Gush Etzion, or the Etzion Bloc, is known as the southern gateway to Jerusalem. This very strategic area contained the block of communities that defended the southern approach to Jerusalem against the invading Arab armies in the 1948 Israel War of Independence.
Four heroic attempts were made in the past century to populate the area. The first attempt by pioneers, which included orthodox Yemenite Jews, was in 1929. The settlement was called Migdal Eder. Due to the Arab riots of 1929 the settlers were evacuated.
In 1935 Shmuel Holtzman established Kefar Etzion. (Gush Etzion is named after Holtzman. Holtz=tree=etz) Arab attacks during 1936—1939 drove the pioneers away.
The third attempt to settle Gush Etzion was made under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund. In 1943 Kfar Etzion was re-established. A second kibbutz, Massuot Yitzchak was established in October of 1945. Its members were Holocaust survivors. A third kibbutz, Ein Tzurim, was founded in 1946 by members of B’nei Akiva. While all three kibbutzim belonged to the religious Zionist movement, the fourth kibbutz, Revadim, established in February of 1947, was part of the Marxist Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair Youth Movement.
The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, divided Palestine between Arab and Jewish states. Gush Etzion and many other Jewish communities were in the Arab sector. The Arabs responded to the Partition Plan with massacres, riots and a blockade of Jerusalem and outlying settlement areas which included Gush Etzion.
Gush Etzion was located on the road used by the Arab irregulars and the Transjordanian Legion to transport weapons and supplies to Jerusalem. The main problem for the Jewish soldiers during most of the fighting was not manpower, but lack of enough weapons and ammunition. Gush Etzion was cut off from Jerusalem and the rest of the Jewish community because Arab villagers organized attacks to block the roads.
The Jews attempted to bring in supplies to Gush Etzion in convoys. Since the British insisted that “armored” vehicles would anger the Arabs, the initial convoys were open pickup trucks. After two attacks on convoys leaving twelve Jews dead and others injured, the Palmach decided it would use armored “sandwich” vehicles. For the most part these vehicles were closed pickup trucks with a thin overlay of tin sheeting.
On Wednesday, January 14, 1948 about 600 Arabs, including cadets in a training course, attacked Gush Etzion. They were assisted by hundreds of Arab youths who gave logistical aid. The planned attack was discovered by Jews by accident and effectively repulsed.
That night forty of the finest soldiers of the Palmach, led by Commander Danny Mas, set out to bring military and medical supplies to beleaguered Gush Etzion. They set out from the Bayit VeGan area of Jerusalem and planned to continue their trek southward via Ein Kerem to Ein Tzurim in Gush Etzion. The distance was about 12 miles. Since the men were carrying heavy packs, which included first-aid kits and bottles of blood plasma for transfusions, as well as weapons, they were forced to proceed slowly over the rocky and difficult terrain. After the greater part of the night had passed and they were still far from their objective, Danny Mas gave the command to return to Jerusalem by the quickest possible route.
Despite their fatigue it was agreed that they would make a second attempt to reach Gush Etzion by traversing a different route. On Thursday night, January 15 they set out from the Jewish community of Har Tuv. Since there weren’t any arms for two of the men, the two could not proceed. Later on, one soldier sprained his foot and was accompanied back to Jerusalem with two other soldiers. Thirty-five men remained, and that is why they became known as the Lamed Hei, which means thirty-five. Their goal was to walk fifteen miles and reach Massuot Yitzchak before it was light. Towards dawn they approached Surif, the last Arab village on the way to Gush Etzion. They were only about four miles from their destination when they were detected by an Arab shepherd (or by two women), who hurried to sound the alarm. Shots were soon fired at the Jewish soldiers.
The Lamed Hei were deep in enemy territory without any way to call for outside help. Danny Mas split the group up into two. With one group covering for the other, they climbed to the top of what is now called “Battle Hill,” an advantageous defense position. Hundreds of Arabs from the neighboring villages began closing in on the Lamed Hei. The Lamed Hei bravely defended themselves. Towards evening, around the beginning of Shabbat, the large supply of ammunition that the Lamed Hei had transported for the defenders of Gush Etzion, was exhausted. The battle ended with the death of the last of the Lamed Hei who died with a rock in his hand. The Arabs mutilated the bodies of the Jewish defenders.
