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Before the Kidnappings, There Was a Massacre

How the national trauma of Kfar Etzion helped bring Israeli Yeshiva boys to the West Bank

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Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, April, 2008. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
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The slaughter on May 13, 1948, by Arab militiamen from nearby villages and Jordanian Legionnaires of dozens of surrendering Jewish troops in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was probably the biggest Arab massacre of Jews in the first Arab-Israeli War.

A year later, in the early morning hours of the fourth day of Iyar, 5709 (May 3, 1949), the first anniversary, in the Hebrew calendar, of the fall of the kibbutz, Col. Shlomo Goren, the IDF chief rabbi, accompanied by a minyan of young Jerusalemites, held a commemorative service on an Israeli hilltop from which could be seen, in the distance, the ruins of the Etzion Bloc. The “bloc” of four kibbutzim—Kfar Etzion, Ein Tzurim, Massu’ot Yitzhak, and Revadim—had been established between 1943 and 1947 in the Judaean hills, amid a cluster of Arab villages in the southern part of the West Bank, which Jordan had occupied in May 1948 and which Israel was to conquer in June 1967. The bloc was located in the heartland of the biblical Land of Israel, between Abraham’s Hebron and King David’s Bethlehem.

Memorial candles were lit, chapters of the Mishna were read out, and el maleh rahamim (merciful God), a Jewish prayer for the dead, was chanted. The assembled fired shots in the air “in memory of those martyred in the Etzion Bloc.” They were commemorating the 151 Jewish fighters—of whom 21 were women—killed during the two-day battle; 127 of them died on the second day of the battle, May 13, 1948, the day before the State of Israel was established and proclaimed. Of these, most were murdered in the center of Kfar Etzion, the core settlement of the bloc, while surrendering or after they had surrendered.

The bloc, and especially Kfar Etzion and its southeastern outpost, the disused “Russian Monastery,” had been a thorn in the side of the Palestinians, who had battled the Haganah during the civil-war half of the 1948 War during November 1947-May 1948. The bloc was besieged by Arab irregulars between December 1947 and May 1948; re-supply was possible only from the air (the bloc had a small airstrip). Most of the four settlements’ women and children were evacuated inland. Periodically, the bloc’s defenders had fired on Arab vehicles along the Bethlehem-Hebron road. This riled the Palestinians.

But the bloc was also a problem for the Arab Legion, Jordan’s British-financed, -equipped, and -led army. During World War II Jordan’s King Abdullah, an ally of Britain’s, had “loaned” the British a number of Arab Legion companies, which the British, short of manpower, had used to guard installations around the Middle East. In 1945-1948, these companies were deployed by the British and then challenged by an insurgency of Jewish guerrillas/terrorists, the IZL (irgun zva’I leumi, or National Military Organization) and LHI (lohamei herut yisrael, or Freedom Fighters of Israel), to guard their bases and roads in Palestine. One of these was the Bethlehem-Hebron road, which was a segment of the Jerusalem-Beersheba-Rafah-Suez Canal axis, through which the British and the Legion were supplied from Britain’s Suez-Canal-side bases and along which part of the final British withdrawal from Palestine, scheduled to be completed by May 15, 1948, was to take place.

By May 1948, the Legionnaires should have left Palestine completely as the British steadily shipped their troops home. But the British needed them to secure the roads until the last moment, and Abdullah, who intended to occupy the West Bank on the heels of the British departure, had an interest in keeping them west of the River Jordan as an advance guard for his army. He was also interested in securing the Jerusalem-Beersheba road. So, several Legion companies were still in the Hebron-Bethlehem area in the first half of May. Attacks by the bloc’s defenders in Legion vehicles traveling along the road during April and early May highlighted the future threat posed by the bloc. Besides, the whole area south of Bethlehem had been earmarked by the U.N. General Assembly partition resolution of Nov. 29, 1947, for Arab sovereignty; neither the Palestinians nor Abdullah wanted a cluster of armed Jewish settlements on their territory.

Hence, on the morning of May 12, 1948, probably after getting a green light from the British, two Arab Legion companies—backed by more than a dozen gun-mounting armored cars (to which the bloc’s defenders had no real answer) and mortars, and supported by hundreds of Palestinian militiamen—attacked Kfar Etzion and its outposts at the southern end of the bloc. The 150-odd Jewish defenders were badly outgunned, and their positions were demolished and overrun one after another. The defenders put up a stiff fight. But by noon of May 13 the armored cars had taken the Russian Monastery and penetrated the perimeter fences and trench-works and reached the center of Kfar Etzion.

