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The fraud of Gush Etzion, Israel's mythological settlement bloc

Destroyed by Arab armies during the 1948 War, Gush Etzion was repopulated after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Since then, successive Israeli governments have done everything they can to expand the area of the mythological bloc, while settling Israelis on privately-owned Palestinian land. 

By Hillel Bardin and Dror Etkes

Bulldozers in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. (flickr / ☪yrl CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bulldozers in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. (flickr / ☪yrl CC BY-NC 2.0)

All American children learn the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” at some point in their schooling. The story of the Alamo starts in 1836, when white colonists began settling in northern Mexico. They finally drove the Mexican army out, but the army eventually returned and slaughtered all the whites in the Alamo Mission, refusing to even take prisoners. The white army, infuriated by the slaughter of the heroes of the Alamo, returned with a taste for blood. They beat back the Mexicans and subsequently annexed all of northern Mexico, which then became the state of Texas – the largest in the contiguous United States.

Israeli children do not learn about the Alamo, but they do have their own heroes to remember. In the 1940s, four kibbutzim (Kfar Etzion, Masuot Yitzhak, Revadim and Ein Tzurim) were established southwest of Bethlehem in an area later designated for a Palestinian state by the 1947 UN Partition Plan. It turned out that their location was excellent for intercepting Arab military traffic between Hebron and Jerusalem, so the Haganah and Palmach (pre-state Zionist militias) sent troops and supplies to do just that in the last days of the British Mandate. The Jewish martyrs of Gush Etzion (including the 35 soldiers of the Lamed-Heh) are part of the Israeli pantheon of heroes. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion said that he could “think of no battle in the annals of the Israel Defense Forces that was more magnificent, more tragic or more heroic than the struggle for Gush Etzion.”

The first incarnation of Kfar Etzion. (photo: Zoltan Kluger/Israeli National Photo Archive)

The first incarnation of Kfar Etzion, before it was destroyed during the 1948 war. (photo: Zoltan Kluger/Israeli National Photo Archive)

While there was debate in 1967 over whether to settle in the West Bank, the resettlement of Gush Etzion was viewed by many Jews as a special case, which derived from the sentimental value over its fate in the 1948 War. On September 27, 1967, Kfar Etzion became the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and was re-established on its 1948 ruins. At this point it became apparent that using the name “Gush Etzion” allowed the public to overcome its general resistance to settling Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

This, however, led to the fraud of attaching the name Gush Etzion to areas that had no connection to the original group of settlements – a fraud that was officially endorsed by the Israeli government in 1980, when the military commander of the West Bank officially declared the inauguration of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. From then on, nearly every new settlement between Jerusalem and Hebron was considered to be part of the bloc. The area called “Gush Etzion” today is more than 30 times the size of the historic Gush Etzion.

An additional fraud was then introduced on a national scale. Legalistic arrangements were made in order to allow Israel to declare privately-owned Palestinian land “state land,”  which was then turned over to Jewish settlers for development. Although the decision was denounced by the international community as illegal usage of occupied territory, the state’s legal guile was accepted by Israel’s High Court of Justice, giving the green light for building settlements atop private Palestinian land. In this new and artificially-inflated Gush Etzion, thousands of acres were declared “state land,” and were subsequently used to establish dozens of new settlements around Bethlehem.

Israeli setters hitchhike at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, June 16, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli setters hitchhike at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, June 16, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This crawling land grab continues today. In late 2014, 1,200 acres to both the south and west of Bethlehem were declared “state land” in order to create an Israeli axis that would connect the eastern settlements of Gush Etzion to the Green Line. The expropriation of such a large area is expected to significantly increase the number of Israeli settlers in the area.

Elections in Israel are a time when politicians of all stripes, from Labor to Likud, declare their loyalty to the settlement blocs, and specifically to Gush Etzion. It is time to stop cooperating with Israeli propaganda, which tries to bestow upon every settlement that is falsely described as part of Gush Etzion the aura of the original Gush Etzion, as though it were more legitimate than all other illegal settlements.

Hillel Bardin is a retired computer programmer from Hebrew University, living in West Jerusalem. He is an activist in the Combatants for Peace’s Jerusalem-Bethlehem group, specializing in the issue of E-2 (Nahla).

Dror Etkes follows Israel’s land and settlement policy in the West Bank.


