Remembering the Thirty-Five

35 brave idealists, many of them promising university students, marched to the aid of surrounded Gush Etzion in January 1948. They were ambushed and fought to the last man.

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Seventy years ago, on the 4th of Sh’vat 5708 (which falls on January 20th this year, but occurred on January 15, 1948), an epic battle was fought in the Hevron Mountains between the Palmach (P’lugot Machatz,  “Striking Force”), the elite fighting unit of the Haganah (the pre-State “official” underground of the Jewish community), and the Jayish al-Jihad al-Muqqadas (Army of the Holy Jihad).

It was a battle which the Arab forces won: all thirty-five Jewish soldiers were killed. It was one of the pivotal events of Israel’s War of Independence, and we still live with its consequences today.

On the 29th of November 1947, the UN had adopted resolution 181, dividing British-mandated Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Resolution passed by a majority of 33 votes in favour to 13 against, with 10 abstentions.

Since the end of the First World War (1918), the European colonial powers in the Middle East, Britain and France, had carved up the region for their own purposes. In the course of this, they had given most of the historic Land of Israel to the Arabs. They had, indeed, invented four complete countries to give to the Arabs: Iraq, Trans-Jordan (today called Jordan), Syria, and Lebanon – the last three of which were carved out of the historic Jewish homeland.

None of these countries had any history, they had never existed before the First World War.

And then, the 1947 Partition Plan gave more than half of what remained of the Jewish National Home to the Arabs.

All told, Britain, France, and the UN gave 92% of the historic Land of Israel to the Arabs, leaving just 8% for a tiny, grotesque Jewish state.

Even this was too much for the Arabs, who began their attacks on the Yishuv immediately.

The day after the UN decided on partition, the Syrian delegate to the UN, Faris Khouri, thundered that “Arabs and Moslems throughout the world will obstruct it [partition], and all Asia with its thousand million people will oppose it”

The same day, November 30, 7 Jews were murdered by Arabs on buses from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. By the end of December, well over 100 Jews had been murdered in Arab terrorist attacks throughout the country.

And then, on 9th January 1948, the Jayish al-Inqadh al-Arabi (Arab Liberation Army), operating out of Syria, attacked Kibbutz Kfar Szold, just a few hundred metres south of the Syrian border.

The Palmach had training-grounds in and around Kfar Szold, so they had soldiers (albeit very few) ready to respond immediately. But since Israel was still under British occupation, this attack represented an attack on the British Empire. The British, infuriated at this invasion of British-controlled territory, sent an armoured unit with artillery to aid the Palmach soldiers, and repelled the Arab attack.

But elsewhere in Israel, Arab attacks continued and intensified.

Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc), a group of four Jewish villages huddled in the Judean mountains some 23 km (9 miles) south of Jerusalem, was in the very eye of the storm. With Arab attacks looming ever-closer, all the women and children were evacuated from Gush Etzion by the British Army on 5th January.

And then, on Thursday the 4th of Sh’vat 5708 (15th January 1948), a force of some 1,000 soldiers of the Jayish al-Jihad al-Muqqadas, commanded by Abd el-Kader el-Husseini, attacked Gush Etzion.

Gush Etzion was outside the "partition" borders delineated by the UN for the Jewish state; it was instead included in the Arab state. However, once the Arabs attacked the nascent Jewish state before it had even decided to declare its independence, it became clear that the borders of the UN partition plan were irrelevant: the real borders between the Jewish and Arab states would be defined by what piece of ground the military forces on both sides would be able to conquer and hold.

Gush Etzion had tremendous strategic importance. It was the route that the Arab armies used to transport soldiers and war materiel to Jerusalem, and an axis from which they imposed the siege on Jerusalem.
Sitting astride the main north-south artery traversing the Judean hills, Gush Etzion had tremendous strategic importance. It was the route that the Arab armies used to transport soldiers and war materiel to Jerusalem, and an axis from which they imposed the siege on Jerusalem. That is why the men of Gush Etzion decided to stay and fight.

The Army of the Holy Jihad launched their main attack against the largest of the four villages which comprised the bloc, Kfar Etzion, with diversionary attacks against neighbouring Massuot Yitzchak and Ein Tzurim (the same battleground in which 10,000 Maccabean troops had fought 25,000 Seleucid troops in 164 B.C.E. in one of the pivotal battles of the War of Independence against the Greek Empire).