The defenders understood the game was up. Many laid down their weapons and, carrying white sheets, assembled in the kibbutz’s central courtyard (though some defenders in outlying posts held on, and perhaps continued firing, unaware that the main body was surrendering). One survivor recalled: “The defenders began assembling between the [disused German] Monastery and the school building. The first Arabs began arriving. They ordered [us] to sit and afterwards to stand up and raise our arms. One Arab pointed a Tommy-gun at us and another wanted to throw a grenade, but others stopped them. This was taken as another proof that they intended to take us prisoner. A cameraman in European dress, wearing a white kaffiya, appeared and photographed us. Then an armored car, mounting machineguns, arrived … and halted near the school. As soon as the photographer stopped work, firing began from all directions. Those not hit in the first fusillade fled in various directions. A few ran to the cellar, some took up arms again. A mass of Arabs rushed in from all sides and attacked the people in the center of the settlement and in the outposts shouting wildly ‘Deir Yassin’.”

A month before, on April 9, IZL and LHI troops had attacked and conquered the village of Deir Yassin, just west of Jerusalem. Dozens of women and children were killed during and after the battle, and ‘Deir Yassin’ became a rallying cry and a cry for revenge among Palestine Arabs—and to this day ‘Deir Yassin’ is regarded by many Palestinians as the symbolic core and locus of the 1948 War or Nakba (catastrophe).

In the 1950s, the IDF History Branch appointed Maj. Yitzhak Yakobson, a staff officer, to study the Etzion Bloc battle. In his comprehensive report, “The Etzion Bloc in the War of Independence,” he described how three of the prisoners in the courtyard managed to escape and make it to Massu’ot Yitzhak or into the hands of Legion officers who protected them. Another survivor, “Aviva F.,” described how a Legion officer saved her from two Arabs who tried to rape her and shot them both dead and then proceeded to finish off a number of wounded Jews he encountered as he led her to safety. The survivors also testified that Legionnaires had participated in the massacre alongside militiamen.

Yakobson, basing himself on subsequent Legionnaires’ testimony, noted that two Legionnaires had been injured while (unsuccessfully) trying to save three Jews, and other Legionnaires had killed a number of militiamen in firefights. But Yakobson concluded that “first and foremost, the massacre had stemmed from a savage mentality and thirst for revenge and Jewish blood, and was a direct successor of the massacre [of Jews] in Hebron in 1929,” when, as part of the statewide anti-Jewish riots, an Arab mob murdered 66 unarmed ultra-Orthodox Jews.

For his part, the British commander of the Arab Legion, Gen. John Glubb, subsequently offered a number of versions of what had happened. In The Times (London), on July 2, 1968, he wrote simply: “Not a single Jew was massacred at Kfar Etzion.” But earlier, in his A Soldier With the Arabs (1957), Glubb wrote (perhaps hinting at excesses): “The Arab Legion treated all Jews as prisoners of war. As soon as the Arab Legion withdrew, the villagers of the Hebron district looted the Jewish colonies, leaving not one stone upon another. These colonies had been so aggressive that they had deliberately compelled Arab retaliation.” The British minister in Amman, Alec Kirkbride, (falsely) cabled London that “the Arab Legion [had] prevented massacre of inhabitants and looting of colonies which would otherwise have been their fate at the hands of the local Arabs.” The commander of the Legion’s 6th Battalion, Abdullah el Tell, who had commanded the assault on Kfar Etzion, was marginally more truthful. He wrote in his memoirs, The Memoirs of Abdullah Tall (1960): “The remaining Jewish combatants continued to resist from a fortified position. This forced our soldiers to kill all of them. We took only three prisoners. All the Jewish combatants were killed.”

David Ben-Gurion later said that the dead of the Etzion Bloc had “saved Jerusalem”—meaning that they had protected the southern approaches to the city and, for months, had diverted away from the battle for the city considerable Arab manpower.

Following the battle and massacre, the Palestinian militiamen thoroughly looted the settlement and set it on fire. Following the fall of Kfar Etzion, the three other settlements, with British and Red Cross officials mediating, on May 13-14 surrendered to the Legion, their defenders going off to a yearlong captivity in a Jordanian POW camp in Zarqa. The settlements were looted and razed.

Glubb quite accurately pointed out that the 350 Jewish survivors of the battle, almost all from Revadim, Ein Tzurim, and Massu’ot Yitzhak, were well-treated in the Jordanian POW camp in Zarqa—though, upon returning to Israel the following year, they complained of the boredom and heat.

Later that year, in October-November 1949, Rabbi Goren (who eventually became Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi), after agreement was reached with the Jordanians, was allowed to tour the bloc and “found the bones of the dead scattered in the trenches, around the firing posts and under the demolished structures. … The Red Cross announcement that the Arabs had buried the bodies three days after the end of the battle was inaccurate. In many places we found next to the bodies pieces of clothing with laundry tags testifying to the names of their owners. … The Arabs told us that they had taken all their own fallen from the settlement and buried them in their villages, in accordance with their customs, and that all the bodies that remained in Kfar Etzion were of Jews.”

