Near the site where the Bible records David fighting the Philistine champion Goliath stands a monument to 35 Jewish fighters who died in a much more recent conflict. The Lamed Hei (the Hebrew numerals for 30 and five), as they are known, were ambushed and killed by Arab forces on Jan. 16, 1948, while attempting to relieve residents of the besieged Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion during the struggle to establish the modern state of Israel.
At the time Gush Etzion—in the Judaean Hills on the road between Jerusalem and Hebron—was a cluster of four communal kibbutzim. Its strategic location shielded the southern approach to the capital; Gush Etzion was codenamed “Queen,” Jerusalem “King.”
When the United Nations voted on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, the Arabs responded with riots and massacres, and by blocking roads connecting Jewish settlements. Armed Arab irregulars cut off Gush Etzion, then attacked and destroyed relief convoys trying to break the stranglehold. On Jan. 14, 1948, hundreds of Arab irregulars attacked and sought to overrun Gush Etzion but were repulsed.
In response to the urgent need for reinforcements, weapons, ammunition and medical supplies, that night a platoon of men from the Haganah—the pre-statehood Jewish paramilitary force— volunteered to set out on foot from Jerusalem to relieve Gush Etzion, but they ran short on time and had to abort the mission. Committed to relieving the beleaguered settlement he had previously overseen, commander Danny Mas planned another relief mission the following night on an easier, though longer 15-mile route from Hartuv, near Beit Shemesh. Anticipating an imminent Arab attack on Gush Etzion, Mas would not be dissuaded from leaving that night despite the late departure time, his men’s exhaustion and their lack of a radio.
Heavily laden with supplies, the 38 men set off and made good progress until a sprained ankle forced back one of the men, accompanied by two companions. Survivor’s guilt over what was to come would torment these three men.
The remaining 35—the Lamed Hei—continued on their mission, walking in silence through the dark, cold, wet night. With the loads they carried, the going was not easy, but they knew they had to bypass the hostile Arab villages en route before dawn.
It remains unclear precisely what happened next. Most versions of the story have an elderly Arab shepherd, or Arab women out gathering wood, spotting the Jewish force at daybreak and raising the alarm with the Lamed Hei still some three miles from Gush Etzion.
What is known is that hundreds of Arab villagers grabbed weapons and rushed to intercept the relief party. For the Haganah men, deep in hostile territory with no way of calling for assistance, retreat was impossible. The platoon headed to more defensible high ground, now known as Battle Hill, but was soon surrounded and pinned down. Though vastly outnumbered, the Haganah men fought relentlessly throughout the day, eventually exhausting their ammunition. The last of the 35 was killed holding a rock in his hand with which to fight. The Arabs celebrated by mutilating the bodies of the dead Jews.
The loss of the Lamed Hei reverberated throughout Palestine, their bravery against such insurmountable odds becoming legendary. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion eulogized them as “lions of Israel” whose bravery was “fiercer than death.” Even Sheikh Ibrahim from the Arab village Jab’a, who took part in the battle, reportedly said, “If I am destined to die, I want to die like these heroes.”
Gush Etzion fell to the Arabs on the eve of the country’s May 14, 1948, declaration of independence. Three years later Israeli authorities selected the day of its fall to honor military veterans. And so, in a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow, the nation’s triumphant Independence Day is preceded by its somber Day of Remembrance.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, allowing for the resettlement of Gush Etzion, a realization of its survivors’ yearning to return.
Each year on the anniversary of the ill-fated relief mission thousands of Israelis retrace the route of the Lamed Hei, setting off in darkness and concluding around dawn, when the platoon came under fire. The day I hiked the route, there wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky, and it was a comfortable 70 degrees. We set off from kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Hei (Path of the 35), the site of a memorial to the fallen fighters. From there the route crossed open fields, entered a wooded area and then followed streambeds. The pleasant weather and picturesque evergreens and wildflowers made for a delightful hike—a far cry from the rainy, moonless and danger-wracked night 65 years ago when this was all hostile Arab territory.
Our guide, David Zwebner, recounted the heroic story of the fateful mission, which he has researched and studied extensively, and for good reason: His uncle, for whom he is named, was the medic who took part in, and died on, the original mission.
Today Gush Etzion is a flourishing area comprising more than 20 settlements, whose residents remain thankful for the sacrifice of the Lamed Hei.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.