The bodies were buried in Kfar Etzion two days after the battle. The identification of twelve of the men could not be verified due to the mutilation of the bodies. Rabbi Aryeh Levine was given the task of performing a goral haGra (haGra is the Vilna Gaon), an ancient lottery which only a few individuals in every generation are capable of performing. Before the lottery begins, various prayers and psalms are recited. The person performing the lottery states what he wants to know. Through a process of randomly opening up Tanach (the book containing the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings) and paging through the Tanach, the person opens to a sentence which gives a hint as to the answer to his question. For example, Rav Aryeh Levin wanted to identify which grave held the remains of Binyamin Bogulevsky. He opened the Tanach to the words “u’mateh Binyamin b’goral” (“and the tribe of Benjamin by lottery” Joshua 21:4). The grave of Eliyahu Hershkowitz was revealed through the words “va’yikach Eliyahu et ha’yeled” (“and Elijah took the child” Kings 1, 17:23).
Other battles transpired in Gush Etzion during the War of Independence and all four communities in Gush Etzion fell to the Arab invaders. The Arabs murdered 240 women and men and took 260 into captivity in Jordan.
Four months following the tremendous loss of the Lamed Hei, the State of Israel was declared. In August 1949 a group of former Palmach soldiers founded a kibbutz, Netiv Ha’Lamed Hei (path of the 35) near the route of the Lamed Hei. On the 10th of the Hebrew month of Mar Cheshvon, November 2, 1949, the remains of the Lamed Hei were re-interred in the military cemetery on Har Herzl in Jerusalem.
An important annual event which commemorates the battle of the Lamed Hei, which occurred on the Hebrew date of the 5th of Tevet, is the walk “In the Footsteps of the Lamed Hei” wherein people walk from Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Hei to Gush Etzion. This year’s walk was scheduled for Thursday night, January 10, but due to below freezing weather it was re-scheduled for January 17. Approximately four thousand people participated including residents of Gush Etzion, families of the fighters, Knesset members, high school students, soldiers, celebrities, university students, yeshiva students, members of youth groups and people from all over Israel. Each group of about fifty people was led by a guide who gave a detailed background about the Lamed Hei.
The event began with a ceremony next to the memorial on Kibbutz Netiv Ha’Lamed Hei. This was followed by a walk of several hours through the Emek Ha’Elah, the Valley of Eleh, until the participants reached Nachal G’dor, the G’dor stream. A kumsitz around bonfires followed and much tea and coffee was consumed. The weather was only slightly above freezing.
Then it was time for a hike through Nachal G’dor and then up to “Battle Hill” where all members of the Lamed Hei bravely fought until the bitter end. A moving Shacharit (morning prayer service) took place as the sun rose. Our just 19 year-old Naftali Yehuda, who participated in the walk last year as well, and who had climbed “Battle Hill” with his yeshiva high school class a few years ago said, “Putting on tefillin (phylacteries) was difficult because my hands were frozen. It was very windy and cold. I’m glad that I participated because I enjoyed walking at night.” Shacharit was followed by a closing ceremony. Though exhausted from a full night of activities, the participants left feeling closer to the Land of Israel, feeling closer to other Jews, and feeling tremendous gratitude to those that gave their lives in defense of our nation and country.
From 1948 until the 1967 Six Day War, the children of those parents who fell in the battle for Gush Etzion could only catch a glimpse from far away of the Alon Ha’Boded, The Lone Oak Tree, located in the heart of Gush Etzion. The Lone Oak Tree symbolized their yearning to return to Gush Etzion.
Today the tree is no longer alone. Nearby the tree is the largest religious Hebrew Day School in all of Israel. Many school trips are taken to the oak tree. It is common to see soldiers and tourists at the site.
Over twenty Jewish settlements spread out all over Gush Etzion with a population of more than 20,000 Jews. The prophetic words “v’shavu banim l’gevulam,” (“and the children will return to their borders”) have become a reality.
- Israel and Zionism. Information and History Center
- The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, the Jewish Agency for Israel
- The Gush Etzion Foundation
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.