Aborting was not an option

Remembering the Lamed-Heh on the 70th anniversary of the battle that killed 35 fighters trying to save Gush Etzion during the War of Independence

THE GRAVES of the Convoy of 35 in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE GRAVES of the Convoy of 35 in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On November 29, 1947, Jews in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine were glued to their radios. Paper and pens in hand, they were tallying the UN General Assembly vote for the partition of Palestine, which would end the British Mandate and establish a Jewish state.
When it was declared the vote had passed, a burst of joy erupted. A spontaneous party formed in front of the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of people danced, sang and wept – including some British policemen.
As truckloads of people arrived to join the festivities, Zionist leader and future prime minister Golda Meir stepped onto the balcony and addressed the exuberant crowd below.
“For 2,000 years we aspired for redemption,” she said and then addressed the Palestinian Arabs: “This partition plan is a compromise – not what you wanted, not what we wanted. But now let us live together in friendship and in peace.”
But the Arab reaction was neither friendship nor peace. Two days later, an Arab mob stormed out of Jaffa Gate, axes in hand, and assaulted Jewish passersby. Elsewhere in Palestine, sporadic violence broke out, including shots fired at Jewish buses.
In other parts of the Middle East, Jewish homes and stores were set ablaze. In Aleppo, Syria, 75 Jews were massacred. In Aden, Yemen, 85 Jews were murdered. These riots led not only to the eventual cleansing of Jews from communities in which they lived for centuries, but it also sent a message to the leaders of the Middle East: the “Arab street” wants them to come to the aid of Palestine.
Indeed, in early January, a “rescue army” was sent by the Arab League. The army was comprised of fighters from Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere, many of whom previously had been trained by the British military.
“This was a way for governments to give an answer to popular sentiments,” Prof. Alon Kadish of the Hebrew University explains. “The Palestine issue was popular in the street, but not with Arab governments. Also, this was a way for opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to create legitimacy and arm themselves.”
The British, focused on a dignified and orderly withdrawal on one hand and protecting their interests in the Middle East on the other, looked the other way when the armed Arab fighters arrived – while extensively monitoring the seafront in search of incoming Jewish weaponry and immigrants.
Arabs inside Palestine began organizing into militias. Training camps were established, such as in Tzurif, south of Jerusalem near Gush Etzion – a bloc of Jewish kibbutzim in the Judean hills.
THE ARABS quickly identified a Jewish soft spot: the roads. Ambushes were set to cut off supply lines to isolated Jewish villages and to Jerusalem.
Jewish drivers were not allowed to carry weapons. The British, asserting that they were the sole keeper of law and order, set up roadblocks, confiscated weapons and at times arrested Jews carrying them.
“There was a procedure to coordinate convoys with the British,” Kadish explains, “but the Hagana [predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces] feared that some British would leak the information to the ambushing Arabs, and hence there was no coordination.”
Supply convoys turned into death traps while isolated villages fell under a de facto siege. Such was the case with Gush Etzion.
Just as Arab leaders encouraged Arab civilians to evacuate to aid incoming fighters, so did the Jews in some cases. By early January, the children and non-fighting adults of Gush Etzion were evacuated to the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem.
One of those children was Yochanan Ben-Yaacov, today a historian specializing in the Gush Etzion region. The hostilities, he said, came as a surprise.
“Right up to the very beginning of the war there was peace with the Arab villages. Two days before the outbreak of violence, people from Gush Etzion went to [neighboring Arab village] Beit Ummar to invite friends to a wedding.”
A week after the children were evacuated, an escalation occurred: A massive force led by the Tzurif training camp militia, accompanied by local Arab villagers, assaulted Gush Etzion on January 14. Ben-Yaacov, whose father stayed in the Gush to defend it, describes the local dynamics.
“The villagers did not want to cooperate with the Tzurif militia, but they were told that the Jewish settlements were about to be destroyed and that there will be ample bounty. They came to loot.”
The offensive represented a turning point for the Arabs in the war – a shift from sporadic riots to an organized effort to conquer territory.
In spite of limited weaponry, the Gush’s Jewish fighters were able to repel the assault, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Arabs. Gush Etzion prevailed – for a while. Kadish points to a contributing factor:
“The Arab attack ended because night fell and because their militia did not have supply lines. Hence, once it was dark, the attackers returned to their respective villages and base.”
It was clear, though, that they would be back.
