The Battle of Beersheba, Australia’s first truly outstanding military achievement, was a turning point in the war against the Ottoman Empire following earlier failures to capture Gaza. It was the first time Australians and New Zealanders gained recognition for their major impact on the battlefield. The lightning charge of the ANZAC Light Horse Brigade that overran Ottoman lines and overwhelmed their defences is remembered as perhaps history’s last great cavalry charge and the keystone for the Allied victories that followed, including the capture of Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land.
The First World War looms in Australian history as, far and away, our costliest conflict. Out of a population of fewer than five million people, an extraordinary 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
Perhaps for that reason, the Battle of Beersheba continues to hold a unique place in the hearts of a nation indelibly scarred by the war, while its proud legacy casts an imprint upon the special bilateral relationship Australia has long been forging with the State of Israel.
A pilgrimage from Down Under
Even before departing Australia for the landmark historic commemoration at Beersheba, the excitement was palpable. Flights to Israel, connecting through Asia, were heavily booked. One could not be unmoved by the unusual sight of row upon row of Australians flocking from city and countryside alike, packing the aircraft, browsing through various reading materials they had taken with them about Israel generally, ANZAC history and on the scheduled events. Many, clearly, had taken advantage of organised tours that assured no aspect of the commemoration would be missed.
Many Aussie travellers arrived days early in order to seize the opportunity to leisurely explore a country most had only known about from the news.
However, as a result of the “citizenship crisis” back in Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – himself no stranger to Israel – had no such luxury, having to shorten his visit at the last moment.
Even so, besides his heartfelt participation in the commemorations themselves, he still found time to formalise unprecedented defence ties, conduct high-level meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other top officials, and pay a diplomatic visit to the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, in Tel Aviv on November 1, he found the time to address a session of the third annual Be’er Sheva Strategic Defence Dialogue held between the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) – a session co-hosted by AIJAC and supported through the generosity of the Pratt Foundation.
A day for the ages
On the day of commemoration, as the sun broke over the arid plain and savannah of the northern Negev, buses from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem converged on Beersheba. As they approached the city limits, the sight of Australian, New Zealand and Israeli flags fluttering from every streetlamp brought a smile to tired faces. Outside the cemetery, the unavoidable delays at the requisite security checks were offset by the sight of throngs of residents of Beersheba and the environs, crossing the roadway to greet their Australian guests and shake their hands.
Many visiting Australians later spoke of being especially moved by how they were received by countless groups of multiethnic Beersheba schoolchildren, straight from kinder to year 12. These kids had been taught about the reason for the commemoration and given an opportunity to express their appreciation for the sacrifice of the ANZACs in the battle that not only shaped the future of the city and ended centuries of Ottoman rule, but in doing so, gave substance to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 and made possible the establishment of the State of Israel some three decades later.
Moving speeches by Netanyahu, Turnbull and New Zealand’s Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy were punctuated by a long procession of wreath laying, including by descendants of some of the fallen ANZACs at Beersheba’s War Cemetery. Most visitors lingered to contemplate the fallen at their gravesides after the morning ceremony concluded.
Later, a parade of ANZACs on horseback delighted the city, providing the segue to the afternoon’s highlight – a dramatic homage to the charge of the Light Horse Brigade at the exact time and place where it had occurred a century earlier. In the lead-up to the actual re-enactment, the Australian Army Band regaled an overflowing grandstand audience with stirring performances, including an unexpected round of the iconic Jewish folk tune Hava Nagila that brought the crowd to their feet.
The rollercoaster ride of emotions, from solemnity to revelry and back, culminated in a closing ceremony in front of the Pratt Foundation-funded Beersheba’s Park of the Australian Soldier, followed by live entertainment and what was purported to be Israel’s largest ever Aussie barbecue.
The Third Be’er sheva Dialogue
On the following day, in Tel Aviv, ASPI, BESA, Israeli and Australian defence officials, Australian government officials and other defence experts and stakeholders took part in the third Be’er Sheva Dialogue.
This year’s topics included counter-terrorism, maritime security, cyber-security, potential cooperative projects in defence industries, and hybrid war strategies and counter-measures.
While the Be’er Sheva Dialogue sessions are, by necessity, held under Chatham House Rules to allow participants to delve deeply into issues of national security, Prime Minister Turnbull’s address was held during afternoon tea, and was an thus an exception. Invitees included media and many AIJAC supporters, who had come to Israel for the Beersheba centennial commemoration.
As he noted in his address, Turnbull’s visit included the signing of a memorandum of understanding on defence industry cooperation and the announcement of an initiation of annual direct discussions between defence officials on strategic and security priorities. Also announced during Turnbull’s visit was the intent to hold a cyber dialogue with Israel in Australia next year.
All of these developments, it should be added, were in line with recommendations issued at earlier Be’er Sheva Dialogues, set out in the joint paper “The Wattle and the Olive” produced by ASPI and BESA last year.
AIJAC Senior Policy Analyst Ahron Shapiro was a participant in the Be’er Sheva Dialogue.