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March 7, 2023 3:40 pm

Remembering The Scorpion Pass Massacre of 1954

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avatar by Jacob Sivak


A view of the Negev Desert. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

March 17 this year will mark 69 years since one of the worst terrorist attacks on Israelis since the establishment of the State in 1948. Although I was only nine years old, this episode, called the Scorpion Pass Massacre, has a prominent place in my memory, perhaps because of the intense discussions it aroused in the Jewish community of Montreal that I was a part of, or perhaps because I was the same age as the Israeli boy who was severely injured. Or, perhaps it was the exotic name of the site of the attack, Scorpion Pass (Maale Akrabim).

The name obviously comes from the common appearance of scorpions (akrabim in Hebrew), venomous animals with two pincer claws and an articulated tail and stinger. Scorpions resemble crustaceans such as lobsters or crayfish, but are in fact related to spiders, mites and ticks. With an evolutionary history going back hundreds of millions of years, they were certainly around in biblical times. Maale Akrabim appears three times in the Tanakh (Numbers 34:3, Joshua 15:3 and Judges 1:36), as an indicator of the southern boundary of the Land of Israel.

The attack took place in 1954, when the population of Israel was 1.6 million and the southern port of Eilat, Israel’s only connection to the Red Sea, was a small development town with 500 inhabitants. As is true today, travellers from Eilat to central Israel could either fly (Arkia began flying from Eilat to Lod Airport, now Ben Gurion Airport, in 1950), or drive the 150 miles to Beersheba. In 1954 the drive to Beersheba was a lonely one that included a long and narrow grade with 18 hairpin turns, known as Ma’ale Akrabim. The ascent, about 60 miles south of Beersheba, is a 1000 foot escarpment that connects the Arava Valley of the south-eastern Negev to the central Negev plateau.

The attack was carried out in the middle of the day on an Egged bus (Israel’s largest bus company) containing 14 passengers plus a driver. The attackers shot at the bus as it was travelling very slowly around one of the hairpin bends, killing the driver. They then boarded the bus and shot most of the passengers. Eleven riders (ten passengers and the driver) were killed and three passengers were injured. One of the injured a nine year-old boy, Chaim Fuerstenberg, survived in a semi-conscious and paralysed state for 32 years, dying in 1986.

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Ephraim Fuerstenberg had been on vacation in Eilat with his wife Hannah and two children, Chaim, nine and Miri, five. Ephraim was killed first, then Hannah, who was raped and then killed. The two children were protected by the body of an Israeli soldier who threw himself on them as the attack began. When Chaim asked his sister if the attackers had gone, he was overheard and one of the assailants came back and shot him.

The tracks left by the assailants indicated that they came from Jordan, but the perpetrators were never identified. A safer more central route to Eilat was built as a result of the attack and today the pass is used for recreational purposes such as bicycle races

While the 1949 armistice agreements between Israel and her Arab neighbors ended the active shooting war between them, it didn’t stop cross-border attacks on Israelis from Gaza and the West Bank. Until 1967 and the Six Day War, Gaza was administered by Egypt and the West Bank, including the old city of Jerusalem, was governed by Jordan. For 19 years there was no occupation (and there was no Palestine). The Scorpion Pass Massacre was one of many attacks on Israelis that took place before the occupation. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists 55 deadly attacks between 1953 and 1966, refuting the charge that terror attacks by Palestinians are a result of the occupation.

Jacob (Jake) Sivak, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry, University of Waterloo, where he continues his research interests as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He has a lifelong interest in the history of the Jewish people.

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