Abd el-Kader el-Husseini, a nephew of the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin el-Husseini (who had spent half of World War II in Berlin as Hitler’s personal guest), was a brave and charismatic field-commander, with the gift of inspiring the troops under his command.

Abd el-Kader el-Husseini was later killed in combat in the battle for Motza on 8th April 1948 – a battle which the Jewish forces won. The Arab troops under his command were thoroughly demoralised when he was killed, and withdrew almost immediately.

Gush Etzion had been besieged by Arab forces for some weeks, their supply-lines and communications cut off. Its only contact with the outside world was by means of a Piper Cub light aircraft, which took off from and landed on a makeshift landing-strip on the edge of Kfar Etzion.

Jewish forces had observed the Arab forces approaching and preparing for battle, so they were on high alert, preparing ambushes on the routes along which they expected the Arab forces to attack.

The civilians in Kfar Etzion met the main Arab attack with improvised weapons. Simultaneously, the Palmach force ambushed the main Arab reinforcements approaching for attack. The Arab force broke and withdrew.

However, Kfar Etzion was still beleaguered, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned. So the Haganah in Jerusalem organised a platoon of 38 soldiers to reinforce them.

The 38 marched out of Jerusalem at 11:00 on the night of 15th January, under the command of Danny Mass. In the rough mountainous terrain just south of Jerusalem, one man sprained his ankle and had to be helped back to the city by another two soldiers.

The remaining thirty-five marched southwards towards Gush Etzion through the night.

However, with dawn breaking at 5:30 and sunrise just over an hour later, as they were still several kilometres from their destination they lost the cover of darkness and they were spotted by Arab civilians.

Two versions of the story exist, and it is impossible to tell which is true. According to one version, an Arab shepherd stumbled across their path. Unwilling to kill a civilian, the Jewish soldiers let him go free, whereupon he ran to the nearest Arab military unit and informed them of the approaching Jewish forces.

According to the other version, two Arab women encountered the troops near Surif, and alerted their village. Many Arab villages used the system known as Faza’a (Arabic for “Alarm”) – an alarm system with which the Sheikh of each village could mobilize all the armed men of his village whether for defence or attack, on a purely guerrilla basis.

Whichever version is the historical truth (maybe both are), hundreds of Arab troops from a nearby training base confronted the thirty-five.

The Haganah troops fought valiantly until all their ammunition was spent, and then fought with their hands, with rocks, with whatever improvised weapons they could find.

It took the Arab forces the entire day to defeat the thirty-five. The last one to be killed fell at 4:30 in the afternoon, about an hour-and-a-half before sunset.

The Aftermath

Gush Etzion survived that initial onslaught. But it ultimately fell into captivity of the Arab Legion, the army of Trans-Jordan (which later dropped the “Trans-” from its name to become Jordan). Trained, armed, officered, and usually commanded in the field by British officers, the Arab Legion was the best-disciplined and best-trained of all Arab armies. Man-for-man and unit-for-unit, it was the most formidable Arab fighting force. (The Egyptian army was far larger, and therefore a more powerful enemy; nevertheless, with all due respect to West Point, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst still provided superior training.)

On the 3rd Iyar 5708 (12th May 1948) the Arab Legion and local Arab irregulars again attacked Gush Etzion. With the War of Independence raging throughout Israel, and regular Arab armies of seven nations (Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) invading the borders, Jewish forces were unable to send reinforcements and the Bloc was left in a desperate situation.

Overwhelmed, the defenders surrendered the following day, 4th Iyyar (13th May).

The civilizing influence of the British was also the reason that the Arab Legion only occasionally committed war crimes and atrocities against prisoners-of-war and civilians whom they captured.

The officers of the Arab Legion generally honoured the surrender; however, the other ranks and the Arab irregulars seized the opportunity to massacre as many of the Jews as they could. 157 Jews were killed – some of them civilians, some of them soldiers who had already surrendered.

The massacre was eventually stopped by officers of the Arab Legion.

All the survivors were held as prisoners-of-war in then Trans-Jordan until the War of Independence was over. The bodies of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five were likewise held by Trans-Jordan.

The day of the Gush Etzion massacre, 4th Iyar, the day before the end of the British Mandate which was when Israel formally became independent, became enshrined as Israel's Memorial Day for all fallen Israeli soldiers and for civilians murdered in terror attacks.

