The Ma'ale Akrabim massacre, known in English as the Scorpions Pass Massacre, was an attack on an Israeli passenger bus, carried out on 17 March 1954, in the middle of the day. Eleven passengers were shot dead by the attackers who ambushed and boarded the bus. One passenger died 32 years later of his injuries, in a state of paralysis and partial consciousness. Four passengers survived, two of whom had been injured by the gunmen.
Scorpions Pass (Hebrew: מעלה עקרבים, Ma'ale Akrabim) is a narrow, winding grade on the old road connecting Eilat and Beersheba, just south of Makhtesh Katan, and roughly 60 miles south of Beersheba. The pass was on the primary route between Eilat and central Israel in 1954. The 1948 Arab–Israeli war ended with the signing of several armistice agreements between Israel and her neighboring Arab states, but border clashes began almost immediately after the signing agreements. On the Israeli–Jordanian border lines, infiltrations, unarmed (71%) and armed (29%), were not infrequent from both sides.
According to Israeli sources, between June 1949 and the end of 1952, a total of 57 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed by infiltrators from Jordan. The Israeli death toll for the first 9 months of 1953 was 32.
Over roughly the same time (November 1950 – November 1953), the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan/Israel Mixed Armistice Commission (HJK/IMAC) condemned Israeli military reprisal actions 44 times and claimed it suffered 629 killed and injured from Israeli incursions.
Similar attacks, carried out largely by Palestinian commandos likely with some Egyptian support, originated from across the Egyptian border and the Gaza strip. Israel historian Benny Morris states that, between 1949 and 1956, between 200 and 250 Israelis were killed by infiltrators and a similar number of Israeli soldiers were killed in action. Other sources give a total of 1,300 killed over this period. Morris wrote, in Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956, that "Israel's defensive anti-infiltration measures resulted in the death (sic) of several thousand mostly unarmed Arabs during 1949–56."
A group called the "Black Hand", composed of predominantly Bedouins from 'Azazme and Tarrabin tribes living within the al-Auja Demilitarised zone, were carrying out 'revenge raids' principally against suspected informers but also against Israeli targets.
In the Negev, Israel embarked on development projects, which became the target of theft by Bedouins. Israeli security forces' shooting of these Bedouin had created blood feuds in the area.
Memorial plate in Ma'ale Akrabim
On the night of 16 March, a bus operated by the Egged Israel Transport Cooperative Society on an unscheduled journey carrying 14 passengers made its way from Eilat to Tel Aviv. As it was ascending the steep grade, it was ambushed by gunmen who shot and killed the driver as well as passengers who tried to escape; they then proceeded to board the bus and shoot and pilfer from the remaining passengers.
Both the driver, Kalman Esroni, and the alternate driver, Efraim Firstenberg, were killed, along with seven male passengers and two female passengers (a total of eleven died at the scene). The four survivors were two Israeli soldiers, a woman, and a 5-year-old girl, Miri, after one of the soldiers riding the bus defended her and her brother, Chaim, with his body.
After the terrorists got out of the bus, Chaim got up, called to his sister and asked her, "Are they gone?" The terrorists heard his voice, returned and shot him in the head. He did not regain consciousness, and spent 32 years in a state of paralysis and partial recognition until he died, becoming the 12th fatality of the massacre.
The next day, Israeli trackers assisted by police dogs and accompanied by UN observers followed the attackers' tracks to a point 6 miles west of the Jordanian border, where the tracks were lost.
Relying on informants, Israeli intelligence sources named 3 suspects from the Jordanian village of Ghor es-Safi as the perpetrators, and Lt. Colonel Shalev passed the names to Elmo Hutchison. The Jordanians continued in their endeavours to discover the perpetrators of the attack.
Reconstructed model of the civilian bus that was attacked by the Arab gang at Scorpion Pass.
