ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Archaeology'It's very hard to disconnect from the emotional aspect'

75 years on, newly found compass points to heart of 1948 battle where 35 troops died

Researchers also unearth bullet casings at site of famous Lamed Heh battle in War of Independence, shedding rare light on an incident from which there were no Palmach survivors

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

A compass and other items from a 1948 War of Independence battle that have been found on Ha-Lamed Heh Battle Hill, April 2023. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
A compass and other items from a 1948 War of Independence battle that have been found on Ha-Lamed Heh Battle Hill, April 2023. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A compass that likely belonged to a pre-state soldier who died 75 years ago in a famous battle during the War of Independence has been found at the hilltop battle site southwest of Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said Monday.

Bullet casings from a Bren machine gun were also found at HaLamed Heh Battle Hill, where a convoy of 35 Hagana soldiers was ambushed in 1948 and all of them were killed during an attempt to resupply the besieged kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc. Known as the “Lamed Heh” — the number 35 in Hebrew letters — the men are buried together in a common grave at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

The battle and its tragic outcome still play a big part in Israel’s collective memory and ethos, with streets, monuments and even an entire kibbutz — Netiv HaLamed-Heh — named after the group of fallen troops.

In a statement published Monday, just ahead of Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, the IAA didn’t say when the discovery was made. It said research into the findings would be published in early May in a Hebrew-language scientific journal put out by the IAA and other bodies.

The researchers — Rafi Lewis of Ashkelon Academic College and the University of Haifa, and Eyal Marco of the IAA — estimate that the compass found at the site had belonged either to the platoon commander, 25-year-old Danny Mass, or to one of its scouts, Yitzhak Halevi and Yitzhak Zvuloni.

“A definitive identification of the original owner of the compass isn’t possible at this stage, but we are hopeful that archival material that enables this will be discovered in the future,” said Lewis.

The brass compass was found alongside the bullet casings at the hilltop, behind a boulder that likely served as a temporary shelter for one of the fighters during the battle. The simple compass, determined to have been produced between 1900 and 1933, had its glass panel shattered by a bullet, according to an Israel Police forensic investigation.

“The fact that the compass fits the time of the battle, and the fact that it was determined to have been hit by a bullet, strengthen the assumption that it had been in use during the Lamed Heh battle, and show that a commanding or at least leading figure had been present in the later stages of the battle,” said Marco.

Researchers Dr. Rafi Lewis, left, and Eyal Marco examine a compass from a 1948 War of Independence battle that has been found on HaLamed Heh Battle Hill, April 2023. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Soon after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, Arab fighters laid siege to the four tiny kibbutzim located in the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion). On January 15, 1948, when their situation was desperate, the platoon of 35 young men set out for the bloc with supplies and weapons for the settlements’ defense.

No one knows for sure how they were discovered the next morning, but some believe that not long before reaching their destination, they encountered an Arab shepherdess. Leaving her unharmed, they continued on; she ran off and sounded the alarm.

During the bitter, blatantly uneven battle that followed between Palmach troops and thousands of Arab fighters, every single soldier in the platoon was killed.

Ha-Lamed Heh Battle Hill, the site of a 1948 War of Independence battle, southwest of Jerusalem, in April 2023. (Eyal Marco/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Since there were no Palmach survivors to tell the tale of what happened, Lewis and Marco — who first met during reserve military service in a search-and-rescue IDF unit — decided two years ago to try to find evidence from the battlefield itself, using archaeological techniques. It is the first time this has been done in a systematic fashion, the IAA said.

The small preexisting body of evidence about the battle consists of several items previously found by the Kfar Etzion Field School, as well as testimonies collected at the time from Arab fighters and the British officer who coordinated the collection of the bodies from the battlefield.

“We saw the material evidence from the battle was disappearing,” the IAA statement quoted Lewis and Marco as saying. “The items are becoming worn out in the field, travelers are collecting souvenirs, and we felt like if we don’t do it now, in a few years we won’t be able to reconstruct the battlefield.”

Bullet casings from a 1948 War of Independence battle that have been found on Ha-Lamed Heh Battle Hill, April 2023. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The researchers said their current project was different and more emotional than all their other archaeological endeavors, since the events being investigated are so recent.

“There are faces and names,” they were quoted as saying. “There is an almost personal familiarity with all the characters. You wonder what the fighters were thinking, or whether the bullet that shattered the compass penetrated the heart of whoever was holding it in his pocket or hand. You do a job that is as scientific as possible, but it’s very hard to disconnect from the emotional aspect.”

IAA director Eli Eskosido added that “the moving research, which goes back to chilling moments from the Lamed Heh battle, shows how archaeology can be used as a tool to understand historic events — not only from the distant past, but also from the recent past.”

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