Gush Etzion (Hebrew: גּוּשׁ עֶצְיוֹן, lit. Etzion Bloc) is a cluster of Jewish settlements located in the Judaean Mountains, directly south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. The core group includes four Jewish agricultural villages that were founded in 1940-1947 on property purchased in the 1920s and 1930s, and destroyed by the Arab Legion before the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, in the Kfar Etzion massacre. The area was left outside of Israel with the 1949 armistice lines. These settlements were rebuilt after the 1967 Six-Day War, along with new communities that have expanded the area of the Etzion Bloc. The international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law, but the Israeli government disputes this. As of 2011[update], Gush Etzion consisted of 22 settlements with a population of 70,000.
The core settlements of Gush Etzion before 1948 were Kfar Etzion, Massu'ot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim, built on tracts of land purchased in the early 1920s. From November 29, 1947, Kfar Etzion was under siege and cut off from Jerusalem. On May 13, 1948, when the village surrendered, 127 Jewish inhabitants were massacred by the Arab Legion or local village irregulars or both.[clarification needed] The other villages surrendered the next day. The inhabitants were taken prisoner and the homes were plundered and burned.
The establishment, defense and fall of Gush Etzion have been described as "one of the major episodes of the State of Israel-in-the-making", playing a significant role in Israeli collective memory. The motivation for resettling the region is not so much ideological, political or security-related as symbolic, linked in the Israeli psyche to the massive loss of life in the Israeli War of Independence.
In 1927, a group of religious Yemenite Jews founded an agricultural village they named Migdal Eder (Hebrew: מִגְדַּל עֵדֶר), based on a biblical quotation (Genesis 35:21). The land had been purchased in 1925 by Zikhron David, a private Jewish land holding company  at a site between Bethlehem and Hebron that fell between the zones of influence of the local Arab clans. This early community did not flourish, mainly due to economic hardships and escalating tension with neighboring Arab communities. Two years later, during the 1929 Palestine riots and recurring hostilities, Migdal Eder was attacked and destroyed. Residents of the neighboring Arab village of Beit Umar sheltered the farmers, but they could not return to their land.
In 1932, a Jewish businessman of German extraction, Shmuel Yosef Holtzmann, provided financial backing for another attempt at resettling the area, through a company named El HaHar ("To the Mountain"). The kibbutz established there in 1935 was named Kfar Etzion, in his honor (the German word holtz means "wood", which is etz עץ in Hebrew). The 1936–1939 Arab revolt made life intolerable for the residents, who returned to Jerusalem in 1937. The Jewish National Fund organized a third attempt at settlement in 1943 with the refounding of Kfar Etzion by members of a religious group called Kvutzat Avraham. Despite the rocky soil, shortage of potable water, harsh winters, and constant threat of attack, this group managed to succeed.
Their isolation was somewhat relieved by the establishment in 1945 of Masu'ot Yitzhak and Ein Tzurim, populated by members of the religious Bnei Akiva movement and Religious Kibbutz Movement. Against the backdrop of an impending struggle for Israeli independence, the secular Hashomer Hatzair movement founded a fourth kibbutz, Revadim. A religious center, Neve Ovadia, was also founded by the bloc's members. By the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Etzion bloc numbered 450 residents and stretched over an area of 20,000 dunams (20 km2).
Civil war and Arab-Israeli War
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations approved the Partition Plan. The bloc fell within the area allotted to a proposed Arab state. The Haganah command decided not to leave the bloc. Arab hostilities began almost immediately, and travel to Jerusalem became exceedingly difficult. For five months the bloc was besieged, first by Arab irregulars, and then by the Jordanian Arab Legion. Throughout the winter hostilities intensified and several relief convoys from the Haganah in Jerusalem were destroyed in ambushes. For 47 days the armed conflict was intense. In January, the women and children were evacuated with British assistance. An emergency reinforcement convoy put together by the Haganah and attempting to get to Gush Etzion under cover of darkness was discovered and Arabs killed all its 35 members. Despite some resupply 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 Neve Daniel Convoy was ambushed on its return journey 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 Haganah forces, commanded by Uzi Narkiss, 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.
Gush Etzion massacre
On May 12, the commander of Kfar Etzion requested from the Central Command in Jerusalem permission to evacuate the kibbutz, but was told 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. On May 13, a massive attack began, involving parts of two Arab Legion infantry companies, light artillery and local irregular support, attacking from four directions. The kibbutz fell within a day; and the Arab forces massacred the entire population of Kfar Etzion, soldiers and civilians alike. The total number of dead during the final assault, including those killed in the massacre and those who committed suicide, was estimated to be between 75 and 250. Only three men and one woman survived. The following day, the day Israel declared its independence, the three other kibbutzim surrendered. The Arab Legion took 320 persons as prisoners of war and held them in Jordan for a year before releasing them.
