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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.

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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