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The King David at 75

On December 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in the Middle East, officially accepted the surrender of Jerusalem.  While the battle between the British and the Turks still raged a few kilometers north of the city, the military governor of Jerusalem quickly enacted the first regulations to safeguard the historic character of Jerusalem. Six months later, the first town plan was authorized and,  with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920, the first master plan for Jerusalem was prepared. The plan established Jerusalem as a modern capital, according to the grand tradition of British town planning. The British municipal concept was to build two parkways in Jerusalem that would provide rapid access from one side of the city to the other, while simultaneously creating a special, enjoyable vista for the city.

To the city’s west, the “Western Parkway” was paved along the Valley of the Cross. Along the ridge immediately to the west of the Old City, the British paved the “Inner Parkway.” During the Mandate period, the “Inner Parkway” was called Julian’s Way in honor of the fourth-century Roman emperor who had allowed Jews to return to and settle in the city. After the creation of the State of Israel, the street was renamed King David Street.

In 1928, the Palestine Hotels Company purchased four acres, at the highest point along Julian’s Way, from the Greek Orthodox Church for $150,000. The Palestine Hotels Company planned to build the best and grandest hotel in Jerusalem on this site.

From Cairo to Jerusalem

Elie Nissim Mosseri established the Palestine Hotels Company in Egypt in the 1920s. The Mosseri family had arrived in Egypt in the beginning of the nineteenth century at the invitation of Mohammed Ali, the Bosnian governor of Egypt, who had turned Egypt into an independent kingdom. Mohammed Ali and his successors encouraged businessmen, soldiers, professionals, and scientists to settle in Egypt in order to modernize the country. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the stream of foreigners settling in Egypt mushroomed. They included many Jewish families. By the end of the nineteenth century, Cairo and Alexandria had relatively large Jewish communities.

The Mosseri family had come to Egypt from Livorno, Italy, and its members had established themselves as merchants, bankers, and professionals. Agronomist Victor Mosseri discovered a treatment for a widespread cotton disease that saved Egypt’s main cash crop. Elie Mosseri, another member of the family, reorganized the Egyptian cement company. Joseph Mosseri went into the movie-making business; he established what would become the largest movie-making company in the Arab world. But the family’s most important asset, and the source of its wealth, was Banque Mosseri, one of the biggest Egyptian financial institutions.

By the 1920s, when the Palestine Hotels Company was established, the family had reached the zenith of its prosperity. Elie Mosseri’s 11 siblings lived in impressive mansions in Cairo’s upper-class neighborhoods of Zamalek and Garden City, which were on the banks of the Nile. Most of the mansions serve today as museums, libraries, and embassies.

Elie Mosseri married three times. His wedding to Laura Felix Suares, a scion of one of the richest Egyptian Jewish families, was the most dazzling social event of the year. All of Egypt’s high society showed up, from the royal family to the composer Camille Saint-Saens. The wedding took place in the Great Synagogue of Cairo, which had been built with the help of the Mosseri family. Egypt’s chief rabbi officiated at the ceremony. Elie Mosseri’s first wife died before her time. A short while later, Simonette, one of their two daughters, also passed away.

Mosseri’s second wife was Georgette Hirsch, the widow of Alphonse Kahn, the famous French banker and founder of the Parisian department store, Gallery Lafayette. Georgette died shortly after her second marriage, leaving him with a Parisian inheritance.

Mosseri’s third wife, Helene Polymeris, was an Egyptian society lady from a Greek Alexandrian family. “Her beauty was as great as her fortune was small,” the wags of the time declared. Helene Mosseri was the closest friend of young King Farouk, the last king of Egypt, and his confidant. The king called her “the beautiful Helene” in his memoirs. After Nasser deposed Farouk in 1952, Helene committed suicide. Elie Mosseri had died 12 years earlier on June 10, 1940.

The Mosseri family, especially Elie Mosseri, was very active in the hotel business. The Egyptian Hotels Company, which was owned by the family bank, managed the most luxurious hotels in Egypt, including the Shepheard in Cairo, the Mena House at the foot of the Pyramids, the Grand Hotel in Helwan, and the Continental Savoy. Another of his companies, the Upper Egypt Hotels Company, owned and managed the Winter Palace in Luxor and the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, the two most important locations, together with the Mena House, on the Egyptian grand tour.

