The entire country mourned the passing of iconic songwriter Haim Hefer on this new year’s second day. We were awash in a deluge of nostalgia, which was only fitting, bearing in mind that Hefer was a master of nostalgia. His ability to home in and seize on the singular sentiment of the era proved the hallmark of his prolific output.
And so in 1948, as the Palmach achieved its greatest feats but was already threatened with dismantlement by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Hefer wrote a somewhat premature self-lamenting eulogy for the Hagana’s elite strike force. I translated its opening stanza:
Gentlemen, history cyclically reappears.
Nothing is forgotten, nothing disappears.
We’ll yet remember how under a lead barrage,
The Palmach in Syria did march
Hefer tugged hard at the Palmach stalwarts’ heartstrings by recalling its earliest campaigns, like the summer of 1941 missions on behalf of the Allies to prepare for Operation Exporter – the assault on the Levant’s Vichy French forces. (It was then, while capturing strategic bridges, that Moshe Dayan lost his eye).
But Hefer’s observations on the repetitive nature of history apply far more broadly than just to the specifics he lists in his rhyming elegiac. Wherever we turn, we seem to encounter daily reminders that indeed “history cyclically reappears.” So it was on the fifth day of this new year.
Heavily armed terrorists opened fire on Israeli soldiers at the border with Sinai. Such naked aggression in itself was sure to excite no condemnation from pompous pontificators overseas, to say nothing of even generating plain press coverage.
No one abroad paid attention, most likely because no one cared that a 20-year-old corporal, Netanel Yahalomi, was slain by a bullet to the head and that another trooper was wounded. World opinion’s capacity to tolerate the cold-blooded murder of Israelis knows no bounds.
But there was no such equanimity about the results of the ensuing chase in which IDF soldiers – female sharpshooters included – got three of the terrorists. “Israelis kill three in Sinai,” screamed the headlines on foreign news outlets. It was all presented as a random skirmish. The unprovoked nature of the attack on the Israelis was never acknowledged.
Not a word was said about the fact that the Israelis were set upon by a group intent on a large-scale homicidal spree. Its members carried explosives, suicide belts, an RPD machine gun, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, Kalashnikovs and ammunition. These men, though in civilian garb, weren’t out on a leisurely stroll.
Neither, for that matter, were the Israelis. The difference was that instead of aiming to terminate life, the Israelis aimed to preserve life. The IDF soldiers brought water to some 15 African illegals who were attempting to cross into Israel at one of the points where the construction of the border fence hadn’t yet been completed.
We Israelis are soft-hearted. We may seek to stem the influx of African infiltrators that threatens us with inundation and has already rendered large urban swaths into Third World no-man’s lands. But we simultaneously take pity on the individuals trying to gain unlawful access into our country. And so a number of soldiers took vital supplies to the economic migrants stuck on our doorstep.
All that while, the terrorists followed the Africans, keeping tabs on their movements from a short distance away. Their assumption was that at some point Israelis would make contact with the infiltrators and offer them succor. The Arabs didn’t have to speculate. They had studied Israeli habits carefully and had reason to expect humanitarian “duty of care.”
It was a well-planned ambush. The attack was mounted as the original Israeli platoon was divided – some heading toward the Africans and others staying at the post. Thus Israeli compassion offered a perfect opportunity for Arab terror to hit again.
The sad fact is that it’s hardly new. We’ve seen it numerous times before – when guards took pity on an apparent elderly cripple or pregnant woman, only to fall victim to a bomb plot; when Arab children were sent out with incendiary devices in their school bags on the assumption that the Israelis manning checkpoints would be kind; when Israeli ambulance crews and medical personnel were targeted while helping save Arab lives. Such episodes abound, proving over and over how insightful Hefer was when counseling us to count on history repeating itself.
One of the earliest and most tragic instances of Israeli good deeds not going unpunished hails from the heyday of Hefer’s Palmach. It took place four months before Israel was born but when the embryonic state was already embroiled in its War of Independence. A group of 38, mostly Palmachniks and many of them Hebrew University students, was sent to help the besieged four Gush Etzion communities – south of Jerusalem and northwest of Hebron. They left Hartuv (near Beit Shemesh) late on the night of January 15, 1948, with heavy supply-laden rucksacks their backs.
