Latrun is located at a strategic hilltop in the Latrun salient in the Ayalon Valley. It overlooks the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 25 kilometers west of Jerusalem and 14 kilometers southeast of Ramla. It was the site of fierce fighting during the 1948 war. During the 1948–1967 period, it was occupied by Jordan at the edge of a no man’s land between the armistice lines known as the Latrun salient. In the 1967 war, it was captured by Israel along with the whole salient and the West Bank and remains under Israeli occupation.
The hilltop includes Latrun Trappist Monastery and The International Center for the Study of Bird Migration (ICSBM), which is adjacent to Yad La-Shiryon Memorial and Museum. Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam (Oasis of Peace) is a joint Jewish-Arab community on a hilltop south of Latrun. Canada Park is nearby to the east.
The name Latrun is ultimately derived from the ruins of a medieval castle. There are two theories regarding the origin of the name. One is that it is a corruption of the French, Le toron des chevaliers (The Castle of the Knights), named by the Crusaders. The other is that it is from the Latin, Domus boni Latronis (The House of the Good Thief), a name given by 14th-century Christian pilgrims after the penitent thief who was crucified by the Romans alongside Jesus (Luke 23:40–43).
In the Hebrew Bible, the Ayalon Valley was the site of a battle in which the Israelites, led by Joshua, defeated the Amorites (Joshua 10:1–11). Later, Judah Maccabee established his camp here in preparation for battle with the Seleucid Greeks, who had invaded Israel/Judea and were camped at Emmaus; this site is today identified by archaeologists as Hurvat Eked. According to the Book of Maccabees, Judah Maccabee learned that the Greeks were planning to march on his position and successfully ambushed the invaders. The Jewish victory in what was later called the Battle of Emmaus led to greater Jewish autonomy under Hasmonean rule over the next century.
Little remains of the castle, which was held by the Templars by 1187. The main tower was later surrounded by a rectangular enclosure with vaulted chambers. This, in turn, was enclosed by an outer court, of which one tower survives.
In 1883, the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine (SWP) described Latrun as a few adobe huts among the ruins of a medieval fortress.
In December 1890, a monastery was established at Latrun by French, German, and Flemish monks of the Trappists, from Sept-Fons Abbey in France, at the request of Monseigneur Poyet of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The monastery is dedicated to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. The liturgy is in French. The monks bought the ’Maccabee Hotel’, formerly called ’The Howard’ from the Batato brothers together with two-hundred hectares of land and started the community in a building that still stands in the monastic domain. In 1909 it was given the status of a Priory, and that of an Abbey in 1937. The monks established a vineyard using knowledge gained in France and advice from an expert in the employ of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild from the Carmel-Mizrahi Winery. Today they produce a wide variety of wines that are sold in the Abbey shop and elsewhere.
The community was expelled by the Ottoman Turks between 1914–1918, and the buildings were pillaged.
Walid Khalidi, in his book All That Remains, describes al-Latrun as a small village established in the late 19th century by villagers from nearby Emmaus.
In the 1922 census of Palestine, conducted by the British Mandate authorities, Latrun had a population of 59, all Muslims. In addition, Dair Latrun (
The monastery of Latrun) had a population of 37 Christian males. In the 1931 census, they were counted together, and Latrun had a population of 120, 76 Muslims and 44 Christians, in a total of 16 houses.
The Latrun monastery was rebuilt in 1926. The crypt was completed in 1933, and the church in 1954. The monastery was designed by the community’s first abbot, Dom Paul Couvreur, and is an example of Cistercian architecture. Much of the stained-glass windows were produced by a monk of the community.
A Juniorate, a school for young boys, ran from 1931 until 1963 and provided many vocations for the community, especially Lebanese monks.