As visitors to Mandatory Palestine began to increase, especially business people, Zionist delegations, and British military and government personnel, it was only natural that the Mosseri family would realize that a grand, luxury hotel would be needed in Jerusalem. In 1921, Elie Mosseri founded the Palestine Hotels Company. Shares in the company were sold to Jewish families in Egypt and the United States, as well as to Swiss financiers. The shareholders included the Rothschild family.

Ancient Semitic Style

The well-known Swiss hotel architect, Emil Vogt, was chosen to design the building. Vogt was known for his fairy-tale hotels in St. Moritz and Lucerne and recently had renovated the famous Grand Bretagne in Athens. J.P. Hoffschmid, the hotel’s Swiss interior designer, was told to “evoke, by reminiscence, the ancient Semitic style and the ambience of the glorious period of King David.”

The hotel was built during the 1929 riots, during which the Jewish community of Hebron was massacred and Jews in Jerusalem, Safed, and other parts of mandatory Palestine were murdered by Arab gangs. Of the 240 construction workers, 210 were Jewish. They included 60 stonecutters, 25 masons, 60 carpenters, 25 plumbers, five electricians, and other skilled workers, all of whom worked side-by-side with their 30 Arab colleagues. But the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine would engulf the hotel as soon as it opened its doors. Both Jewish and Arab national institutions sent representatives to the hotel to investigate the number of Jews and Arabs employed there. They not only monitored the numbers, but also which jobs were filled by Jews and which by Arabs and who was promoted and who was fired. The issue was reflected in the newspapers of the day, as well as in pamphlets calling for boycotts, struggles, and reports by each side about alleged discrimination against its members discovered at the hotel.

The Expected Standard

In December 1930, the Grand Hotel of Palestine, as the King David was called in the press, opened for a trial run with 200 rooms and 60 bathrooms. A month later, on January 20, 1931, the hotel was officially inaugurated. Five days after the official opening, Marcus Issa and George Tshar, scions of prestigious Arab families in Jerusalem, put an advertisement in the Arab newspaper Palestine calling on the wealthy Arab families of Jerusalem not to hold parties and dinners at the King David because they believed the hotel was a Zionist plot to ruin the city’s Arab hotel owners.

The Jews, on the other hand, complained that the hotel employed mainly Arabs. A few years after the hotel opened, the Jewish Agency examined the “issue of Jewish employment at the King David Hotel.” A Jewish Agency official was sent to talk to the hotel’s Swiss manager, “Comrade Ziller,” after a stormy meeting with “representatives of the Jewish workers of the hotel.” Regarding the question of “firing of Jewish workers from the hotel,” Ziller said he “had fired no Jewish employees.” Comments by the union representatives made it clear that the only employees laid off were a Greek night watchman and a Jewish chambermaid.

Ziller didn’t understand what the ruckus was all about. “The workers here don’t have the professional standards needed for a first-class European-style hotel,” he explained. “In order to keep up the standards, the hotel management brings in a professional team of hotel personnel from Switzerland every year.”

In 1936, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, proclaimed the beginning of the Arab Revolt against the Jews and British with the goal of stopping Jewish immigration to Palestine. This was the beginning of three years of terror perpetuated by Arabs in the cities and along the main roads of the country.

While the Arab Revolt was raging, the Palestine Hotels Company decided to upgrade the hotel. Professional hoteliers from Europe were brought in to fill all the main positions in the hotel’s management. 100 Sudanese were brought in to serve as waiters and doormen. They dressed in wide baggy pants, embroidered shirts, small jackets, and red fez.

Around the same time, it was decided to upgrade the hotel’s cuisine. The result was the La Regence restaurant, which by the end of the British Mandate had become the central meeting point of Jerusalem society, the British administration, visiting dignitaries, and world travelers. By the end of the 1930s, while the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, the King David had become an important stop on the travel routes of the British Empire.

