January 16 marks the commemoration of the massacre of 35 (“lamed-heh” in Hebrew letters) young Hebrew University students who volunteered to try to relieve the siege on the Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem during the Israel War of Independence in 1948.
The Etzion land had been bought and was owned by Jews during the Turkish period and the kibbutzim established there existed for several generations. They had very friendly relations with the nearby Arab villages. When the State was declared several Arab armies attacked Israel, and a joint Arab force was sent to attack Jerusalem from the south, but first they had to conquer the Etzion area. When the Etzion bloc was attacked all the children were evacuated. But, the adults who could fight remained to protect the kibbutzim.
At some point the area was on the verge of being overrun by the Arab forces and the defenders were running out of ammunition. It was decided that a small force had to be sent with supplies to relieve the Etzion bloc siege. But, there were no reserves available. A group of students at Hebrew University volunteered to go at short notice led by a young man named Danny Mass. They could not leave directly from Jerusalem so they went by truck at night to a rendezvous point to pick up the supplies. They left from there at 11 pm, but this was not enough time for them to travel the distance at night over unknown terrain through hostile country. At one point they came across a pair of Arab women, who they did not kill and who fled from them and raised the alarm.
Subsequently when it became light they were surrounded on a hill-top several kilometers from Etzion. At no point did they consider retreating. The Arab forces called on the nearby villagers to join the attack and eventually after many hours the 35 were overcome and any still alive were murdered. A new settlement was later established nearby in their name called Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh where there is a monument to their courage and bravery.
This incident, although a severe defeat for Israel, was in other respects a pyrrhic victory. Apparently after the massacre, the local Arab villagers, impressed by the fighting courage of the Lamed-Heh group, realized that if Jews fought like this then they could not be defeated. For whatever reasons the siege of the Etzion bloc was not re-enforced for another 2 months, giving the Israeli side the opportunity to strengthen the southern approaches to Jerusalem.
Eventually with the help of the Jordanian Arab Legion the Etzion bloc was over-run, and 127 of the 131 defenders were massacred. The kibbutz was razed to the ground by the Arabs, as if it never existed. But, in a strange turn of events, one Jordanian officer saved a woman defender from being raped and killed by local villagers, and then he took her and a small group of other survivors with him as prisoners to Jordan where they spent the rest of the war as POW’s until repatriated back to Israel.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Etzion area was recaptured from the Jordanians and some of the children of the original settlers returned and today it is a thriving community. Let those who oppose the existence of the State of Israel learn about our true and tortuous history, so they know that we are not colonialists or imperialists, but are in fact the indigenous people reclaiming our land at great cost from Arab usurpers.