In 1925, the Jewish community of Palestine established the first Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Soon after the Hadassah Hospital opened nearby. The location high above the city had a spectacular view of the Old City, but it also was surrounded by hostile Arab neighborhoods.
An ambulance preparing to join the convoy to Mount Scopus.
April 13, 1948
Following the UN partition decision in November 1947, Arab irregular forces began attacking Jews in Palestine and violence escalated in the succeeding months. In 1948, Arab troops blocked access to Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. The only access was via a narrow road, a mile and a half long passing through the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. At a press conference on March 17, the leader of the Arab forces in Jerusalem, Abdul Kader Husseini, warned he had given orders to occupy or destroy what he referred to as “bases in Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University.”
Arab sniper fire on vehicles moving along the access route had become a regular occurrence, and road mines had been laid. The British Colonial Secretary and the High Commissioner had given assurances that the relief convoys would be given British protection.
When food and supplies at the hospital begun to dwindle, a large convoy carrying doctors and supplies set out for the besieged hospital, marked by a “red shield,” which should have guaranteed its neutrality. Previous convoys had made the trip without incident and, on April 11, the regional British commander gave assurances the road was safe but cautioned that tensions were high following the battle of Deir Yassin, during which Palestinians falsely claimed Jews had “massacred” the villagers.
At 9:30 a.m. on April 13, 1948, a convoy consisting of two ambulances, three buses of medical staff, three logistical trucks and two Haganah armored cars headed up the narrow road to Hadassah Hospital with medical and military supplies. The local British inspector Robert J.Webb, head of the Mea Shearim police station, reported the route was secure without making his usual trip to ascertain if the route was safe.
The Haganah’s Asher Rahav led the convoy in an armored Ford truck carrying 10 soldiers and two hitchhiking Haganah members. At approximately 9:45 a.m., a mine was electrically detonated in front of Rahav’s Ford and Arab forces opened fire on the entire convoy. Five vehicles, along with the rear Haganah escort car, managed to back out and return to Jerusalem.
Aftermath of the attack on the convoy.
Two buses were later hit by Molotov cocktails and burst into flames. Some of the unhurt passengers tried to make a dash to safety, but the Arabs picked them off as they jumped out. Only one man from each bus survived. Shalom Nissan, a university student, jumped when the Arabs began lobbing grenades at his stricken bus and ran all the way to Mount Scopus where he later provided an eye-witness account of the ambush. The other survivor was Nathan Sandowsky, a guard who said he saw a British army convoy pass by. “We shouted, ‘Help! We have wounded women and men!’ But they did not stop. Armored cars of the police arrived and stood for a time without extending any help whatever and without even communicating with us. We were sure that at least they would not let the Arabs approach so close as to burn the vehicles.”
Another survivor, David Bar-Ner described how Sandowsky saved the Haganah fighters in one armored car who were prepared to commit suicide to avoid being captured:
I had three bullets in my arm. I piled up the six grenades left in the car and pulled the pin on one to blow us up if the Arabs tried to take us prisoner. We had plenty of ammunition left but there was no one left to fire it. Then Sandowsky appeared. His face was blackened from the fire in his bus. He grabbed the grenade from my hand and threw it outside where it went off. The he took one of our two machine-guns and kept shooting short bursts. That kept the Arabs at bay since they knew we could till shoot back. He saved our lives, for soon after, the British picked us up.
The Jewish liaison officer with the British army asked for permission to send in a Haganah relief force, which was denied on the grounds it might interfere with a cease-fire negotiation. According to Meron Benvenisti, British forces in the area did not intervene to “let the Arabs take revenge for Deir Yassin, so as to calm somewhat the rage of the Arab world.”
The Haganah headquarters in Jerusalem did not know the seriousness of the situation and sent a single armored car to the ambush site, which stalled in a ditch. Two men inside were killed and three wounded before the driver managed to drive away from the gunfire and up to Mount Scopus.
The British, who had a small outpost nearby, refused to intervene until 4 p.m. when a small force was sent to repel the Arab ambushers and evacuate the survivors. In fact, early in the fighting, two British armored cars blocked the Jews from retreating. Rahav gave orders to fire at them to get them to move out of the way. Unbeknownst to Rahav, Lieutenant-General G.H.A. MacMillan, commander of all British forces in Palestine, was in one of the cars. MacMillan ordered his driver to move away from the convoy.
The white armored ambulance came under intense fire. Inside was the driver driver Zecharya Leitan and Dr. Chaim Yassky, director of the hospital. Behind them were Yassky’s wife, Fanny, six doctors, a nurse and a wounded soldier. Yassky said, “no escape from our fate is left. We must bid one another farewell.” At 2:30, Yassky was mortally wounded. There was nothing anyone in the ambulance could do. Ironically, there was not even a first aid kit in the vehicle.
The driver jumped out of the ambulance and was killed. One of the doctors also decided to make a run for it. He was shot, but managed to crawl to the British outpost. He said the soldiers were apologetic, but told him they could not do anything.
Hadassah volunteers monitored the British radio conversations and, at one point heard a British observer report: “The buses are burning. Someone has to put out a white flag. Request permission to intercede.” In response, he was told, “Reinforcements are on the way. Keep everything steady.” But reinforcements, only a few minutes away, took seven hours to get to the site. MacMillan later said, “I found that Brigadier Jones had got the matter in hand and had persuaded the Arabs to stop firing but had not been able to achieve this until after he had been forced to fire heavily upon them and kill fifteen.”
Rahav survived the ambush. He convinced a British intelligence officer who had befriended the Jews to return to the scene to bring back the weapons and secret operational papers on the body of one of the men.
Memorial to the victims of the Hadassah Convoy Massacre
In the attack, 78 Jews, including 23 women, and one British soldier were killed by gunfire or were burnt when their vehicles were set on fire. The 31 victims that could be identified were buried individually.
Originally, it was thought the remaining 47 Jews were buried in a mass grave in the Sanhedria Cemetery, but it was later discovered that only 25 were buried in the mass grave and 22 victims were missing. An Arab who participated in the ambush later claimed that the attackers had buried stray body parts in a mass grave near the Lions Gate.
As soon as the British pulled out of the country in mid-May of 1948, the Arabs seized control of the road to Mount Scopus cutting Hadassah and the Hebrew University off from the rest of the city. A few weeks after the massacre, the decision was made to evacuate 700 Jewish doctors, students and patients from the Hadassah Hospital. In July 1948, a deal was worked out where Mount Scopus became a United Nations area, with 84 Jewish policemen assigned to guard the now-shuttered hospital. In the armistice agreement with Jordan, signed on April 3, 1949, the hospital became a demilitarized Israeli enclave. The rest of Mount Scopus and East Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan. The Israeli government and Hadassah donors subsequently re-founded the hospital in Ein Kerem in Israeli West Jerusalem in 1961. The Mt. Scopus hospital reopened after Israel unified Jerusalem during the 1967 War.
A memorial to the victims of the massacre can be found on Mount Scopus. On the 60th anniversary of the ambush, the city of Jerusalem named a street in honor of Dr. Yassky. Another street, Ha Ayin-Het Street, is named for the 78 Jewish victims.
Sources: “Hadassah medical convoy massacre,” Wikipedia;
Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am, “History on high at Mount Scopus,” Times of Israel, (November 9, 2012);
“The Hadassah Convoy Massacre,” Zionism and Israel Information Center.