Maale Akravim (“Scorpion’s Ascent”) is a 30-kilometer winding narrow stretch of road about 60 miles south of Beersheba on what is now Route 227, which was then the primary route between Eilat and the Arava and the central Negev. Sadly, it has become principally known for the March 17, 1954 massacre when Arab terrorists ambushed an Israeli passenger bus and murdered 11 passengers. Four passengers miraculously survived, including two who were shot.
Although Israel’s 1948 War of Independence ostensibly ended with the signing of several armistice agreements between Israel and neighboring Arab states, the Arabs made a mockery of the truce as Arab attacks over the border commenced immediately, most frequently by fedayeen infiltrating from Jordan.
Arabs generally infiltrated Israel for criminal, rather than terrorist, purposes, as they sought to harvest crops on “their” lands and to steal equipment and money from the Jews. Even in these early years, however, some Arabs, who had been organized and trained by the Muslim Brotherhood and the former Mufti of Jerusalem, crossed the border to murder Jews and to destroy the Jewish state.
The problem escalated significantly in 1954, when Egypt and Syria began to use Palestinian commandos to attack Israeli border settlements, leading to the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli soldiers and civilians. (The precise count is the subject of ongoing academic dispute.)
Although Israel sustained a significant death toll from these attacks, Jordan complained that it had sustained hundreds of casualties from Israeli violations of the 1949 armistice agreements, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan/Israel Mixed Armistice Commission (HJK/IMAC) condemned Israeli military reprisal actions – which were defensive and retaliatory – no fewer than 44 times in the early 1950s.
With headquarters in Jerusalem close to the Jordan/Israel Green Line, the HKJ/IMAC was charged with monitoring and supervising the Jordan/Israel truce agreement, including investigating border incidents and taking remedial action to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.
On the evening of March 16, 1954, an Egged bus carrying 14 passengers departed Eilat, where they had participated in the celebration of the city’s fifth birthday, and headed to Tel Aviv. As it was slowly ascending the steep grade of Maale Akravim near a stone monument that had been erected to honor the Jews who fell in 1948 in the battle for the Negev, making it an easy target, it was ambushed by Arab gunmen who shot and killed the driver, Kalman Esroni; the alternate driver (there were almost always two drivers on this trip, which then took about 16 hours), Efraim Furstenberg; and several passengers who attempted to escape the vehicle.
Two Arab terrorists boarded the bus, sprayed it with sub-machine gun fire, murdered most the remaining passengers, passed through the bus appropriating the spoils of their attack, and committed cold-blooded atrocities on the corpses. The four survivors were two Israeli soldiers, a woman, and a five-year-old girl, Miri Furstenberg, who survived when one of the soldiers riding the bus was killed while using his body to protect her and her brother, Chaim. (Much later in her life, Miri wrote The Girl from Scorpions Pass, a book about the attack and her miraculous survival.)
After the assassins left the bus, Chaim rose and called to his sister but, when the Arabs heard his voice, they returned and shot him in the head. (He would spend 32 years brain damaged and in a state of paralysis, never regaining consciousness, and he became the 12th fatality of the attack when he died in 1986.) When a passing army patrol happened upon the site, it found a scene of utter slaughter and devastation.
The Israeli Cabinet met in emergency session and Ben-Gurion came out of retirement to confer with Sharett and Israeli army chiefs. John Bagot Glubb, British commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, offered two Bedouins to assist Israel in searching for the terrorists and, at dawn on the day after the attack, Israeli trackers, accompanied by UN observers and several bloodhounds, found a black knitted cap behind the Maale Akravim Memorial, but the terrorists’ tracks were lost about six miles west of the Jordanian border. The perpetrators of the massacre were never apprehended.
Israel’s birth in the ashes of the Holocaust was still uppermost in the minds of most Israelis and, although the phrase “never again” had not yet been coined, that idea was central to the Israeli ethos. The Israeli public demanded revenge, and the response from the media may perhaps best be typified by Haboker, the Hebrew language daily founded by the General Zionist in October 1935, which wrote that “the massacre was an act of war which can only be met by an act of war on our part.”
However, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, criticized as a “dove” on terrorism issues and already under political attack for his inability to protect Israel against increasing Arab terrorist strikes, faced a monumental dilemma. On one hand, the Israeli public demanded immediate action and Israel’s security forces argued that a failure to respond in kind would telegraph weakness, only inviting further attacks. On the other hand, Israel faced an enormous problem with international opinion were Sharett to order a substantive reprisal.
Less than six months prior to the Maale Akravim attack, Israel’s Unit 101, commanded by Ariel Sharon, had launched a retaliatory attack against the village of Qibya (Kibya), which resulted in 53 casualties (and, it must be mentioned, a significant curbing of Arab attacks from Jordan). Notwithstanding Arab terrorist attacks against the Jewish state and the fact that Israel’s act was a reprisal for the Arab murder of its citizens, Israel had earned worldwide condemnation for Qibya – some things never change – and Sharett feared the enmity would be exacerbated by further Israeli raids.
Adding to the problem was the fact that the Arab murderers had sought refuge from, and were being protected by, a sympathetic regime in Jordan that, some argued, was too weak to take action to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel from its borders. In fact, Jordan had offered to assist Israel in its investigation – although many Israeli leaders and much of the public believed was a sham – and a war against Jordan at this point was unthinkable.
Some pointedly argued what has become a continuing mantra amongst Jewish liberals and other naïve critics: that reciprocal aggression would only lead to a “cycle of violence” and to Jordan and other Arab countries escalating the raids and causing more deaths of Israeli citizens. Thus, notwithstanding a broad public outcry and demand for massive military retaliation against Jordan, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, concerned about Israel’s image in the West, called for restraint and diplomatic measures.