When the survivors of the Gush Etzion massacre and the bodies of the Thirty-Five were eventually repatriated, 23 of the 35 the bodies were identified. The remaining 12 were beyond identification.

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, was consulted on the question of how to bury the unidentifiable bodies. He decided to use a little-known Kabbalistic procedure, reputed to have been instituted by the Vilna Ga’on, based on the ancient ritual in which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would consult the Urim and Tummim. This was a system of casting lots, and the ritual was performed by the saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine.

The procedure was described by a journalist, and the reported is cited in Simcha Raz’s biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, A Tzaddik In Our Time:

In a dark room on the top floor of Rabbi Aryeh Levine’s Yeshivah in the Mishkenot neighbourhood of Jerusalem, the participants lit twelve candles – one for each of the unidentified bodies. Then after fervent recital of Psalms, the ritual began.

Reb Aryeh used an ancient Bible, which had been printed in Amsterdam in 1701. He opened to a page at random, then turned seven batches of pages at random back and forth. Next he turned seven single leaves going forward, followed by seven single pages forward, followed by seven columns (there were 2 columns to a page), then seven verses, then seven words, and finally seven letters.

A series of seven times seven, seven being the number of holiness.

The rule was that to each “casting of lots” they assigned one grave. The deciding sentence in the Bible had to contain a reference (direct or indirect) to one of the twelve names.

The first verse which amazingly emerged was: “The earth and all its fullness is Hashem’s, the world and those who dwell in it” (Psalms 24:1). The standard way of presenting the first word, L’Hashem, is with the two Hebrew letters lammed-heh (לה') – the letters which represent the number 35, the number of soldiers who ha  been killed in the battle of Gush Etzion.

Just as amazingly, every verse which this system of lots turned up was connected somehow with battles for the Land of Israel as well as containing a clear reference to one of the twelve soldiers. Here they are

“And from the Tribe of Benjamin, by lot” (Joshua 21:4), a reference to Benjamin Boguslavsky.

“Am I not a Benjaminite (in Hebrew, Ben Yemini)?” (1 Samuel 9:21), a reference to Oded Ben-Yemini.

“All the people belonging to Ya’akov (Jacob)” (Genesis 46:26), a reference to Ya’akov Ben-Attar.

“And Joseph said: Bring your cattle” (Genesis 47:16), a reference to Joseph Baruch.

“The pride (ga’on) of Israel answers” (Hosea 7:10), a reference to Eitan Ga’on.

“And Eliyahu (Elijah) took the boy” (1 Kings 17:23), a reference to Eliyahu Hershkovitz.

“And to Zevulun he said” (Deuteronomy 33:18), a reference to Yitzchak Zevuluni.

“Let your Kohanim (Priests) be clothed with righteousness” (Psalms 132:9), a reference to Alexander Cohen.

“Hashem has sworn and has not changed His mind; you are a Kohen (Priest)” (Psalms 110:4), a reference to Ya’akov Cohen.

“Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel” (Jeremiah 51:49), a reference to Israel Marzel.

“One thing sha’alti (I have asked) of Hashem” (Psalms 27:4), a reference to Sha’ul Panueli.

The procedure took most of the night, and a few hours later in the morning, they informed Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank. Deeply moved, he ruled that these identifications be accepted as definitive.

All the Thirty-Five were buried with full military honours in the Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

In August 1949, a group of former Palmach officers and men founded a Kibbutz, Netiv Ha-Lammed-Heh (The Path of the Thirty-Five) on the [assumed] route which they took. Today, countless streets in every city and town in Israel are named Ha-Lammed-Heh, the letters which denote the Thirty-Five.

In 1967, when the Arab and Moslem world made another genocidal attempt to exterminate Israel, a war which became another stunning Israeli victory in the Six Day War, Gush Etzion returned to Israeli control. Jordan, beaten into submission, fled ignominiously from Judea and Samaria, land which they had illegally occupied since 1948, at the end of the second day of the Six Day War. The Children of Israel had returned to more of their ancestral homeland.

And in the wake of the war, many of the survivors of the original Gush Etzion, some the chidlren evacuated in 1948, returned to their homes and farms and lands, land which had been kept Judenrein by Jordan for almost two decades, and rebuilt their villages.

Today, Gush Etzion numbers some 80,000 Jews.

And the memory of the Lammed-Heh, the Thirty-Five who were killed in combat 70 years ago this Shabbat, still lives on in this thriving Jewish community.