On This Day: 79 killed by Arabs in Hadassah convoy massacre 74 years ago

A total of 79 people died, including 23 women and one British soldier in this massacre in Sheikh Jarrah during the Arab-Jewish struggle over Jerusalem in the pre-state era.

 Aftermath of attack on Hadassah convoy, 13 April 1948. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Aftermath of attack on Hadassah convoy, 13 April 1948.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

April 13, 2022 marks 74 years since the Hadassah medical convoy massacre, when a convoy of Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients and guards were murdered by Arab forces while traveling through Sheikh Jarrah.

The background

Taking place in 1948, the incident was rooted in the then-ongoing tensions and conflicts between Jews and Arabs in and around Jerusalem, following the unveiling of the United Nations partition plan and in the lead-up to the anticipated Israeli declaration of independence.

At the time, Jerusalem was a tense battleground where Jewish and Arab militias fought for control over transportation routes.

One of these locations was Mount Scopus, which was where the Hebrew University of Jerusalem campus and Hadassah Medical Center were located.

 An ambulance preparing to join the convoy to Mount Scopus. 13 April 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) An ambulance preparing to join the convoy to Mount Scopus. 13 April 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, Arab forces blockaded access to the mountain. The only way through was through Sheikh Jarrah. But the mountain was still highly important to Jewish groups.

A few important events led to the eventual Arab decision to commit the massacre. First, there was the April 8 death of Abd al-Qadir Husseini, who led the Arab forces in the city. He had threatened to destroy both the hospital and the university should they not be captured, but was killed during a Palmach raid.

Second, there was the Deir Yassin Massacre on April 9, an incident that saw the right-wing Zionist militia the Irgun (Etzel) and the far Right extremist group known as the Stern Gang (Lehi) massacre what many estimate to be around 100 Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin.

Ultimately, it is thought that these incidents inspired Arab forces to launch a retaliation.

The prelude

The Arab blockade had essentially besieged the hospital on Mount Scopus, cutting them off from supplies. The one route was plagued by mines and Arab sniper fire, and the hospital was struggling with a lack of resources. Eventually, a large convoy of medical workers and supplies would be sent to the hospital. As a humanitarian convoy, it would be marked as neutral and safe, which was further guaranteed by British authorities. 

Overall, the convoy consisted of three buses filled with healthcare workers, three supply trucks, two ambulances and two armored vehicles with troops from the Zionist militia the Hagana.

But despite British assurances that the humanitarian convoy would be safe, they were ultimately ambushed in Sheikh Jarrah.

The massacre begins

Arab forces attacked in the morning, detonating a landmine and then striking with small arms fire and Molotov cocktails.

Five of the vehicles were able to escape. Two of the buses were struck by Molotov cocktails and set ablaze and the Arab forces struck the passengers as they tried to escape.

For numerous reasons that are still debated, British and Hagana forces were delayed in providing assistance to stop the violence. 

According to documents in the hands of Hadassah, British mandatory personnel cooperated and participated in it. No one was ever prosecuted, and British collaborators were never investigated. Further, the two survivors of the bus both later testified that British forces nearby refused to help.

However, many of the facts around this are still subject to some debate.

Eventually, the British did interfere, including the help of Maj. Jack Churchill, a decorated World War II veteran, who attempted to aid the convoy under fire from a vastly larger Arab force. 

British forces did eventually provide greater aid and were able to evacuate the survivors. However, crucially, despite being nearby, it took several hours for the British to get involved. 

The massacre had begun at 9:30 a.m. It lasted until at least 5 p.m.

 A memorial to the victims of the Hadassah medical convoy massacre. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) A memorial to the victims of the Hadassah medical convoy massacre. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The aftermath and legacy

A total of 79 people died, including 23 women and one British soldier. Also among the dead was Dr. Haim Yassky, the head of the hospital who had been riding in one of the ambulances. 

The massacre was so brutal that only 31 victims could actually be identified and were buried individually. The other victims were buried in a mass grave in Sanhedria Cemetary, though it is thought that 22 of the victims are still missing.

The Arabs faced condemnation for what was seen as an attack on a humanitarian convoy, though the Arabs claimed that they had attacked a military formation and distinguishing soldiers from civilians wasn't possible since the civilians were also fighting.

The hospital was eventually effectively evacuated and closed and later became a demilitarized enclave in Jordan-controlled east Jerusalem. 

It wasn't until the Six Day War when Jerusalem was fully taken under Israeli control that Hadassah would reopen. Until then, the doctors that evacuated had been set up in a new hospital in Jerusalem, known as Hadassah Ein Kerem.

Judy Siegel-Itzkovich contributed to this report.