When I was in Israel for the summer in 1962 with a group of other American high school juniors, we were taken to a hilltop a little south of Jerusalem. The guide waved his hand at the desolate hills before us and told us the history of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc. The Gush was group of four kibbutzim that had been attacked by the Arabs several months before the end of the British Mandate. In April 1948 they were short of ammunition and other supplies to defend themselves. They called on the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish underground army, for help. The Palmach sent thirty-five young men from Jerusalem to take supplies and armaments to the besieged settlements. They were ambushed by the Arabs, killed, and their bodies mutilated.
The kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was captured on Iyar 4 and all the defenders killed by the local Arab fighters. The defenders of the remaining three communities in the Gush held out another day, until the British Mandate ended. At that time, the Jordanian Legion took over the attack. The Jews, surrounded and out of ammunition, surrendered to the Legion, knowing that the Jordanian soldiers would not murder them. They spent the whole War for Independence in prisoner of war camps in Jordan.
The story of the fighters of Gush Etzion made a strong impression on me. As a teenager, I and my friends were sure that Israel had no hope of ever regaining these areas. Jews would never live there again.
Five years later the Gush was in Israeli hands.
I’ve been to the historical museum at Kfar Etzion twice. A few years ago it was located in a small nondescript building. Photos of the area during the mandate period and the reestablishment of the Kibbutz after 1967 hung on the walls. A short documentary film, mostly in black and white was screened. It reviewed of the history of the area. The land had originally been bought by a European Jew to be used for agricultural settlements. The first Kibbutz established on the site in 1935 failed because Arab attacks. The second settlement, Kibbutz Etzion, was established in 1943, and was starting to grow by 1948. Three other settlements were also established in the area before statehood was declared. All facts, lots of maps, no emotion. I came away knowing more about the Etzion Bloc, but not feeling more connected to it.
Last year a new historical museum opened. The same photos hang on walls throughout the modern multimedia center. But a new video features actors portraying some of the early residents and defenders of the kibbutz. We see them struggling to build the kibbutz, deciding to evacuate mothers and children, fighting until the last day. I knew what was going to happen in the last video—the kibbutz would fall to the Arabs. Even so, I sat there watching it with tears in my eyes, hoping for a different ending.
History doesn’t change just because you want it to. The film ends with the fall of Kfar Etzion. When the lights go on, the screen rises, and visitors are invited into the next room, where a large hole in the floor
allows you to look into the bunker where the last defenders had held out. Yizkor plaques on the wall list the names of the residents of the kibbutz who had been murdered after they surrendered to the Arabs.
For nineteen years the area of Gush Etzion was part of Jordan. For nineteen years, every spring on the date the settlement fell to the Arabs, the survivors gathered on the hilltop just south of Jerusalem on which I had stood. The mothers and children who had been evacuated, all the widows and orphans, stood where they could see the top of the oak tree of Gush Etzion. They said the memorial prayers, many of them yearning to return to their former homes.
In June 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. Israel had spent the previous weeks begging King Hussein not to attack if (when) war between Egypt and Israel broke out. The King had agreed. But on the first day of the war, Egyptian President Nasser called King Hussein. He reported they were already winning. If Hussein didn’t attack Israel, Jordan would lose out when it came time to divide the spoils. So the Jordanian army attacked Jerusalem, and within a few days lost all of Judea and the Shomron.
The orphans of Kfar Etzion, led by 24-year old Hanan Porat, wanted to return to their homes south of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. The government had not yet decided how much of the territory to retain. But Hanan and his friends told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol they wanted to live in their old homes and pray where their parents had prayed. The Prime Minister gave them his blessing. Two days later the group of exiles from the Judean mountains returned to their home.
There wasn’t much to return to—the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings and uprooted most of the trees. But they rebuilt and replanted. More people joined them, and additional towns were established. Today, there are eighteen Jewish communities in the Gush.
I love driving through the area, looking at the towns and the lush farms. The soil and climate are perfect for wine grapes, and the neat rows of grape vines seem to stretch for miles. The quality of the grapes is reflected by the wines produced by several wineries.
The climate seems perfect for education as well. Numerous yeshivot have been established in the area. The oldest is Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, established in 1968. About 500 students in the Hesder program combine advanced religious studies with military service. Most of the larger communities in the Gush have a yeshiva– Beitar Illit, the largest town has 25 yeshivas of varying size.
Since the Oslo accords, the land in Judea, which includes Gush Etzion, and the Shomron has been designated as Area A, B, and C. The Jews all live on land classified as Area C, which is under Israeli civilian administration and security. A sizable Arab population in Gush Etzion lives in Areas A and B. In Area A, civilian administration and all security are provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Area B, the PA provides civil administration and Israel is responsible for security.
These areas are like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Even with a good map the only way to tell which area you are driving through is by looking for subtle clues. For example, black water cisterns are seen on the roofs in Arab communities; the roofs of houses in Jewish communities have white solar water heaters instead. Cars with white or turquoise PA license plates can travel all the roads. Cars with yellow Israeli license plates can only drive in Areas B and C. Roads in Area A have big red signs notifying Israeli drivers that entrance is both illegal and dangerous to their lives.
In 1950, the Israeli government established a memorial day for those who had died in the struggle for the State. David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, insisted that Memorial Day be on Iyar 4, the day Kibbutz Etzion fell. Today the day before Independence Day is still observed as a memorial to those who fell in all of Israel’s wars, as well as for victims of terror.
Almost fifty years after I first heard the story of Gush Etzion, I can sit under the 700 year old oak tree in Alon Shvut, and hear the story again. Today it is a better story because it no longer ends with defeat and longing for return. Sitting under the tree, I can remember my feelings as a teenager, my wish that the defenders of the Gush had been successful. As I look around, at the stone houses, the large Yeshiva and Herzog College on the hill, the playground, the vineyards and fruit orchards on the once barren hills, I still cry. It feels incredible that so much life has developed in area that was once forbidden to us.
Where exactly is the Gush?