On February 18, 1948, Palmach commander Yitzak Sadeh published an article in the newspaper Al Hamishmar glorifying the squad of 35 fighters of the Palmach [the elite 'Lamed Heh' strike force of the pre-state underground Jewish militia, the Haganah] who had been ambushed and killed a month earlier on their way to help the besieged communities of the Etzion Bloc.
Sadeh wrote: "Arabs tell with awesome admiration about the supreme heroism of those who fell in battle. They also tell why the evil befell [the fighters]: an old Arab man who met them on the way, and to whom they did no harm, sounded the alarm in his village and the surrounding villages. There is no doubt that armed Arabs would not behave thus if they met a Jew on the road... our fighters are not only brave souls, they are also dear souls. They are very humane."
Sadeh based his article David Ben-Gurion's eulogy for "the Lamed Heh" a few days after they fell, in an address to his political party, Mapai. Ben-Gurion himself drew on statements from the testimony of an Arab who was interrogated shortly after the battle, but did not take part in it. Sadeh signed his special column in Al Hamishmar with a pen name, M. Noded.
Thus the myth of the "Arab shepherd" was born and became woven into the saga of the heroism of the 35 fighters, subsequently presented as an expression of the concept of "purity of arms," and an example taught to this day in the Israel Defense Forces and youth groups.
Now, 61 years later, a new book in Hebrew by Yohanan Ben-Ya'akov, "The Mountain Squad - the Affair of the Thirty-Five," reveals that the encounter with the old Arab shepherd probably never happened.
Ben-Ya'akov, born in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, lost his father and uncle in battles for the Etzion Bloc on the day before the declaration of the state. He describes in the book that two Arab women looking for firewood in the early hours of the morning happened on two scouts from the unit on the outskirts of their village, Tzurif, on the slopes west of the Etzion Bloc. Screaming, the two women fled. They are the ones who called on reinforcements and revealed the presence of the squad.
The chance encounter of the scouts with the women placed them in a dilemma. "If they had opened fire on the fleeing women, the squad would have been discovered after sunrise in the heart of enemy country, which would have increased the threat to their lives. If they pursued the women, they would lose precious minutes before they could capture and silence them. At that point the main squad reached the rendezvous point, and the scouts reported the incident to the commander, Danny Mas, who apparently decided to keep going as planned. He assumed that the force would be able to cross the line of the two villages, Tzurif and Jaba, before violence started," Ben-Ya'akov writes.
Ben-Ya'akov learned about the two women looking for firewood from a British police document intercepted the day after the incident, which contains a report by one Hamish Dugan, an officer serving with the British police in Hebron. Dugan wrote that the force was discovered by two Arab women from the village of Tzurif. The newspaper Falastin also reported a day after the incident that the squad was discovered by women looking for firewood. No Arab shepherd is mentioned. Dugan himself mentioned the women on several occasions, relating that he met them the day after the battle and heard the story from them.
"Ben-Gurion gave the speech to glorify the value of purity of arms and to unite people around the battle and the heroism of the fighters. He based himself on a report by Ezra Danin, a member of Shai [the Haganah intelligence service] who had it from an Arab source, who Danin himself described as "doubtful," Ben-Ya'akov writes.
Ben-Ya'akov's book, published in Hebrew by the Defense Ministry and the Kfar Etzion Field School a few months ago, is based on research he carried out for his master's degree, which draws on primary sources from the IDF archives and Arab sources. Ben-Ya'akov was also part of the first team, headed by the late Yehoshua Cohen, to investigate the ambush, after the Six-Day War.
The ambush, Ben-Ya'akov says, was the starting-point for public discourse on "purity of arms," which he says made the IDF and Israeli society more moral. But the story of the Arab shepherd, in the specific context of the 35 and the Etzion Bloc, apparently never happened. Nevertheless, Ben Ya'akov concludes: "The question of how exactly the squad was discovered does not at all dim their heroism and in no way whatsoever compromises the example that the 35 set for generations, in whose light we have educated and will continue to educate soldiers and civilians."