Each April and May, the wealthy and royal families of Egypt and the wealthy families from the Palestine coast arrived for the summer. The families stayed at the hotel for six months, until the beginning of October, when Cairo’s burning heat  and sultry coastal humidity abated. The men conducted their business in Cairo during the week and returned to the hotel by train for the weekends. After a new road across northern Sinai was built in the late 1930s, it quickly became fashionable to drive between Cairo and Jerusalem; the journey took 10 hours and was the fastest way to get from one city to the other.

September 1939, the month that World War II broke out, was a busy month for the hotel. “The weekend at the King David has been a very busy one with many officers of the army and air force coming and going, both those already in Jerusalem, and those from the outlying districts,” reported the hotel’s log for the week of September 4, 1939, four days after Germany had invaded Poland. The same week, “Capt. Collingwood, who has been transferred to Egypt, gave a farewell dinner at the King David. The room, lit with soft candlelight, looked very beautiful; the dining table was charmingly arranged with primrose-colored marigolds. The Winter Garden was furnished as a drawing room and used for serving cocktails before dinner and coffee after.” The Saturday dinner dance that week was “well patronized and the dance music of the Palestine Police Band was well received and happily encored.”

On September 24, the King David’s daily log noted, “A new landmark was established in Palestine and a new leaf turned in the history of the King David when the Lydda Airport Restaurant was opened, with the hotel in charge of the catering department.” The new restaurant quickly turned into one of the busiest meeting places in the center of the country. In-flight meals were not yet served on planes and so many airlines scheduled stopovers in Lydda on flights between the Far East and Europe so that passengers could enjoy lunch.

In October 1939, the British Army expropriated 40 bedrooms and 17 offices on the uppermost story of the hotel and turned them into British military headquarters in Palestine. In November, the civilian authorities of Palestine expropriated 45 rooms for the secretariat of the British Mandate. The hotel was left with only 62 bedrooms and 24 halls for its own use. The hotel was now the center of British administration in Palestine. British troops guarded the building; machine gun emplacements were set up at the entrance to the hotel.

World War II brought economic prosperity to Jerusalem. Supply and production centers for the British Army were set up in Palestine to serve the thousands of British troops stationed in the Middle East. Many different units arrived in Jerusalem: Free Polish and Free French troops, Gurkhas, New Zealanders, Australians, and many more. Exiled emperors, kings, princes, and dukes also found refuge in Jerusalem. Many of them lived in the hotel for extended periods.

When the news of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews in Europe reached the city, the Jewish underground movements and the British came to a cease-fire agreement. The British stamped out the Arab Revolt in 1939; the Mufti and other radical Arab leaders, who had voiced support for the Nazis, were deported. Jerusalem now managed to have a few years of quiet. The King David finally began to prosper.

New Year’s Eve, 1940, was celebrated with the hotel’s usual pomp. “In spite of the war-time atmosphere, a record crowd gathered at the King David,” the hotel log reported. “The banquet hall was decorated to look its very smartest. Music was provided by Rosler’s Band, a new band that blended very well with the hotel’s Saturday night dinner dances. The dance band of the Black Watch, the British Army’s elite Scottish unit, also played. Dancing went on until just before midnight, when the guests gathered in the main lobby of the hotel.

A hush fell over the guests. Every heart beat with hope for the New Year. Every voice prayed that the New Year would bring some kind of solution. Precisely at midnight, the bay windows’ silvery satin curtains were drawn aside to show two Black Watch Pipers standing on the balcony. As the strokes of 12 began, lights carried by soldiers behind them spelled out ‘Happy New Year.’ The pipers raised their pipes, and their music started, and precisely as the New Year began, the date ‘January 1, 1940,’ was lit up, and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was played. When the song was over, the pipers broke out into a brilliant sword dance, the bands picked up, and the dancing continued until the early hours of the morning.”

In late March 1941, the log recorded the arrival of Emir Abdullah, soon to be King Abdullah of Jordan. At the same time, the hotel’s daily log noted the visit of Prince Abdel Monheim, the Egyptian regent. The emir visited various sites around the city and hosted dinners for Palestinian notables.