Following the 1936–39 Arab revolt, the British authorities built a number of police forts (named Tegart forts after their designer) at various locations; Latrun was chosen due to its strategic significance, particularly its dominant position above the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Many members of the Yishuv who had resisted the British administration were imprisoned in a detention camp at Latrun. Moshe Sharett, later Israel’s second prime minister, and several other members of the Jewish Agency’s Executive Committee were held at Latrun for several months in 1946.
As of 1945, the population of the Latrun village had grown to 190, with a total of 8,376 dunams of land. Of this, a total of 6,705 dunams were used for cereals, 439 dunams were irrigated or used for orchards, 7 for citrus and bananas, and four dunams were classified as built-up public areas.
1948 and 1967 Arab–Israeli Wars
The road from the coastal plain to Jerusalem was blocked after the British withdrew and handed the fort of Latrun over to Jordan’s Arab Legion. The Arab Legionnaires used the fort to shell Israeli vehicles traveling on the road below, effectively imposing a military siege on Jerusalem and the Jewish residents there, despite that the United Nations plan was to keep Jerusalem as an international zone with neither Jordan, Israel, nor the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee having sovereignty over it.
Latrun Monastery 1948
On May 24, 1948, ten days after the Israeli Declaration of Independence per the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181 and the Arab assaults against Israel which followed, the Jordanian Legion’s fort was assaulted by combined forces of Israel’s newly created 7th Armored Brigade, and a battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade. Ariel Sharon, then a platoon commander, was wounded at Latrun along with many of his soldiers. The assault, codenamed Operation Bin Nun Alef (May 24–25), was unsuccessful, sustaining heavy casualties. On June 1, 1948, a second attack against the fort, codenamed Operation Bin Nun Bet, also failed, although the outer defenses had been breached.
Many of the Israeli fighters were young Holocaust survivors who had just arrived in the country and had minimal military training. The official casualty figure for both battles was 139.
To circumvent the blocked road, a makeshift camouflaged road through the seemingly impassable mountains towards Jerusalem was constructed under the command of Mickey (David) Marcus. This bypassed the main routes overlooked by Latrun and was named the Burma Road after its emergency supply-line namesake between Kunming (China) and Lashio (Burma), improvised by the Allies in World War II. The road was used for the first time on June 1, 1948, and allowed Israeli forces to end the month-old Arab blockade of the Old City.
On August 2, the Truce Commission drew the attention of the Security Council to the Arabs’ refusal to allow water and food supplies to reach Jerusalem. After much negotiation, it was agreed that United Nations convoys would transport supplies, but the convoys often came under sniper fire. Towards the end of August, the situation improved. The destruction of the Latrun pumping station made it impossible for water in adequate quantities to flow to Jerusalem, but the Israelis built an auxiliary water pipeline of small capacity along the
Burma Road, which provided a minimum amount of water.
After Operation Danny, Israeli forces anticipated a Jordanian counterattack, possibly from Latrun, but King Abdullah remained within the bounds of the tacit agreement made with the Jewish Agency and kept his troops at Latrun.
In the 1949 Armistice Agreements, the fort remained under Jordanian control, which was, in turn, surrounded by a perimeter of no man’s land. Under the cease-fire agreement, Jordan was not to disrupt Israeli travelers using this road; in practice, constant sniper attacks led Israel to build a bypass road around the bulge.
The Palestinian Arab residents of Latrun were evacuated to Imwas in 1949 as a result of the war and Latrun’s location on the 1949 armistice line.
In the Six-Day War in 1967, Latrun was captured by the Israeli Defense Forces, and the main road to Jerusalem was re-opened and made safe for travel. The villages of Imwas, Yalo, and Bayt Nuba were razed, their residents took refuge in the West Bank and Jordan, and Canada Park was established on the land.
Since the Six-Day War
The Latrun monastic community allowed two communities, Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam and the Jesus-Brudershaft, to be established on its land The Tegart Fort became the Yad La-Shiryon memorial for fallen soldiers of the Israeli Armored Corps, and a Museum was established there.