September 23 holds a historical significance in the relationship between India and Israel. On this day, India and Israel commemorate the decisive Battle of Haifa, and it will be the 103rd anniversary of the same this year. This day in 1918 marked one of the last cavalry charges in modern military history when Indian and British troops liberated the Israeli city of Haifa from the Ottoman Army. This victory was decisive because it broke the enemy’s morale, and the liberation of the Haifa Port exposed the remaining Ottoman forces in the region. This, along with other actions, paved the way for the end of World War One two months later. The Indian Army even celebrates the day every year as "Haifa Day".
Sharing the significance of the same, Ambassador of Israel to New Zealand Ran Yaakoby says, “On this day in 1918, the Indian soldiers from Mysore, Hyderabad and Jodphur Lancers liberated the strategically important city of Haifa.
Close to 900 Indian soldiers are buried in different cemeteries around Israel. The memory of these brave soldiers will always be remembered in the hearts and minds of the people of Israel.”
Not many are aware that the battle of Haifa has played an integral role India-Israel diplomatic relationship.
Talking about the same, Rony Yedidia Clein, Chargé d'Affaires, Embassy of Israel in New Delhi, says, “The events of the battle of Haifa, which took place 103 years ago, are among the first modern bonds created between what is today modern, independent India and Israel. Thanks to the valiant actions of the Indian soldiers, cities like Haifa were liberated from the Ottoman Empire. This paved the way for the later establishment of Israel we know today. Haifa is a shining example of Israel’s diversity and ability to coexist. Its inhabitants are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and it is home to the Bahai World Center, Temple and Gardens. It is an ancient port city with a thriving tech industry and among the best universities in the region. Over a century later, the relations between India and Israel have grown and strengthened, based on a common heritage and values of freedom and democracy, striving towards a better world.”
Calling The battle of Haifa as ‘a campaign of exceptional bravery’, Dr David Cumin, Director of The Israel Institute of New Zealand,says, "The allied victory over the Ottoman Empire in World War I helped solidify bonds across nations. ANZAC, British, and Indian troops fought side by side on many fronts in the war, and we remember their sacrifice and courage, especially on ANZAC day each year. The battle of Haifa includes the only known incident in military history when a fortified town gocaptured by cavalry on the gallop. The bravery of the Indian troops, armed only with lances and swords against the Turkish artillery and machine guns is legendary.”
Each year there are commemorations in New Delhi, India and Haifa, Israel, and throughout the world, including here in New Zealand to mark this historic event. However, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, no events are planned as such.
“There are no plans for commemoration in the NZ Jewish community this year as far as I know, but, as we continue to strengthen the burgeoning relationship between Aotearoa New Zealand’s Indian and Jewish communities, we hope to stage a joint commemoration in coming years. Just as the state of Israel and its people are very grateful for the key role ANZAC troops played in the Battle of Beersheva in 1917, so they are to India for its amazing campaign in liberating Haifa the next year. Both were decisive, brave battles that helped turn the tide against the Ottomans, and have forged strong bonds between the relevant states. It is wonderful to see the relationship between India and Israel thrive and deepen, with their shared history - including gaining independence around the same time from the British - and their shared interests., ” says Juliet Moses, Spokesperson for the New Zealand Jewish Council,
Sharing the same views, Ian Dunwoodie, a qualified Kiwi lawyer who is exploring the formation of an India-Israel-New Zealand Friendship Group, says, “The commemorations for the Battle of Haifa here in New Zealand have been complicated by the recent Covid 19 lockdown. This has meant that formal ceremonies for the Battle of Haifa will not proceed this year. Next year, provided Covid is behind us, there will be commemorations.”
Interestingly, before Covid 19 pandemic hit across the globe, there were commemorations of the Battle of Haifa in India and Israel.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even visited the Haifa Cemetery in Israel in 2017 and unveiled a plaque honouring Major Dalpat Singh (later known as the Hero of Haifa), who fought and died in the battle. During that visit, Modi wrote in the guestbook, "I am deeply honoured to stand here today to salute the Valiant Indian Soldiers who laid down their lives for the liberation of Haifa during World War One".
In 2018, there were 100th-year commemorations of the battle, and the Israeli Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the Centenary of the Battle of Haifa and the role of the Indian Army.
During the 100th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Haifa, the Mayor of Haifa at that time, Yona Yahav, had said, "Major Singh and the bold Indian Soldiers are very dear to us and this centenary celebration is special to us …. Dalpat Singh not only changed the history of my city but the history of the Middle East."
The Mayor also said that school textbooks in Haifa contain “the story of the Indian troops because this is an important part of our history and legacy. It is important that the students know who liberated their city”.
Similarly, in 2018, when then Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu visited New Delhi as a symbolic gesture of friendship with Israel, India renamed the iconic Teen Murti Chowk, a war memorial as Teen Murti Haifa Chowk.
The friendship between India and Israel has come a long way since the Battle of Haifa. “ Now India is one of Israel’s largest trading partners. In 1992 the total trade was $200 Million. But by the year 2016, it had leapt to $4.13 Billion. There have also been joint research in Space exploration. Both countries have been concerned about radical Jihad ideology and the security threat it poses. They have a joint counter-terrorism coordination strategy and have signed agreements related to this,” signs off Ian.