In the first week of June 1941, the hotel log recorded that a severe hamsin (heat wave) had struck the city. On June 4, the log noted the death of deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II. On June 8, it reported that Free French forces, together with British, Australian, and Indian troops, had invaded Syria. That same week Mr. Morton, the correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, hosted Prince Peter and Princess Irene of Greece for lunch, and Major Prince Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, at the hotel.

On June 1, 1941, 15,000 British troops were evacuated from Crete. The next day, American forces occupied Iceland. Shavuot fell that same week and “many visitors came to Jerusalem.” The King David was fully occupied. A week later, the hotel log states, “Many guests arrived from Haifa and Tel Aviv to avoid the nights of the full moon, when there were numerous air raids.”

At the end of July, Frya Stark, the British traveler and confidant of Lawrence of Arabia and King Feisal, made a few visits to the hotel. Her travels through the Arabian Desert with Abdullah and members of the Hussein family made her a celebrity in the salons of Cairo, Delhi, and London. Halil al-Assad and Emir Abd al-Razek of Syria were honored guests of the hotel that week, as well as W. Averell Harriman, the personal representative of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

The end of World War II brought a period of rejoicing to the British Empire. But peace in Jerusalem was short-lived. In July 1946, the Jewish underground movements resumed their battle against the British “White Paper,” the policy restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. In one night, the Haganah blew up all the bridges leading in and out of Palestine. The British retaliated with a massive search and arrest operation – called “Operation Agatha” by the British and “Black Sabbath” by the Yishuv – in which most of the leaders of the Jewish community were arrested. The Irgun decided to retaliate.

The Explosion

On July 22, 1946, Irgun members, disguised as Arabs, placed two milk urns filled with 350 kilograms of explosives in the La Regence kitchen, under the southern wing of the King David Hotel. After lighting time-delayed fuses, the Irgun called the secretariat, stating that a bomb had been planted and was set to go off in 30 minutes, and that the hotel should be evacuated immediately. Meanwhile, the Irgun exploded two diversionary bombs outside the hotel. Although the secretariat received the warning, confusion reigned about whether it was referring to the explosions outside the hotel, or if this was a false alarm. The hotel was not evacuated. At 12:37, a huge explosion shook Jerusalem and the whole southern wing of the hotel collapsed.

For two days, British Army engineers struggled to rescue survivors. 91 people died: 28 British, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews, and five guests of the hotel. The Jewish community condemned the attack, which worsened relations between the Haganah and the Irgun, and between the Yishuv and the British administration.

The world was outraged. The British turned Jerusalem into a fortified city of barbed wire, checkpoints, and security areas. British military and administrative officials traveled in convoys. The cease-fire in Jerusalem was over.

A Divided City

 On May 15, 1948, the Union Jack was lowered from the roof of the King David. British High Commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham had left Jerusalem the day before.

As fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out in the city, the hotel was turned into the Red Cross headquarters. Max Hamburger, the hotel’s manager, succeeded in reaching an agreement between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Jordanian Arab Legion to declare the King David a demilitarized zone. Neither side managed to keep the agreement.

With the hotel once again a battle zone, the Red Cross evacuated the building and the hotel was taken over by the United Nations. The U.N. flag was hoisted up the hotel’s flagpole, but this did not make an impression on the warring sides and snipers continued to fire at the hotel. Following the U.N. evacuation of the King David, it became an Israeli military position and a target for the Arab forces’ mortars and cannons.

Once the fighting ended, the hotel tried to resume operation. But the divided city was not the world capital that it had been during the mandate period, even if it now was the capital of the small, new Jewish state. The wealthy residents, who had fled Jerusalem during the war, were replaced by new immigrants, many of them penniless.

The Palestine Hotels Company did not see a bright future for the King David. All it hoped for was that the King David would cover its operating costs and maybe collect the debt that the British government still owed it.

A Dream Redeemed

Yekutiel Federmann was born in 1914 in Kamnitz, Germany. Xiel, as he was called by all, and his brother Samuel (Samo), two years his junior, were ardent Zionists. Xiel was active in the Jewish youth movement Habonim. On January 30, 1933, the Federmann family’s four bakeries and coffee shops were among the first Jewish businesses to be attacked by local members of the Nazi party, who were celebrating their victory in the elections to the Reichstag. Xiel watched helplessly as his father was dragged into the street and humiliated by SS thugs.