With an imminent threat of another attack, a severe shortage of ammunition, medicine and fighting men, and with transportation lines cut off, a decision was made to send reinforcements to the Gush by foot. An unsuccessful attempt was made late that night to send such a force from Jerusalem.
The next evening, on Thursday, January 15, a group of 40 students on a botanical research expedition drove from Jerusalem to the village of Hartuv, near today’s Beit Shemesh. The elite unit planned to begin their 28-km. march toward Gush Etzion somewhere between 7 and 8 p.m. and to arrive at their destination between 2 and 3 a.m.
But while the unarmed students/fighters were able to make their way through the roadblocks and arrive at Hartuv on time for the operation, the pickup truck carrying their weapons and equipment was late. The British patrols forced them to take extra precautions and conceal the weapons in the double-edged parameters of the vehicle. That also required extra time to retrieve the weapons once the truck arrived. It then became evident that there were only 38 machine guns that could be collected for the 40 fighters. Two men had to stay behind.
SHORTLY AFTER 11 p.m., the group of 38 was ready to depart, but the Hartuv regional commander, Rephael Ben Aroja, pleaded with the force to postpone the mission until the next night, pointing out that it would be daylight by their arrival time and hence they were likely to be discovered. Danny Mass, the mission commander, argued back that by daybreak they would be close enough to Gush Etzion and if compromised, they would be able to fight their way into the Gush.
So, the force left Hartuv some time after 11 p.m., armed with supplies and ammunition, but not with a communication device – a luxury not yet available in the Jerusalem arena (pigeon posts which were used instead were not effective at night).
A little over an hour into the journey, one of the fighters stumbled over a small cliff in the dark and sprained his leg. This caused a delay as the medic attempted to improvise a solution that would allow him to continue. Mass eventually decided to send him back, accompanied by two other soldiers. The original group of 40 was now down by five and will forever be known as the Lamed-Heh (“35” in Hebrew letters).
It was now 1 a.m., with only five hours left of darkness. As to what happened at that point, conversations with Arabs who took part in battle as well as with British police commanders paint a fairly clear picture. Ben-Yaacov, who participated in such conversations, recounts his recollections.
“Around 6 a.m., two advance scouts paving the way for the force, encountered two Arab women chopping wood [for fuel]. Those scouts were immigrants from an Arab country and told the women in Arabic that they were part of the Arab force. The women did not believe them, dropped their wood and ran to their village, yelling Jews! Jews!”
Once it was confirmed that there were Jewish fighters in the field, a battle call went out. The fighters from the Tzurif training camp were once again joined by the local villagers. Hundreds of Arabs poured into the field and surrounding areas in search of the Lamed-Heh group. Gunfire soon erupted, which subsided after some time, probably due to the Lamed-Heh fighters’ ability to hide.
Ben-Yaacov recounts what likely happened after a few hours of quiet: “In the afternoon, the Lamed-Heh decided to go up a hill. It is not clear if it was on their own initiative, or because they were attacked in their hiding place.”
As soon as they took the hill, they were engaged from multiple directions. Now entrenched on what is known today as the “battle hill,” the remaining fighters were likely hoping to prolong the battle until nightfall and then run the five km uphill to Gush Etzion. They were fully aware that there were no forces from the Gush that could come to their rescue. After all, they themselves were the Gush’s rescue force.
The battle on the hill lasted for several hours. Between 4:30 and 5 p.m., as sun was setting, the last gunshots were heard. Arab fighters testified that the Jewish force began throwing stones at them once they ran out of bullets. The British police commander who arrived at the scene the next morning reported that indeed one of dead fighters on the Jewish side was still clutching a stone in his hand.
Meanwhile, at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem from which Golda Meir had called for peace just six weeks prior, Intelligence commanding officer and future president Yitzhak Navon was in the listening room. One of his team members asked him to listen to something peculiar. Navon recounted those moments in a TV interview decades later.
“I put on the headsets and heard calls of joy in Arabic: ‘We killed them, we slaughtered them!’ I walked downstairs to the regional commander and told him, something is happening near Gush Etzion.” Realizing that this concerned the Lamed-Heh team, the commander pulled out the list of fighters. That is when Navon saw that one of the fallen soldiers was his cousin, Yaakov Ben-Atar. “He was a genius,” Navon reflected. “If this group had not been slaughtered, you would have found among them a prime minster, foreign minister, speaker of Knesset, head of the army… such a terrible loss.”