Interim period (1949–1967)
In May 1948, the women and children evacuated from the bloc before the battle were taken to the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem. In June 1948, when the road to Jerusalem was opened, they were moved to Petah Tikva for two months. The refugees lived at the Netzah Yisrael school until the school year began  and resettled in Giv'at Aliyah, a neighborhood in Jaffa organized like a kibbutz.
Four years later, the returning prisoners of war of the bloc founded Nir Etzion in the Mount Carmel area near Haifa. Nir Etzion sought to accept the majority of the bloc's children into it, but despite wishing to unite in a new place of residence, the issue of joining Nir Etzion was a matter of debate among the children, many of whom joined the Nahal military unit. The survivors of Masu'ot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim, and Revadim founded their communities anew in Israel proper.
The interim period saw the rise of two movements designed to commemorate the fall of Gush Etzion, through songs, poetry, prose and cultural activities. Both the land of the bloc, and the events that transpired there in the war of 1948, became sacred to the descendants of the original participants. Some compared the story of the yearning to return to the bloc to the story of the Jews yearning to return to the Land of Israel. For 19 years, some survivors would gather on the Israel–Jordan frontier and gaze at the giant oak tree there in remembrance of what was. They gathered again after each annual Independence Day ceremony. Poems and stories were written that humanized the lone tree. This was criticized by the novelist Haim Be'er, who called the bloc's settlement movements a "fervent cult" and compared them to the Canaanites.
As a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel controlled the area of the former Etzion Bloc. A loose organisation of Bnei Akiva activists, who later coalesced into Gush Emunim, led by Hanan Porat, whose parents had been evacuated, petitioned Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol to allow the reestablishment of Kfar Etzion. Among the supporters were Ra'anan Weitz, head of the settlement department in the Jewish Agency; minister of internal affairs Haim-Moshe Shapira; and Michael Hazani of the national religious movement. Supporters of the Allon Plan in the government were also in favor of settling the bloc. Eshkol was finally persuaded to give a green light to the plan. He was not decisive however, and the settlement movement did not immediately begin to build in the entire bloc, but only on the location of Kfar Etzion. Construction began in September, 1967. Since the government initially decided not to establish civilian settlements in the occupied territories, the settlement was falsely portrayed as a Nahal outpost. According to Ra'anan Weitz's plan, Kfar Etzion was meant to be one of three settlements in the new bloc, which also included Aviezer. A new middle village would be established on Jewish National Fund land purchased in the 1940s.
Weitz' plan of creating a line of settlements based on territorial continuity, however, had a number of opponents: the descendants of the original residents of the bloc and the settlers on the ground, the Religious Kibbutz Movement, and the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF surveyed the land and decided that, "Kfar Etzion B should be founded near the existing Kfar Etzion, and not near the former Green Line". This eventually was supported by defense minister Moshe Dayan, who envisioned five settlement points in the West Bank, one of them being the Etzion bloc. On September 30, 1968, the government gave permission to create a regional center and Hesder Yeshiva in Kfar Etzion, a major demand of the settlers and the final departure from the continuity plan.
In the same decision, the government appointed a committee for planning the settlement of the bloc. In accordance with the committee's recommendations, Revadim and the settlement of Rosh Tzurim were founded on the former site of Ein Tzurim in July 1969, and Alon Shvut in June 1970. Many other settlements and two municipalities (Efrat and Beitar Illit) have been founded in the area of the historic Etzion bloc, and its name was taken for the greater Gush Etzion Regional Council.
Today there is a museum about the history of Gush Etzion.
Here is a list of communities in modern Gush Etzion.
|Alon Shvut||1970||3,400||Communal settlement|
|Bat Ayin||1989||900||Communal settlement|
|Beitar Illit||1985||38,800||Independent municipality|
|Karmei Tzur||1984||700||Communal settlement|
|Kfar Eldad||1994||120||Communal settlement|
|Har Gilo||1968||570||Communal settlement|
|Ma'ale Amos||1982||270||Communal settlement|
|Neve Daniel||1982||1,883||Communal settlement|
Gush Etzion Junction
The entrance to the Gush Etzion bloc is the Gush Etzion Junction, which is located just west of the intersection of Route 60 and Route 367. The junction is located between Efrat and Alon Shvut and very close to Migdal Oz. It is the site of the Gush Etzion visitors' center, a gas station, an automotive repair shop, a Rami Levy discount supermarket, an electronics store, the Gush Etzion Winery (one minute towards Alon Shvut on the north side of the road), a bakery, natural foods store, eyeglass shop, clothing store and pizza / felafel / shawarma stands. Across the street are a nursery and car dealership. The junction is a popular hitchhiking post, both south to Hebron / Be'er Sheva and north to Jerusalem, as well as west towards Bet Shemesh and the coast) which has frequently been the site of attacks by Palestinians against Israeli citizens.
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