The remains of the Jewish fallen from the Etzion Bloc (as well as from two other battlefields that had remained in enemy hands) were taken to Israel and buried on Nov. 17, 1949, in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. About 50,000 people, half the population of Jewish Jerusalem, lined the roads as the funeral procession wended its way to the cemetery. There was silence. Many held flags. From early morning, all work ceased as the city shut down.

That evening, Jewish settlers who included some of the 350 survivors of the Etzion Bloc, back from the year in the Jordanian POW camp, as well as some survivors from Europe’s Nazi death camps, met in the houses of the abandoned Arab village of Ein Khod, at the foot of Mount Carmel, just south of Haifa, and established the new settlement of Nir Etzion.

In the Middle East, as perhaps elsewhere, massacres tend to breed counter-massacres; revenge is a basic value and fact of life. On Oct. 29, 1948, IDF troops of the 8th Brigade, 89th Battalion, conquered the Arab village of Dawayima in the western foothills of the Hebron Hills. According to one 89th Battalion veteran, Avraham Vered, the village houses “were filled with the loot of the Etzion Bloc. … The Jewish fighters who attacked Dawayima knew that … the blood of those slaughtered cries out for revenge; and that the men of Dawayima were among those who took part in the massacre.” The 89th Battalion shelled the village with mortars and then stormed it, the troops mounted on armored half-tracks, machine guns blazing.

Kfar Etzion

Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, 1947. (KLUGER ZOLTAN)

Vered described what happened next: “As we got up on the roofs, we saw Arabs running about in the alleyways. We opened fire on them. … From our high position we saw a vast plain stretching eastward … and the plain was covered with thousands of fleeing Arabs. … The machine guns began to chatter and the flight turned into a rout.” Apparently, several dozen men and women detained in the village after its capture were murdered. A subsequent, secret IDF investigation of the incident found that “22” of those detained had been murdered—though for weeks, Arabs complained to Western diplomats and the United Nations that “500” or “1,000” had died at Dawayima.

But the ultimate “revenge”—not so much for the massacre in Kfar Etzion as for the uprooting and destruction of the whole bloc—was, of course, the resettlement of the bloc and its massive expansion since 1967. Since 1949, every May, the survivors and their children, and those orphaned by the battle, gathered on Mount Herzl to remember and, perhaps, dream. And, as it turned out, the Etzion Bloc was the first site settled in the West Bank by Israel following the Six Day War of June 5-10, 1967.

Indeed, already on June 13, Raanan Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department, visited the area, taking with him four of the survivors, one from each kibbutz. During the following weeks, groups of survivors and their children made pilgrimages to the site; for them, it was personal, but it was also a microcosm of Judea and Samaria, and their wish to return and resettle it was a microcosm of the Jewish people’s desire to resettle the biblical Land of Israel.

In mid-August, a group of Etzion Bloc activists met with Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, urging such re-settlement. Eshkol, an agricultural laborer in his youth and a key settlement executive both before and after 1948 (he was head of the Jewish Agency Settlement Department in 1948-1963), dithered. But, as has often happened in the history of Zionism, Arab “intervention” helped make up his mind. The resolutions of Sept. 1, 1967, of the Arab summit meeting at Khartoum—according to Gershom Gorenberg’s 2006 The Accidental Empire (this passage and the next two paragraphs are based on Gorenberg’s work)—proved to be the tipping point. The Arabs had unanimously agreed on “three nos”: no recognition of Israel, no negotiation, and no peace. This meant that Israel had now to decide unilaterally what to do with the West Bank.

On Sept. 22, Etzion Bloc activists again met with Eshkol. They asked: When can we settle the site?

Hanan Porat, one of the Etzion Bloc orphans, said: “We’re getting close to Rosh Hashanah. Will we be able to pray there on Rosh Hashanah?”

Eshkol: “Nu, kinderlach, if you’d like to pray, go ahead and pray.”

Porat: “When we say ‘to pray’ we mean—to return …”

Eshkol: “I’ve said what I’ve said.”

But this delphic ambiguity was in effect ironed out the following week when the cabinet, at Eshkol’s behest, approved the establishment of a military (Nahal) outpost, Kfar Etzion. Nahal outposts in the previous two decades had routinely turned within a few years into civilian settlements. On Sept. 27 a group of survivors and the children’s generation, led by Porat, convoyed down to Kfar Etzion and, with much fanfare, moved into the empty camp the Arab Legion had built at the site. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported: “A number of women, widows of the [1948] fallen, stood to the side and wept bitterly—among them ones whose children have now come to settle here.”

The government announced the establishment of a Nahal outpost, a security settlement. But, in fact, Kfar Etzion had now been re-established—and the Etzion Bloc, resurrected, soon to encompass tens of thousands of settlers, was now off and running. Israel’s settlement venture in the West Bank had begun.

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Before the Kidnappings, There Was a Massacre

How the national trauma of Kfar Etzion helped bring Israeli Yeshiva boys to the West Bank