Thirty men and boys between the ages of 9 and 70 made what has become an annual pilgrimage in Gush Etzion last week, hiking the Lamed Heh trail to mark 62 years since the original, tragic march during the 1948 War of Independence. Their leader, Oren Mas, is the nephew of the man who led the original group through the same hills more than 60 years ago.
The trail was that trekked by a team of commandos, all but three of whom were killed by Arabs when they were discovered. The squad was later called the “Lamed Heh” (The Hebrew letter Lamed equals 30 and Heh equals 5, in the traditional Jewish numerical system). It was comprised of military scouts, experienced hikers and students from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
“The battle was a fair fight," Mas told Arutz Sheva, "Both sides had guns, and unfortunately the Arabs won, which also happens. But it is also known [what they did] after they won, [to] all the bodies – and I have photos to prove it – including one who shall remain nameless because of the respect that is due to him, whose head was cut off… That is to say, the battle was fair but the way the bodies were treated was not."
"The account with the people of Jaba and Tzurif is not finished," said Mas. "As the Arab proverb goes, 'every dog has his day.'”
What Really Happened That Night
On the night of January 15, 1948, 38 Hagganah commandos set out on foot from Hartuv at 11:00 p.m., commanded by Danny Mas. Three were sent back an hour into the march, and they are the ones who survived that night. The details of how the attack started after they were sent back are in dispute.
The Lamed Heh were sent from Hartuv (near Beit Shemesh) to replenish supplies to Haganah troops in the Etzion bloc under Uzi Narkis. The Jews of Gush Etzion had been attacked the previous day by some 600 Arab irregulars, led by Abdul Khader El-Husseini.
The fate of the Lamed Heh is known today only due to the testimony of Uri Gavish, one of the three who was sent back. The Lamed Heh left Hartuv much later than they had planned, and as a result, when dawn broke they were still an hour away from Narkis and his men. Subsequent generations of Israelis were raised on the story that the soldiers encountered an Arab shepherd, not far from Tzurif. They chose not to kill him, and the shepherd hurried off to warn other Arabs. A large crowd gathered, and a day-long battle ensued. The last Haganah commando was killed at approximately 4:30 p.m.
The story has been used to demonstrate the highly moral nature of the Jewish fighters -- and alternatively, the folly of being too merciful with enemy civilians.
'It Doesn't Add Up'
In any case, said Oren Mas, the story of the Lamed Heh's encounter with the shepherd is probably a legend. Mas said he carried out his own investigation into the reports on the battle a number of times, adding that some of the details do not add up.
There was a shepherd present near the village of Tzurif that morning, he said, but he did not encounter the Lamed Heh. Apparently, he said, the report about the Lamed Heh was actually received from a group of women some distance from the place and they passed the information on to the shepherd.
“The final research of Yochanan Ben Yaakov from Kfar Etzion tells us that there were women gathering wood who saw the Lamed Heh in the riverbed walking towards Tzurif. They reported it to the old Arab that was at the entrance to the village,” said Mas.
The most important point, he said, was the lesson to be learned from the story. “Remember the story of the last fighter, who waged war to the end by hurling rocks at the enemy.”