As it ultimately turned out – and, in retrospect, this was entirely predictable – Israel’s restraint did nothing to prevent further Arab attacks, further murders of Israelis, and further world condemnation of the Jewish victims.
The Israeli government believed that the trail to Jordan constituted all the evidence that was necessary to prove that the attack had been launched from Jordan and, relying on intelligence from several informants, its intelligence sources named three Jordanians from the village of Safi as the perpetrators.
Two weeks after the failure of Israel’s search, Sharett announced that he would bring the matter to the UN. Israeli officials summoned the UN’s truce-supervision chief, Major General Vagn Bennike, and demanded that the HJK/IMAC denounce Jordan for the atrocity. Jordan’s representative to the Commission, however, argued that the murders were carried out by the Black Hand, a Bedouin gang operating within Israel’s borders, and U.S. Navy Commander Elmo Hutchison, the HJK/IMAC Chairman, determined that there was no conclusive proof that Jordan was responsible for the attack.
Adding insult to injury and infuriating Israel, Major Bennike expressed doubt that the perpetrators of the massacre were Arab, even going so far as to suggest that the attackers were members of a Jewish terrorist group. In a rousing speech to the Knesset, Sharett condemned the “moral bankruptcy” of the UN Armistice monitors and, in his official statement on the massacre, blamed the HJK/IMAC for shirking its responsibilities. Despite the public’s demand for a military response, however, he continued to pursue a solution through diplomatic channels.
Not all Israeli leaders were pleased with his approach. Not surprisingly, Menachem Begin condemned the UN’s double standard with respect to Israel; argued that no Israeli citizen is safe from attack until Arab guerilla warfare is effectively neutralized; urged Israel to take every necessary step to stop the spilling of Jewish blood; and argued that real peace does not mean a peace treaty but, rather, protecting Jews in their Jewish homeland. In a fighting speech in Tel Aviv attended by a massive audience, he vehemently attacked Sharett’s claim that “the government cannot undertake to ensure that no Jews will be killed in Israel.”
Another vociferous opponent of Sharett’s “diplomatic approach” to the massacre was Golda Meir (then “Meirson;” she changed her name to Meir in 1956), Minister of Labor in the Sharett government, who was highly critical of the prime minister’s inability to protect Israel. In this rare and historic April 9, 1954 letter to Sharett, Golda writes on her Minister of Labor letterhead:
Right after the horrible action held by the gang of murderers – the “fedayeen” at Maale Akravim and due to the general mood of the public, I am thinking aloud, whether the government, and I mean the whole government, is capable of confronting the current situation generally – and the world-organized plots against us particularly – that is without the power of vision of the man from Sde Boker. And if this isn’t the appropriate time to appeal to Ben-Gurion to return to the government…
Sharett appears to have shrugged off her correspondence. He apparently forwarded her letter to someone – most likely Ben-Gurion – and written in the lower right corner are the words: “There is a certain amount of hysteria in Golda’s repeated appeals. M. Sh.”
During his service as Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion assisted in creating the Israeli army and often took an activist approach toward Arab terrorism, using military force to thwart Arab violence; as he explained to General Ariel Sharon, “Unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won’t survive.”
After announcing his intention to leave public life, Ben-Gurion retired to the newly founded Negev Kibbutz Sde Boker in early 1954. However, he never completely abdicated his leadership role and, in 1955, he returned to public life, first as minister of defense and then again as prime minister after his reelection in November 1955.
In response to HJK/IMAC inaction and bias on the Maale Akravim Massacre, Israel announced its withdrawal from the commission on March 23, 1954. The UN, of course, condemned Israel’s withdrawal, which it characterized as an attempt by Israel to disparage the commission’s work and to interfere with the UN’s peace efforts.
A few days later on March 29, Israel finally retaliated when its military forces raided the Jordanian town of Nahalin, killing nine. After its conspicuous silence on the Maale Akravim attack, HJK/IMAC strongly condemned Israel’s attack. Moreover, in response to an anti-Israel resolution introduced by Lebanon, the UN Security Council – after having totally ignored the Maale Akravim attack – condemned Israel and ordered it to pay compensation to the victims and families of its assault on Qibya.
After the Maale Akravim Massacre, the Eisenhower administration leaped into action – by warning Israel against taking any reprisal actions against the Arabs. In marked contrast, after Israel’s Quiba attack, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade condemned Israel and, amazingly, admonished it to “drop the attitude of conqueror.”
The UN’s double standard and its two-faced response to Arab terrorism marked the beginning of Israel’s distrust of the international organization. Moreover, convinced that the UN Observer Corps was the principal source of adverse publicity, which was intentionally designed to mislead international opinion, Israel limited the ability of the UN observers to have unfettered access to all areas within Eretz Yisrael so as to limit the ability of the corps to spread anti-Israel propaganda. Yet again, the UN condemned Israel.
Israel was also learning to distrust mass media and to understand that it needed to respond vociferously to its incredibly biased reporting. Abba Eban, then Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., wrote a powerful protest letter to Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, taking the paper to task for publishing and disseminating the defamatory misrepresentations by the paper’s Jordan correspondent, even going so far as to threaten to sue the paper for libel. In response, not only did the Times not withdraw it libel, it continued to perpetuate it.
At the end of the day, the great legacy of the Maale Akravim Massacre is not merely yet another murderous Arab slaughter of innocent Jewish civilians in the long history of such atrocities but, rather, as the event that cemented Israel’s understanding that it would have to act in its own interests in the face of unremitting and unapologetic anti-Israel propaganda by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the mass media.