These events only made Xiel increase his Zionist activities. He became one of the central figures in the Zionist movement Hahalutz, which prepared its members to immigrate to Palestine. In addition to his official activities in the movement, Xiel also was active in the clandestine anti-Nazi Zionist movement. This organization’s members focused on preparing hiding places and escape routes into Austria and Czechoslovakia. But on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Gestapo surprised the organization and managed to capture them, one by one, with the aid of detailed lists it had obtained. Xiel and another member were the only ones who managed to escape. With the aid of forged travel documents, he reached London.

In London, Xiel was put in change of the local Youth Aliyah branch, replacing Teddy Kollek. His main responsibility was getting Jewish youngsters out of Germany to centers in London, where they were prepared to immigrate to Palestine. He repeatedly traveled to continental Europe and made his way through Nazi Germany, using forged documents. With the help of the good connections that he had developed with government officials in London, he managed to get immigration certificates to Palestine for the youngsters that he managed to get out of Germany

In March 1940, Yekutiel and Bella Federmann made Aliyah. Determined to fight the Nazis, Xiel prepared to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF). But the British authorities were unimpressed with the pilot’s license that he presented and were not too keen on accepting Jewish immigrants to Palestine into the RAF. After spending a month in the Halutzim group that was planning to establish a kibbutz in the Carmel Mountains, Bella and Xiel realized that communal life was not for them. They rented a small apartment in Haifa and with two partners established a café called the Yardenia.

The café was a favorite haunt of British officers and NCOs. Xiel’s friendly nature made him a favorite of the customers, including high-ranking officers in the British Navy.

In June 1942, Field Marshal Rommel’s armored forces in North Africa won a decisive victory over the British forces in Libya. A week later, Tobruk fell to the Germans and 30,000 British soldiers were captured. The British Army retreated to El Alamien in Egypt, about 100 kilometers west of Alexandria, and in range of air attack. The German advance forced the British to move their main supply center from Alexandria to Haifa; the plan to do so was a major military secret. One Friday afternoon, Xiel found a briefcase that a British supply officer had left at the café. The briefcase contained the detailed plans for the secret move to Haifa.

When the terrified officer returned to reclaim his briefcase, Xiel told him that he had been forced to look inside the briefcase in order to ascertain its owner. While doing that, he explained to the officer, he had inadvertently seen the plan. Xiel offered his services to the supply officer. The officer was ready to put Xiel to the test. “I need 20,000 pairs of shorts,” the officer told him. Xiel quickly arranged for the Moller and Ata textile works to supply them and was soon taking orders for more clothing items. In a short time, Xiel managed to arrange to supply the main items the British Army needed. He rented a number of large warehouses and supplied the British Army with everything from shoelaces to food to camping equipment.

British Army trucks delivered Xiel’s supplies to the army bases. This opened the way for a lucrative commercial enterprise. Most of the supplies were transported by truck to bases west of Alexandria. At the time, Alexandria’s harbor was blockaded and its merchants were stuck with goods that could not be shipped out of the city. Xiel bought the goods at a discount and transported them to Haifa in the returning trucks, which would have been empty otherwise.

In late 1943, Xiel was summoned to Jerusalem to meet with a British admiral. The meeting was at the King David Hotel. As he entered the hotel, his breath was taken away. He was enchanted by the architecture, the splendor of the building, and the beauty of its garden. “I would like to own this place one day,” he thought.

Samuel (Samo) Federmann had remained in Kamnitz with his parents in order to help them run the family business under the Nazi regime. In 1936, his father, David Federmann, as the head of the family, was summoned to the local Gestapo headquarters. A Gestapo officer, who had been a long-time customer of Federmann’s, advised him, “Sell what you can and get out as quickly as possible.”

