The United Nations partition plan for Palestine of November 29, 1947 placed the Etzion Bloc in the interior of the intended Arab state. Very soon fighting broke out in many parts of Palestine. The position of the Etzion Bloc on the important Jerusalem-Hebron road made it an important flash-point.
Throughout the winter hostilities intensified and several relief convoys from the Haganah in Jerusalem were attacked by Arab ambushes. In January, the women and children were evacuated with British assistance. An emergency reinforcement convoy attempting to march to Gush Etzion under cover of darkness were discovered and killed. Despite some emergency flights by Piper Cubs out of Tel Aviv onto an improvised airfield, adequate supplies were not getting in.
On March 27, land communication with the Yishuv was severed completely when the Nebi Daniel Convoy was forced to retreat back to Jerusalem. In the following months, Arab irregular forces continued small-scale attacks against the bloc, which the Haganah was able to effectively withstand. At times, the Jewish forces even ambushed Arab military convoys, (and, according to Morris, also Arab civilian traffic and British military convoys) on the road between Jerusalem and Hebron. The defenders of Gush Etzion and the central command in Jerusalem mulled evacuation, but although they had very few arms, a decision was made to hold out due to their strategic location as the only Jewish-held position on Jerusalem's southern approach from Hebron.
As the end of the British Mandate drew closer, the fighting in the region intensified. Although the Arab Legion was theoretically in Palestine under British command, they began to operate more and more independently. In March a Jewish convoy from Jerusalem intended to supply the Etzion Bloc was ambushed and 15 soldiers of the Haganah died before the remainder were extricated by the British. There were many similar incidents involving both sides. Starting early in May, the Arab Legion, together with thousands of irregulars who were mostly local Arab villagers began a series of massive assaults on the Etzion settlements. Haganah command in Jerusalem was unable to provide any useful assistance.
On May 12, the final assault on Kfar Etzion began with overwhelming force. The Legion had armored cars and artillery, to which the Jewish defenders had no effective answer. The commander of Kfar Etzion requested from the Central Command in Jerusalem permission to evacuate the kibbutz, but was ordered to stay. Later in the day, the Arabs captured the Russian Orthodox monastery, which the Haganah used as a perimeter fortress for the Kfar Etzion area, killing twenty-four of its thirty-two defenders.
When the hopelessness of their position became undeniable on May 13, the defenders of Kfar Etzion laid down their arms and attempted to surrender. The number of people killed and the perpetrators are in dispute. According to one account, the main group of about 50 defenders were surrounded by a large number of Arab irregulars, who shouted "Deir Yassin!" and ordered the Jews to sit down, stand up, and sit down again. Suddenly someone opened fire on the Jews with a machine gun and others joined in the killing. Those Jews not immediately cut down tried to run away but were pursued.
The Israeli histories of the Kfar Etzion massacre (such as Levi, 1986, Isseroff, 2005) note that the defenders had put out the white flag and lined up to surrender in front of the school building of the German monastery. There were 133 people there. After they were photographed by a man in a kaffiyeh, an armored car apparently belonging to the Jordanian legion opened fire with its machine gun, and then Arab irregulars joined in. A group of defenders managed to crawl into the cellar of the monastery, where they defended themselves until a large number of grenades were thrown into the cellar. The building was then blown up and collapsed on them. According to this reckoning, about 129 persons were murdered.
Only three of the remaining Kfar Etzion residents and one Palmach member survived. According to their own testimony, the circumstances of their survival were as follows.
A total of 157 defenders died in the battle of Gush Etzion (Levi, 1986), including those killed in the massacre at Kfar Etzion. About 2/3 of them were residents and the remainder were Hagana or Palmach soldiers.
On the following day, the Arab irregular forces continued their assault on the remaining three Etzion settlements. Fearing that the defenders might suffer the same fate as those of Kfar Etzion, Zionist leaders in Jerusalem negotiated a deal for the surrender of the settlements on condition that the Arab Legion protected the residents. The Red Cross took the wounded to Jerusalem, and the Arab Legion took the remainder as prisoners of war. They were later released.
The role of the Arab Legion in the massacre is still debated. There is no doubt that the Legion led the attack on Kfar Etzion (probably on the explicit orders of Glubb Pasha), and at least a few Legionnaires were present when the massacre began. Other than that, the most credible evidence is that of Eliza Fauktwanger, who said that the Legion officer who saved her life released all other wounded and were sent to Jerusalem. Glubb Pasha later denied that there had been a massacre at all.
The bodies of the murdered were left at the site of Kfar Etzion for a year and a half, until in November 1949, the Chief Military Rabbi, Shlomo Goren was allowed to collect their bones. They were buried in a full military funeral on November 17 in Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Their communal grave was the first grave in what is today the Military cemetery of Mount Herzl.
The Etzion Bloc became a symbol of Zionist heroism and martyrdom among Israelis immediately after its fall, and this importance continues. The date of the massacre was enshrined as Israel's Day of Remembrance.
The site of the Etzion Bloc was recaptured by Israel during the 1967 war. The children who had been evacuated from the Bloc in 1948 led a public campaign for the Bloc to be resettled, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol gave his approval. Kfar Etzion was re-established as a kibbutz in September 1967, as the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank after the war.