Despite public outcry and call for military retaliation against Jordan, Israel's prime minister Moshe Sharett called for restraint and diplomatic measures, as less than six months before the events, Unit 101 had attacked the village of Qibya as part of Israel's retaliation policy, which resulted in the deaths of 69 people and worldwide condemnation.
"In Israel, there was a hue and cry for retaliation against Jordan. But Sharett favoured restraint, which helped to repair Israel's image in the West, opposed a reprisal while the memory of Qibya was still fresh. Uncertainty about the perpetrators identity facilitated restraint."
Israel requested that the Jordan–Israel Mixed Armistice Commission (HJK/IMAC) denounce Jordan for the crime. Jordan's representative to the HJK/IMAC pointed out the possibility of the atrocity being carried out by Israeli Bedouin, and HJK/IMAC Chairman, Commander Hutchison abstained as there was no conclusive proof, resulting in no decision. As a result, Israel left the HJK/IMAC.
Hutchison suggested that the attackers were either Gaza Bedouin or Israeli Bedouin. John Bagot Glubb suggested that the culprits were from Gaza. This theory gained credibility when, in 1956, an ID from the Ma’ale Akrabim incident was found in Gaza. Many believe Glubb had been right and Israel wrong, and that the Ma'ale Akrabim killers had indeed come from Egyptian-controlled territory rather than Jordan.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited the Ma'ale Akrabim incident, among many others, as evidence that "major Arab terrorist attacks" preceded the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to challenge what they describe as common claims by Palestinian and Arab spokesmen "that the recent Palestinian terrorism is the result of the Israeli 'occupation'".
In 2007, a reconstructed bus was placed in the Eilat City Museum.
- ^ a b Which Came First- Terrorism or Occupation – Major Arab Terrorist Attacks against Israelis Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War
- ^ a b S/635/Rev.1 Archived 4 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
- ^ Morris, Benny (1997) Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War, Oxford University Press, pg. 415; ISBN 0-19-829262-7.
- ^ Howard Sachar, History of Israel, p. 450. cited at "Fedayeen Raids 1951-1956". Jewish Agency for Israel. Archived from the original on 23 June 2009.
- ^ "Why do Palestinians in Gaza support Hamas?", Haaretz; accessed 13 March 2018.
- ^ Hutchison, E. (1955) Violent Truce: A Military Observer Looks At The Arab-Israeli Conflict 1951–1955, pp. 73–75 "Black Hand" organization was finally made when one of the sheikhs stated that many of the Bedouins who were mistreated by the Israelis had formed groups to carry out acts of revenge. He claimed these groups had mined roads, raided Israeli villages as well as camps of the Bedouins who were suspected of acting as Israeli informers, and stolen herds of cattle from Israeli shepherds.
- ^ Morris, pg. 63
- ^ Thefts were quite common, mostly among the poorer Bedouin who utilised the opportunity to steal valuable property and machinery used by the Israeli Government in developing the southern part of the country. The shooting of these Bedouin by Israelis incited blood feuds and resulted in vendettas which caused chain reactions, culminating in additional killings. Many such incidents occurred in the Negev and might be explained as Bedouin actions of blood revenge. The massacre of the bus passengers in Maleh ha-Akrabim (The Scorpion Pass) on the way to Eilat was possibly one of them. Avi Plascov, (1981) The Palestinian Refugees in Jordan 1948–1957, Routledge; ISBN 0-7146-3120-5 pg. 86
- ^ Morris, Benny (1993), Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War, Oxford University Press; ISBN 0-19-829262-7, pp. 309–13.
- ^ Violent Truce, pg. 53.
"The shoes had been removed from some of the victims, the ring finger had been cut from another, a handbag was taken, the bus tool box and a suitcase were stolen, the ammunition and weapons of the military guards on the bus were taken, and one of the survivors testified that 'one [of the attackers] also went to the roof [of the bus] to steal something'."
- ^ Rosalyn Higgins. United Nations Peacekeeping, 1946–1967: Documents and Commentary under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Oxford University Press, 1981, pp 121–22.