David Federmann followed this advice. He moved the family to Antwerp, Belgium, where his eldest son, Shaya, had settled. From Antwerp, the family moved to Brussels, where they established a successful Viennese pastry shop. In May 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium and the Federmann family had to flee once again. At the Belgian-French border, the family discovered that all of the roads to Paris were blocked. The family then tried to travel to Paris via Dunkirk, arriving in that area just as the British Army was being evacuated. Finally, the family managed to reach Paris.

The German conquest of Paris uprooted them again. This time they fled to Spain. In October 1940, Samo was arrested and imprisoned in northern Spain, along with 4,000 others. The Spaniards were locking up every refugee of army age entering Spain. After he made the difficult adjustment to prison camp life, Samo opened a clandestine camp bakery. In 1942, Jewish diamond merchants from Belgium began to arrive in the camp. Many of them turned to Samo, who they knew from his days in Brussels, and asked him to sell the diamonds that they had brought with them in order to make their stay at the camp a little more bearable. In a short time, Samo became the “diamond king” of the camp. More importantly, he now had at his disposal the means to organize his release.

In December 1943, Samo and three partners rented a fishing boat, loaded it with 751 Jewish refugees, and set sail for Palestine. In January 1944, the boat arrived at Haifa. Jewish Agency representatives welcomed the immigrants and then the British hauled them off to the detention camp at Atlit. Xiel, the chief supplier of the British Navy, soon managed to arrange for his younger brother to be released.

The Dan in Tel Aviv

When World War II ended, the business of supplying the British Army dried up. The brothers had to find a new source of income. Setting their eyes on the hotel business, the Federmanns rented and renovated the venerable Kaete Dan Pension on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv.

On November 29, 1947, the day that the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Partition Plan, the legal basis for the creation of the State of Israel, a Jewish delegation from Miami was staying at the Kaete Dan hotel. The delegation had not been able to return to the U.S. as it had planned because Arab attacks on the roads had made it impossible to reach the airport. After the U.N. decision was announced, the delegation members – Max Horowitz, Rabbi Irving Lerman, and Mrs. Zelog – watched the outbreak of joy and dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv in amazement. While the events in the streets continued, leaders of Aliyah Bet, the arm of the Haganah responsible for clandestine immigration to Israel, paid a visit to the hotel to seek Xiel’s help. They told him that a ship full of Jewish immigrants was waiting just offshore of Tel Aviv, in full view of a British Army camp. The ship’s captain refused to allow the passengers to be taken off the ship and smuggled quietly to shore under the cover of night until he received $5,000, which he said had been promised to him upon arrival.

Xiel did not have the money in the hotel and the banks were closed at that hour. He decided to ask his guests from Miami to lend him the money until the banks opened in the morning. The head of the delegation agreed, on condition that the delegation be allowed to participate in bringing the immigrants to shore.

At 9 o’clock the next morning, Xiel returned the loan, as promised. This chance encounter on that fateful night planted a seed that blossomed a year later when Xiel was sent to Belgium in order to procure arms for the IDF. As he stepped out of the elevator in the Belgian hotel, he ran into Horowitz and two of his business partners. Xiel presented his views on the development of tourism in Israel to them. He explained that Israel needs hotels of a standard that can accommodate visitors from abroad. The Miami businessmen decided to join him as investors in a venture to create a luxury hotel in Tel Aviv.

The path to the establishment of the hotel was still long. Xiel set out to persuade government leaders and officials to allow him to import the materials needed to construct the hotel without charging him the huge tariffs imposed on imports in the first years of the state’s existence. Finance Ministry officials were unimpressed with Xiel’s vision. They did not see Israel as a place for tourists. Instead, they only saw a young country with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants living in tents and temporary housing, plus an acute shortage in basic food products. In their eyes, this was not the time for luxury hotels, but for basics.

However, following an investment of four million dollars in new housing by the Miami businessmen, the Israeli government officials were ready to allow the construction of a 120-room luxury hotel.

The new hotel was inaugurated in November 1953. Government ministers and officials, who previously had mostly voiced their objection to the hotel, fought for an invitation to the opening of the “first Hebrew luxury hotel after 2,000 years of exile.”

Read full article in: ERETZ Magazine, Feb. 2007 (Issue 107)


The King David, 1930





The Third Government of Israel being presented to President Haim Weitzmann, 1951

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