Gush Etzion is a large collection of settlements in the Judean Hills, 15 minutes south of Jerusalem. Despite being ‘over the green line,’ there is almost universal consensus among Israelis that it is part of Israel and will remain as such under any possible future political arrangement. Why such a near-universal agreement on one group of settlements? It comes from a set of stories learned by every Israeli school-child, a story of the settling of the Land of Israel by Zionist pioneers in the early 20th century, of heroic battles to protect Jerusalem’s southern flank, the tragic massacre of the captured defenders, and the eventual return and triumph of their children and grandchildren.
Gush Etzion was not settled easily. Several attempts were made as the settlements were repeatedly destroyed by Arab rioters. The land for Gush Etzion was first purchased in 1925 by a Jewish company and settled two years later by a group of religious Yemenite Jews inspired to settle the land of Israel. They called their settlement Migdal Eder, ‘Tower of the Flock,’ after a verse in Genesis (35:21). After only two years at the site the 1929 anti-Jewish riots forced the Jews of Migdal Eder to flee to the safety of Jerusalem. In 1935 Shmuel Holtzmann funded another attempt at settling the area, which was named in his honor as the ‘Etz’ in Etzion comes from the German word ‘holtz’ which means ‘wood’ in English and ‘etz’ in Hebrew. Kfar Etzion was established as a religious kibbutz in 1935, but again was forced to disband by the Arab riots of 1936-39. One more attempt was made in 1943, finally taking hold and expanding to include four settlements by the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence in 1947.
Gush Etzion sits astride the mountain ridge directly South of Jerusalem. It straddles the ancient North-South road which served as the main Southern approach to Jerusalem from biblical times to the present day. This is the road that Abraham, Isaac and Jaacob walked on their way between Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer Sheva. In 1947 and 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, Gush Etzion stood as the only point of defense protecting Jerusalem’s southern flank from the Jordanian Legion. As such they were ordered to stay and harass Arab army traffic attempting to reach Jerusalem. This led to a five month siege of the kibbutz.
In January 1948, all the children and most of the women were evacuated with help from the British. On May 13th, after five months of siege and 47 days of active fighting, the small, isolated kibbutz finally fell to the well organized and equipped Arab legion. The survivors were lined up ‘for a picture’ outside the former German Monastery building and 139 prisoners were then massacred by the legionnaires. Fighters who surrendered from the surrounding kibbutzim fared better and were taken prisoner until the end of the war.
However, the children of the kibbutz, all growing up without fathers, continued to look to their former home which they could see from afar, able to make out a lone oak tree left on the barren hilltop. They dreamed of returning.
In September 1967, a mere three months after the territory was brought back under Jewish control in the Six Day War, the children of the fighters of Kfar Etzion, now in their 20s with families of their own, got the green light to rebuild their childhood home. Kfar Etzion was the first Israeli settlement established over the green line.
Since 1967 Gush Etzion has become a collection of 22 towns and over 50,000 Jewish residents. Today ‘The Gush’ hosts a plethora of tourist attractions. Some of the outdoor activities include beautiful hikes along the Path of the Patriarchs, Jeep and ATV rides, the longest zip line in Israel, and a walk in an ancient water tunnel which provided water to the Temple in Jerusalem. There are also archeological wonders such as Second Temple period mikvaot and the burial place of Herod the Great. The Gush Etzion Visitor’s Center in Kfar Etzion offers an excellent (if dated) audio-visual show telling the history of Gush Etzion, on the site of the final battle in 1948. There is also a world-class winery , an excellent micro-brewery and several great restaurants.
Given its history, one can easily understand how continued Jewish sovereignty in Gush Etzion came to be the consensus among most Israelis from across the political spectrum.