- ^ a b "Massacre at Scorpion's Pass". Time. 29 March 1954. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on July 12, 2010. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
- ^ UN Doc S/3252 of 19 June 1954 Archived 23 November 2001 at the Wayback Machine
"On 19 March 1954, a United Nations observer and an Israel officer heard statements from and put questions to the two adult survivors who had escaped unscathed—an Israel army sergeant and a girl. It was also possible to put a few questions to a wounded girl — a private in the Israel army — and to a small child." (Report dated 19 June 1954 by the Chief of Staff of the UNTSO in Palestine to the Secretary-General concerning the Scorpion Pass incident)
- ^ UN Document Archived 22 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine
"In subsequent days, a joint Israeli-Jordanian posse managed to follow a second set of tracks as far as 2 miles from the border, a connection between the two sets of tracks was never established. The same United Nations observer returned to the Scorpion Pass in the early morning of 18 March 1954, together with the Israel representatives on the Mixed Armistice Commission, who were accompanied by three trackers, three dogs and two dog-masters. At 07.00 h they picked up tracks on the narrow path explored by the United Nations observer on the previous evening. Tracks which seemed to be those of about four to seven persons who had walked towards the east led to Wadi Fuqra and were followed in the bed of the wadi and sometimes, where the walls were not steep, on one of its sides, until 1500 h. At that time, after having been followed for about 17 kilometers, the tracks were lost at approximately MR 1724-0376 (about 9.5 kilometers, in a straight line, in the scene of the incident, and about 11.5 kilometers, a straight line, from the nearest point on the armistice demarcation line between Israel and Jordan).
From the spot where the tracks were lost, Wadi Fuqra continues to go down in a north-easterly direction until it opens up, over 5 kilometers from the armistice demarcation line, into the flat land of the Ghor, to the south of the Dead Sea. In addition, about 1.5 kilometers from the spot were the tracks were lost, a path provides another natural exit from the wadi towards the south, and a short distance further on there are numerous other natural exits leading to the north and to the south.
The tracks followed on 18 March were those of persons who walked down the wadi. Now and then, in the bed of the wadi, near the water pools and at other places where the ground was soft, there were tracks of persons who had walked in the opposite direction. On 19 March, the senior Israel delegate was informed that tracks had been found by the Israel trackers some 8 kilometers to the south-east of the spot where the tracks had been lost on the previous afternoon. Accompanied by two United Nations observers, he went to approximately MR 1785-0300.
Tracks of apparently two persons, one of them barefooted, were followed for a [f]ew hundred meters until nightfall. The connection between those tracks and those followed on the previous day was not established.
- ^ On Wednesday of last week, the Mixed Armistice Commission was shocked by the news of an attack on an Israel bus near Ma'ale Akrabim [Scorpion Pass]. United Nations military observers were sent immediately to the scene of the incident, and their initial reports were graphic in describing this horrible crime. Since that first day, most of the military observers assigned to the Jordan-Israel Mixed Armistice Commission have working on this case. These observers, working with members of the Israel delegation to the Mixed Armistice Commission, Israel police and army officials, dog handlers with highly trained tracking hounds, expert Israel trackers, joined later by experienced Bedouin trackers from Jordan, have worked almost beyond endurance to establish the guilt for this crime. At no time during the years since the conclusion of the armistice agreement has a more intensive investigation been carried out. Even so, the evidence brought out is far from being conclusive. I do regret the Israel delegation's refusal to allow the Mixed Armistice Commission the opportunity completely to investigate Israel's claim of knowledge concerning the actual perpetrators of this crime. The possibility of Jordanians being responsible for this crime still exists; however, persons from outside Jordan could also be guilty of this outrage. True, tracks were found, perhaps connected to this crime, but they were lost approximately 10 kilometers in a straight line from the demarcation line. The empty cartridges found at the scene of the incident do not point conclusively to any one group. The testimony of the witnesses indicates that Arabs were involved; however, the description of the two men who allegedly entered the bus a doubt as to whether they were all Arabs. And the establishment of the fact that Arabs were involved does not in the least connect this crime to the inhabitants of any one country. This Mixed Armistice Commission will always avoid condemning a government on inconclusive evidence." UN Doc
- ^ Violent Truce, pg. 49
- ^ Violent Truce, pg. 63
"On March 23, immediately following the final meeting concerning the bus incident, Jordan had been asked to continue searching for the three men named by Israel as the leaders of the attacking group. It was also requested at the same time that a thorough check be made on the movements of Bedouin tribes, as well as individual Bedouins, during the period just preceding and following the raid. Officials of all villages from north of Hebron to the Gulf of Aqaba were requested to forward any information obtained that might shed light on the incident. A short time later the MAC was notified that six Arabs from Quseima in the Egyptian Sinai had been arrested for illegal entry into Jordan on the day preceding the bus attack. Although the time of their arrest cleared them from suspicion in that case, they had admitted the killing of an Israeli Arab before entering Jordan. The incident, as described by the prisoners, seemed to match the details of a complaint that had been filed by Israel."