En route three convoy members were sent back because one of them was injured and two others were assigned to carry him to safety. The remaining 35, under the command of Danny Mas, continued climbing the steep terrain, slowed down by their cargo. They would gain immortality under the collective heading of the Lamed-Heh (35 in Hebrew alphabet-based numerals).
Dawn broke when the 35 were about an hour away from their beleaguered destination. Then, near Surif, they encountered an old Arab shepherd. Considering that they were carrying out an undercover commando mission, they should have killed him. Apparently, however, they couldn’t bring themselves to do so and let him go.
A variant of this account is that they came across two Arab women gathering kindling, took pity on the pair and released them.
In any case, both the above versions come from Arab sources, the shepherd report being older, more widespread and probably more credible. Be that as it may, the story all Arab accounts tell is that the 35 met Arab civilians and didn’t harm them, as military common sense dictated they should have.
The misplaced benevolence of the 35 went disastrously unreciprocated. The shepherd and/or the women rushed right back to Surif, raised the alarm, and in no time many hundreds of Arabs from the surrounding area swooped down on the Lamed-Heh who found themselves surrounded and trapped on a small outcropping between Jaba and Surif. They tried to hold off the rabble and fought heroically to the last man until their ammunition ran out. That last man still hurled rocks at his attackers late in the afternoon.
The Lamed-Heh’s final chapter was pieced together from evidence given by the attacking Arabs and the British Mandatory forces who belatedly arrived on the bloody scene. They discovered 35 hideously mutilated corpses, some beheaded, and many beyond recognition.
A British officer photographed the butchered bodies, left his roll of film in a Jerusalem shop and never claimed it back. His negatives were discovered years later but the tender-hearted Israeli authorities nixed publication of the atrocious images. There are a few among us, nonetheless, who were made privy to the visual ghastliness.
Eventually, Gush Etzion’s desperate struggle proved too much against-the-odds. Cut off, out-manned and outgunned, the Bloc succumbed just as ancient Jewish sovereignty was being reinstated – hardly a favorable omen for the newborn state, which faced concerted genocidal invasions from all directions.
The inauspicious news from the Etzion Bloc was underscored by what befell its defenders who had surrendered to the British-led Jordanian Legion on May 13, 1948. They had put down their weapons, lined up in front of a school and were even photographed. Then sub-machine fire and hurled grenades mowed them down. About 50 of the group managed to flee to the cellar of a nearby old monastery but the Arabs blew it up, killing all but five. The massacre victims numbered 128.
The international community was remarkably unperturbed, as it still remains vis-à-vis any bestiality against Jews. Eager to paint us as interloping ogres, it laps up any chance to besmirch Israelis but assiduously avoids dwelling on injustices against us.
Do we draw cogent operative conclusions from history’s cyclical reappearance? Not really.
With incredible cognitive dissonance we laud ourselves (even as the rest of the world vituperatively censures us) for the Lamed-Heh’s legacy of the “purity of arms.”
Marking the third anniversary of the Lamed-Heh’s last stand, Ben-Gurion doubted that “there was in the Israel Defense Forces or in any army in the world, a detachment which condensed within it such splendor of humanity, heroism of innocence and wealth of spirit as did this detachment.” The Lamed-Heh, Ben-Gurion opined, should be commemorated “in the dedicated and steadfast desire to emulate them as much as possible.”
Perhaps it would do us well to reach quite the opposite conclusion. We aren’t performing on a global stage where our sainted ethos is celebrated and applauded by appreciative onlookers. We fight for survival in a world that pillories the reestablished Etzion Bloc communities as prohibited “settlements,” that cares more about insulting Islam’s prophet in obscure video clips than about Jewish boys who pay with their lives for delivering water to Africans.
Israel cannot regard the latter as refugees once they had left their home countries and entered Egypt, but assorted moralizers don’t expect Arabs to be charitable and they don’t protest when Arabs open fire on charitable Jews.
With enemies like ours, make-nice gestures and rules of war should be deemed irrelevant. We know so because
…history cyclically reappears.
Nothing is forgotten, nothing disappears.