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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
About 600 soldiers and high-school students marched throughout Thursday night in the Jerusalem Hills, recreating the route taken 59 years ago by the fabled "Lamed-Heh" (the Hebrew letters representing the number 35) who were killed in battle on their way to help relieve the siege on Gush Etzion during the War of Independence.
This is not just a lesson out in the field. The battle of the Lamed-Heh, four months before the state's establishment, is still material for historical dispute and also has current and future political relevance.
Jewish settlement in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, started in 1927 and by 1947 consisted of four kibbutzim. But many of the defenders were massacred after the Gush fell a day before independence, on May 13, 1948, to the Jordanian Army and local Arab gangs, and the area came under Jordanian control until the Six-Day War.
After 1967, Jewish presence in the area was renewed. There are now 53,000 Israeli citizens in the 14 settlements of the new Gush Etzion and the towns of Efrat and Betar Illit, but in Israeli political discourse and in the eyes of the international community - including the US administration - Gush Etzion is regarded in the same way as other West Bank settlements, their existence far from ensured in a future territorial compromise.
"I was in Gush Katif during disengagement last year," recalls Gush Etzion Council head Shaul Goldstein. "It struck me that almost none of the soldiers there had ever been to the Gush, or even spoken to a settler, and I realized that even if I thought that Gush Etzion was an Israeli consensus, nothing should be taken for granted."
Since then Goldstein and the council have undertaken a series of actions to promote the area's image within the Israeli mainstream.
"I want as many Israelis to know more about us before this area comes up for negotiation," he says. "In the end everyone can decide what they want in a democracy, but it's up to us to make sure they're not ignorant about what's going on here."
For that purpose the council hired the Arad Communications PR company, despite its senior partners having acted as advisers to Ariel Sharon during disengagement.
The re-creation of the Lamed-Heh's route was a small annual event, but this year the council decided that it was just the kind of event to boost the Gush's mainstream credentials and invited soldiers and members of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement to take part.
The fabled story of Jewish heroism of young men going out into the night to defend the embattled kibbutzim, never to return, is a symbol of sacrifice during the War of Independence, once known to every Israeli youngster but which over the last couple of decades has slipped out of consciousness.
Yuval Or, a documentary filmmaker whose father was saved from the Lamed-Heh's fate when it turned out that there was no available weapon for him, has recently completed seven years of work on a documentary on the saga with the help of the Gush Etzion council.
"Unlike them I am not religious," says Or, "and I don't agree with their political beliefs, but I think that wonderful people live there and this story has to be told."
The documentary is aimed at teenagers. "We decided to make it for the younger viewers when we realized that so many of them didn't know about the Lamed-Heh. If every child in America knows about the stupid battle of Little Bighorn, then Israelis have to learn about the incredible story of the Lamed-Heh."
The 35 members of two Hagana units were all killed in a battle against the Arab gangs that were besieging the Gush.
The since-disputed myth was that they had met on their way an old Arab shepherd and discussed whether to kill him so he wouldn't tell the gangs of their whereabouts, but decided to let him go. This was seen by the leaders of the nascent state as proof of "the purity of arms" of the Jewish soldiers. Today most historians agree that there is no reliable evidence of the myth, but arguments still rage over the reason why the Lamed-Heh were discovered and outnumbered.
Veteran historian and former MK Col. (res.) Meir Pa'il
believes that "today we have to admit that it was big mistake. The only way to get to the Gush was by night march, but they were delayed because of weapons and equipment problems. They left too late and were found out with first light."
Pa'il reckons that the Lamed-Heh commander Danny Mass, who had been the commander of the Gush in the past, "felt the burden of its defense and couldn't wait a single day. He was a good man, I knew him well, but he made a big mistake."
Yohanan Ben-Ya'acov, a historian who lives in Kfar Etzion and was evacuated from the Gush as a small child at the start of the war, disagrees with Pa'il.
"They could have completed the march before daybreak, even after the delay," he says. "All the evidence points to an unlucky encounter with some village women who gave the alarm. But I don't think this is the center of the story. What is important is to teach the next generation about 35 young men, their devotion, their purity and their willingness to sacrifice everything for their people."