THE LAMED-HEH story remains of strong interest. It raises issues of war ethics, as the force did not kill the two women who went on to inform on them, nor an older Arab shepherd who according to some Arab sources discovered them along the way. We will never know if their decisions were based on operational or ethical considerations, but we do know that they decided to persevere with the mission in spite of being compromised.
The Lamed-Heh could have aborted and withdrawn to safety four times: At the outset, at 11 p.m., when they realized they would not get to Gush Etzion by daylight; at 1 a.m., when they were delayed by treating an injured comrade, making their discovery a near certainty; at 6 a.m. when exposed by the two Arab women; and possibly also later in the day, after they were engaged by the Arab force.
Yet they decided to proceed. Their withdrawal could have meant the fall of the Gush and the massacre of its residents. Thus, aborting was simply not an option for them.
All 35 fighters died, but their deaths were not in vain. Paradoxically, they accomplished their mission to protect the Gush from an imminent attack. Based on his conversation with Abu-Ibrahim, the mukhtar (village head) of Jaba, Ben-Yaacov explains how.
“The Arabs assumed that the Jewish fighters were there to attack the Tzurif training camp and the villages in retaliation for the Arab assault two days prior.”
That, in turn, deterred the Arabs from attacking the Gush again.
Moreover, this had implications for the progress of the war.
“That same night, on Friday night, a meeting was held at Jaba of all the region’s Arab mukhtars [village leaders],” Ben-Yaacov recounts. “They reportedly said to one another, if Jews fight the way they fought today, we will have no chance to defeat them.”
Refraining from attacking Gush Etzion again that winter allowed the scarce Jewish resources to be deployed elsewhere. The war expanded to other fronts and involved other tactics. Jewish centers were targeted with car bombs, including The Palestine Post (today The Jerusalem Post), as well as the same Jewish Agency building, where Golda Meir called for peace and where Navon learned about the tragic fate of the Lamed-Heh.
Gush Etzion held out for another four months, but in early May, the Jordanian Legion, joined by local villagers and militia, assaulted the Gush again. The defenders were able to hold off the attackers for two days, but on Thursday, May 13, the Arabs conquered the Gush and massacred its residents. Of 131 defenders, 127 died, among them Ben-Yaacov’s father. Gush Etzion had fallen.
The next day, on Friday, May 14, the British withdrew and Israel declared independence. The war was to rage on for another 10 months. By the time it was over, the Jews had lost fully 1% of their total population and the Arabs also suffered tremendous casualties. The war produced 800,000 Jewish refugees and nearly the same number of Arab refugees.
For the Jews, the joy of survival was clouded by the agony of national losses. The Old City of Jerusalem had fallen, ending centuries of continuous Jewish presence in the walled city. Gush Etzion had fallen, ending centuries of continuous Jewish presence in the region close to Hebron.
For 19 years, Gush Etzion stood in ruins, but in June 1967, war erupted. Israel once again defied the analysts’ predictions – it not only survived but gained territory.
Ben-Yaacov was fighting on the Gaza front. On the seventh day, as the ceasefire was announced, he pleaded with his commander for a few hours’ leave.
“I told him that I wanted to go see my home.”
Ben-Yaacov made his way to the ruins of Gush Etzion. He found there dozens of the Gush’s widows and former children, now soldiers, there for the same reason.
“I recognized everything,” he said. “The lone oak tree, the landing strip. For 19 years, I grew up on stories about my home. Now I was standing there and I could not decide if it was real or if I was in a dream.”
Three months later, Gush Etzion was revived. Ben-Yaacov moved back to the kibbutz where he was born, and where his father, Yaacov Klapholtz, died fighting for its defense. He changed his last name to commemorate his father and raised his six children in the Gush.
More than 50 years later, Gush Etzion is flourishing. Residents recount that for the first 30 years, good relations with the Arab neighbors have been restored. The outbreak of the First Intifada sabotaged relations, but amicable interactions and even friendships are formed through the Gush’s workplaces and shopping centers. The main assault on the Gush these days comes from the outside, such as from the European Union’s attempt to boycott regional products and businesses, which employ both Arabs and Jews.
Perhaps the message of the Lamed- Heh that was so clearly received by the local Arabs can now reach those who are attempting to boycott and harm Israel: there is no chance of defeating the Jewish State.
The memory of the fallen lives forever, and with it, as Golda Meir expressed the day before war erupted, the relentless quest to live in friendship and peace.