On Wednesday, Shvat 3, 5708, January 14, 1948, a massive Arab force of between 400 and 600 Arab gang members and local villagers attacked Gush Etzion, a Jewish enclave of four agricultural villages south of Jerusalem, established between 1940 and 1947 on property purchased in the 1920s and 1930s. The Arab forces tried to take over Khirbet Zakaria, a small Arab sharecroppers’ village at the heart of the Gush, and thus sever Ein Tzurim and Revadim in the north from Kfar Etzion and Masuot Yitzhak south of Khirbet Zakaria. It was a well-organized attack, which pinned down the defenders of Kfar Etzion, preventing them from sending reinforcements to the southern communities. In the end, though, the Jewish forces prevailed, showing astonishing bravery, killing as many as 100 Arab attackers and wounding hundreds more.
The victory of “Battle of Shvat 3rd,” as it was hailed at the time, was extremely costly, increasing the Gush’s already dire situation in terms of number of weapons, ammunition, batteries for the com systems and medical supplies. But most of all, as the Gush Commander Uzi Narkis, who in 1967 commanded the forces that liberated it, kept sending desperate telegrams warning about the high casualties and the urgent need to replace lost men. Add to that intelligence reports that suggested the Arabs were preparing for another attack, and there was no doubt left that a convoy had to be sent to improve the situation.
On January 16, 1948, the “Company of 35” (which started out with 38 fighters) was sent by the Haganah to deliver the badly needed supplies to the four Gush Etzion villages under siege. It was made up of men from several Hagana units, commanded by the former commander of Gush Etzion, Daniel “Dani” Mass, who was born in Berlin and made Aliyah with his parents in 1933.
The company set out on foot from Hartuv at 11 PM, January 15. They took a detour around the local British Police station, to avoid detection. Three were sent back because one man sprained an ankle, and two accompanied him. The remaining 35 were killed overnight by Arab villagers and militiamen between the villages of Jaba’ and Surif.
Had the “Lamed Heh” (35 in Hebrew) made it to the Gush, the entire area south of Jerusalem that ended up under Jordanian occupation for 19 years could have remained intact as part of the new Jewish State that was declared in May of that year. It would have reduced significantly the size of the remaining area under Arab rule and its annexation in 1968, along with eastern Jerusalem could have been less challenging to the Israeli government after the Six-Day War.
The fate of the 35 was later reconstructed from British and Arab reports. Daylight apparently came too soon, exposing the force an hour away from their destination. Two Arab women spotted two scouts from the force near Surif. A large mob of armed villagers from Surif and other Arab villages set up an ambush in the company’s path. The battle that ensued was fought in two segments, about four hours each, until their ammunition ran out and the last fighter was killed around 4:30 PM. Among the fallen were botanist Tuvia Kushnir, US born Moshe Perlstein who fought in WW2, and three members of the Hebrew Communist Party.
The British dispatched a platoon of the Royal Sussex Regiment to investigate the outcome of the battle and were led by local Arabs to the remains of the 35, which, reportedly, had been mutilated.
According to historian Benny Morris, the Palmach launched a retaliatory attack on the village of Sa’sa’ on February 14, killing 60 Arabs and blowing up 20 houses.