The Israeli Paramilitary Fighter Who Cheated Death in the 1948 War of Independence

No one knows why Moshe Atiya was saved from the grim fate that met his comrades, the soldiers the 'Convoy of 35'

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In January 1948 Palmach fighter Moshe Atiya got on the truck that took a platoon of 40 young men from Jerusalem on a mission to relieve the besieged Etzion Bloc. Near the village of Abu Ghosh outside the city, the commander, Danny Mass, told Atiya and another fighter to get off and return to base.

The reason for this decision remains a mystery to this day. Atiya’s family know of several versions. The prevailing one is that Mass didn’t have weapons for Atiya and his comrade. However, in an interview for an oral history project called Toldot Yisrael, Atiya testified that he had a sniper rifle and submachine gun on him at the time.

Moshe Atiya during his service in the Palmach.Credit: Courtesy

According to another version told later by some of Atiya’s friends, one of the female soldiers under Mass' command was in love with Atiya. She felt that the mission was too dangerous and convinced Mass, who was in love with her, to take Atiya off the mission without telling him why.

In any case, Atiya and his friend returned to base and were later joined a wounded soldier who arrived accompanied by two others. Out of the 40 who had originally set out for Etzion Bloc, only 35 remained. Before reaching their destination they were attacked by Arab villagers and none survived. The fate of the “Convoy of 35” became one of the legendary stories of the War of Independence.

“At night, we could hear the shooting from a distance. Only the next day did we learn that they’d been killed,” said Atiya. With the perspective of many years, Atiya said that “it could possibly have been done differently.” He criticized Mass for choosing a route that passed close to Arab villages and for sending him and his friend back even though he was a skilled sharpshooter and his comrade was a good scout.

Due to the rush of events Atiya’s name was not deleted from the casualty list and it was included among the names of the fallen. His parents in Kfar Tavor in the Galilee were informed of his death but his father refused to sit shiva, the official seven-day Jewish period of mourning, claiming his son was still alive. Unaware of the situation, Atiya continued fighting in the battle to relieve the siege on Jerusalem. Two weeks later, while on furlough, he went to see his parents, who fainted upon seeing him. Only then did he learn about the drama that had taken place at home.

Atiya was born in Kfar Tavor in 1927. His father Mordechai was born in 1891 at the prison in Acre, where his parents were incarcerated for illegally immigrating to Palestine. They were arrested as soon as the ship carrying them laid anchor. “They came after a flock of pigeons on the balcony of their home in Morocco flapped its wings in an easterly direction. They believed that God wanted them to go to Palestine,” related Atiya.

Moshe Atiya (right) during his service in the Palmach.

His mother Frida’s family was also from Morocco. She was born at the end of the 19th century to the Dahan family. Mordechai and Frida were married in Tiberias in 1909 and later moved to Kfar Tavor. Besides Moshe, they had four boys and a girl. Moshe went to the village elementary school and in eighth grade he joined the Young Maccabee youth movement, headed by his neighbor Yigal Allon, who was to become the commander of the Palmach, pre-state Israel’s elite fighting force.

In 1943 he started his studies at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school outside of Tel Aviv and joined the Haganah underground Jewish paramilitary organization. He then joined the Palmach and was assigned to its Harel brigade. In 1950 he was demobilized and started working as a bus driver and tour guide. He took an officers training course while on reserve duty and served in Unit 300, a battalion comprising of Druze and other Arab-speaking minorities, where he could make use of knowledge of Arabic and his strong ties to the Arab community.

Atiya fought in the Golan Heights in the Six Day War and after it ended, he became the governor of the Saint Catherine’s Monastery area in Sinai. After Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, which included Israeli withdrawal from the peninsula, he was appointed to a joint Israeli-Egyptian committee charged with demarcating the border.

During the first Lebanon War he commanded a unit charged with bringing captured equipment back to Israel. In 1983, at the age of 56, he returned to active duty as the commander of a prisoner-of-war camp in Lebanon. He later became the officer in charge of ordnance at Israel Defense Forces Central Command. In 1985 he was demobilized and resumed his activities as a tour guide.

“For many people, his ways exemplified the Palmachnik from agricultural communities, the kind-hearted, muscular tall guy featured in the legendary compilation of Palmach stories,” historian Nir Mann says of Atiya.

Atiya’s wife Aviva died in 2013. Atiya died at the beginning of the year at his home in Kfar Tavor, leaving behind four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.