"The assassination of al-Hadif was the height of a wave of killings of Jews in Tiberias," Haim Hatzav, a local resident, told the group. He recently began organizing tours that follow the events of those tumultuous months when 19 people, including 10 children, were murdered in the city's Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood. He is also filming a movie about these events.

Zachi al-Hadif was born in 1890 to a family whose ancestors arrived in Tiberias in 1740, according to his nephew Haim al-Hadif. "He was elected mayor in 1924 because he was accepted by both the Arabs and the Jews, and became the first Jewish mayor of a mixed city," al-Hadif said.

According to former Tiberias mayor Shlomo Zachar, many firsts occurred during al-Hadif's tenure as mayor: Electricity was introduced, a water system was laid out, a city plan was drawn up and a boardwalk was constructed along the lakefront.

However, the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine altered inter-communal relations dramatically. Al-Hadif was warned by an Arab friend that his life was in danger, and members of the Jewish paramilitary force, the Haganah, wanted to provide him with protection. But al-Hadif stubbornly refused, saying "Jews do not run away or abandon their post. The municipality is my post. I obtained it honestly and will hold my head high."

Before he was killed al-Hadif escaped at least one assassination attempt. "I was seven, and my sister and I were at our uncle's house," al-Hadif's nephew recalls. "Suddenly shots were fired in our direction, and our uncle ordered his son to take us home. My cousin took us in his arms and ran. I could see bullets whistling past us."

Relations between Jews and Arabs continued to deteriorate. On October 2, 1938, a gang of 30 Arabs from the surrounding villages descended on the neighborhood of Kiryat Shmuel just outside the city walls. "The synagogue was set on fire, its keeper was killed while holding Torah scrolls," Oded Avishar wrote in the city's chronicles." Nineteen people were killed that night, including two families.

Before the Jewish mourning period for the dead had ended, the city was struck by another tragedy, the assassination of the mayor. "Al-Hadif left town hall with his Arab deputy and Itzhak Ben-Zvi (who later became president of Israel) just before noon and they went to the Anglo-Palestine Bank," Hatzav told the gatherers yesterday. "Then the son of a restaurant owner approached al-Hadif and shot him dead."