Kfar Etzion massacre

From Academic Kids

The Kfar Etzion massacre was an atrocity committed by Arab armed forces on May 13, 1948, the day before the declaration of independence of the state of Israel.



Kfar Etzion was a religious kibbutz founded in 1943, about 2km east of the road between Jerusalem and Hebron. By the end of 1947, there were 163 adults and 50 children living there. Together with three nearby kibbutzim established 1945-1947, it formed Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc).

The United Nations partition plan for Palestine of November 29, 1947 placed the Etzion Bloc in the interior of the intended Arab state. Very soon fighting broke out in many parts of Palestine. The position of the Etzion Bloc on the important Jerusalem-Hebron road made it an important flash-point. Traffic on the road was often attacked and began to move only in armed convoys. Arab forces attacked Jewish convoys, while Haganah forces stationed in the Bloc attacked Arab and British traffic. Attacks on the settlements themselves occurred. In January 1948, the children of Kfar Etzion were evacuated to Jerusalem together with most of the mothers and old or sick people. The Zionist leadership rejected any suggestion of abandoning the settlement entirely, both because of the overall policy to hold onto all Jewish settlements whatever the cost, and because the Etzion Bloc, reinforced by Haganah fighters, played a useful role in obstructing Arab traffic along the road from Hebron to Jerusalem.

As the end of the British Mandate drew closer, the fighting in the region intensified. Although the Arab Legion was theoretically in Palestine under British command, they began to operate more and more independently. In March a Jewish convoy from Jerusalem intended to supply the Etzion Bloc was ambushed and 15 soldiers of the Haganah died before the remainder were extricated by the British. There were many similar incidents involving both sides. Starting early in May, the Arab Legion together with thousands of irregulars who were mostly local Arab villagers began a series of massive assaults on the Etzion settlements. Hanagah command in Jerusalem was unable to provide any useful assistance. On May 12, the final assault on Kfar Etzion began with overwhelming force. The Legion had armored cars and artillery, to which the Jewish defenders had no effective answer.

The Massacre

Arab Legion commander Abdullah Tal (right) poses with two of the massacre survivors

When the hopelessness of their position became undeniable on May 13, the defenders of Kfar Etzion laid down their arms and attempted to surrender. The main group of about 50 defenders were surrounded by a large number of Arab irregulars, who shouted "Deir Yassin!" and ordered the Jews to sit down, stand up, and sit down again. Suddenly someone opened up on the Jews with a machine gun and others joined in the killing. Those Jews not immediately cut down tried to run away but were pursued.

Only three of the remaining Kfar Etzion residents and one Palmach member survived. According to their own testimony, the circumstances of their survival were as follows.

  • Yaacov Edelstein and Yitzhak Ben-Sira tried to hide amongst a jumble of bolders and branches, but they were discovered by a "wrinkled, toothless, old Arab" who told them "Don't be afraid." Then a group of Arab irregulars rushed up and threw them against a wall. The old Arab tried to shield them with his body. As they argued, two Arab Legionnaires came up and took the two Jews under their protection.
  • Nahum Ben-Sira, the brother of Yitzhak, was away from the main group when the massacre started. He hid until nightfall then escaped to a nearby kibbutz.
  • Eliza Fauktwanger (Palmach) tried to hide in a ditch with several others. They were discovered and all were killed except Eliza, who was dragged away by two Arabs (perhaps Arab Legionnaires). As the two were trying to rape her, an Arab Legion officer arrived and shot them dead.

In total, about 120 defenders of Kfar Etzion died either in the fighting or in the subsequent massacre. About 2/3 of them were residents and the remainder were Hagana or Palmach soldiers.

On the following day, the Arab irregular forces continued their assault on the remaining three Etzion settlements. Fearing that the defenders might suffer the same fate as those of Kfar Etzion, Zionist leaders in Jerusalem negotiated a deal for the surrender of the settlements on condition that the Arab Legion protected the residents. The Red Cross took the wounded to Jerusalem, and the Arab Legion took the remainder as prisoners of war. They were later released.

The role of the Arab Legion in the massacre is still debated. There is no doubt that the Legion led the attack on Kfar Etzion (probably on the explicit orders of Glubb Pasha), and at least a few Legionnaires were present when the massacre began. Other than that, the most credible evidence is that of Eliza Fauktwanger, who said that the Legion officer who saved her life also finished off some of the wounded. Glubb Pasha later denied that there had been a massacre at all.

The aftermath

Stamp commemorating the resettlement of the Etzion Bloc in 1967

The Etzion Bloc became a symbol of Zionist heroism and martyrdom among Israelis immediately after its fall, and this importance continues. The date of the massacre was enshrined as Israel's Day of Remembrance.

The site of the Etzion Bloc was captured by Israel during the 1967 war. The children who had been evacuated from the Bloc in 1948 led a public campaign for the Bloc to be resettled, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol gave his approval. Kfar Etzion was re-established as a kibbutz in September 1967, as the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank after the war.


  • L. Collins and D. Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, Grafton Books, 1982, ISBN 0-586-05452-9.
  • D. Ohana, Kfar Etzion: the Community of Memory and the myth of return, Israel Studies, vol. 7 no. 2 (2002) 145-174.
  • B. Morris, The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews, I.B. Tauris (2003), ISBN 1860649890.
  • Y. Katz and J. Lehr, Symbolism and landscape: The Etzion Bloc in the Judean Mountains, Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 31 iss. 4 (1995) 730-743.
  • J. C. Lehr and Y. Katz, Heritage Interpretation and Politics in Kfar Etzion, Israel, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2003, 215228.

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