- ^ The Department of State issued a statement Archived 9 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine on 18 October 1953 (Department of State Bulletin, 26 October 1953, pg. 552).
- ^ a b c d Morris, pp. 309–13.
- ^ UN Doc Archived 9 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine S/PV.630, 27 October 1953.
- ^ UN Doc S/3252 of 19 June 1954 Archived 23 November 2001 at the Wayback Machine Report dated 19 June 1954 by the Chief of Staff of the UNTSO in Palestine to the Secretary-General concerning the Scorpion Pass incident
- ^ Morris, pp. 311–13.
- ^ "When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1956, two years later, considerable evidence was found that the Scorpion Pass incident was the work of Arab Bedouins", Political Affairs By Trade Union Educational League, Political Affairs Publications, 1967, pg. 15
- ^ "In an internal memorandum, Hutchison wrote the day before the MAC vote that, while the Israeli authorities were busy 'whipping public sentiment into a white heat' against Jordan, it was equally possible that the murders had been carried out by vengeful 'Israeli Bedouin' or Bedouin from Israeli-Egyptian DMZ. The US embassy in Tel Aviv felt Hutchison's abstention had been 'reasonable' ... The Jordanians proved unable to trace the three named suspects by Israel. From the first, Glubb had been convinced that Jordanians were not involved. Rather he looked to Egypt for those responsible: ‘We have information regular armed parties from Sinai and Gaza Strip are committing terrorist acts in Israel. Some of these deliberately escape into Jordan after[wards]. ... Seems probable ... incidents may be organised by [ex-] mufti from Egypt. E.L.M. Burns, agreed with the assumption that the murders had been committed by Egyptians or persons under Egyptian jurisdiction. But there was no definite proof, he added. Possible proof of Egyptian responsibility surfaced during Israel’s brief occupation of Gaza Strip following the Sinai-Suez War. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post of 7 December 1956, the identity cards of the Ma'ale ‘Akrabim killers had indeed come from Egyptian-controlled territory rather than Jordan..."
- ^ Ohayoun, Meir (22 January 2007). "The blood bus returned to Scorpions Pass". Ynet (in Hebrew). Retrieved 8 December 2008.
- Morris, Benny (1997) Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-829262-7
- Hutchison E (1955) Violent Truce: A Military Observer Looks At The Arab-Israeli Conflict 1951–1955
- Political Affairs By Trade Union Educational League (U.S.), Earl Browder, Herbert Aptheker, Communist Party of the United States of America, Gus Hall Published by Political Affairs Pub., 1967
- Avi Plascov, (1981) The Palestinian Refugees in Jordan 1948–1957: 1948–1957 By Published by Routledge, 1981 ISBN 0-7146-3120-5
- Miri Furstenberg, (2018) The Girl From Scorpions Pass: Surviving a desert massacre was just the beginning, Amazon Digital Services LLC ASIN B0791B1MPQ