The lie of ‘state lands’: Whitewashing the confiscation of Palestinian land

The Israeli government’s election gift to West Bank settlers

Israeli government votes to support annexing West Bank settlements

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    1. Kolumn4

      Listen guys, you probably consider Tel Aviv to be only mildly more legitimate than Kfar Etzion, so your opinion on Gush Etzion is worth about as much to me as a Zimbabwean dollar. I am glad you found a foreign audience for your brand of nonsense though which allows you to get paid decent salaries. Best of luck!

      Reply to Comment
      • mt noise

        They’re like New Yorkers who can’t believe there is anything west of the Hudson.

        Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, Right

        K4: “Listen guys, you probably consider”…… followed by a whole heap o’ conjecture that oh-so-conveniently allows Kolumn4 to dismiss the author’s argument.

        Get it?

        K4 dismisses the argument *based* *on* a statement that he himself has made, but which he attributes to his opponent.

        Or, in short: a straw-man.

        Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      Just to flesh out a couple of things that could be misunderstood. All the survivors of the pre-1948 Gush Etzion were in other kibbutzim and moshavim by 1967, some bearing the same names as the original ones in Gush Etzion, although in geographical areas within Green Line Israel. The original Gush Etzion was, I was told by survivors themselves, on land that had been legally purchased.

      The myth is not a fraud. But it would have remained a myth (mostly for the modern Orthodox until 1967 rather than Israel’s population at large if truth be told), if post-1967 governments, with the wind in their sails from the conquest of East Jerusalem, hadn’t decided to use the relatively small, relatively legal area of the original Gush as a shoehorn to populate the bloated expropriated areas it gradually spilled over into. This with the help of the Modern Orthodox community which became increasingly Messianic, nationalistic and, unfortunately, violent, because of the conquest of East Jerusalem, Hebron and lands mentioned in the Bible, which they attributed to divine intervention.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      My fellow American taxpayers: How about one country, one vote for everyone between the Jordan and the sea, Lebanon and Egypt? And maybe an actual constitution? No more apartheid, no more home demolitions, no more theocracy. The Israelis can refuse the idea, you can decide to spend your money elsewhere.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Your fellow Americans do not want a common Union with Mexico, Latin or South America. Neither would they attempt to impose a common union on Israel with its enemies committed to its destruction and genocide of the Jews. Americans have and continue to overwhelming support Israel.

        Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Bruce, this is why I think it’s best for both countries in the long run that Netanyahu win. If Livni and Herzog win it will just put a cover over things. “Oh good, the two sides are talking again, let’s leave them be.” The talk will be endless. Again.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      Pedro: Nice to see that some things don’t change. You’re still an ignorant ass. The Americans do not overwhelmingly support Israel, and Israel loses more support everytime you, Netanyahu and other hasbaristas open their mouths. The slide has begun and will only continue and accelerate. Keep up the good work. By the way, I think that making Israel a partisan political issue will only help your cause. Along with your fixation on getting Americans militarily involved in a fight with Iran. I appreciate your assistance in spreading hasbara, it really does help.

      Reply to Comment
    5. ish yehudi

      mr hillel and mr dror, you forgot the earlier Jewish history of gush etzion in the modern era, in the 20s and 30’s… what happened then again?
      and don’t you think it important to point out that in ever negotiation between israel and the plo/ pa, gush etzion has been agreed upon as part of the land swaps? the declaration of state lands is a tricky issue because of the different perspectives on land ownership– and this issue needs lots of work throughout the west bank— but regarding the 1200 acres last year and the long standing plan to build a city stretching from g’vaot to bet shemesh— better that they build within the areas agreed upon as land swaps than taking new lands, no? maybe not ideal, but this matzav is far far far from ideal already.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Yeah, Right

      Just out of curiosity: why did the UN include that area in the territory that was allocated to the “Arab state” in the Partition Plan?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Richard Witty

      Gush Etzion is a very mixed bag.

      It is not one thing and not another. It is not a haven of religious Zionist thugs, as the kfar etzion residents are old kibbutzniks, sharing property, largely seeking co-existence with their neighbors.

      And, at the same time, in kfar etzion and surrounds, are some of the most vehement kahinists around, conducting price tag operations on people, property and fields.

      The Palestinians in the area are also a mixed bag, including communities that have founded the Palestinian portion of the bereaved parents groups, and activists like Ali Abu Awad, starting a Gandhi-like international peace community nearby, as well as die-hard Hamas activists.

      All having a great deal of communication at the petrol station and small shopping center at a primary junction.

      Gush Etzion was ethnically cleansed in 1948, and in that language. The nucleus of land was purchased in a consented exchange in the 30’s.

      Gush Etzion is the site of much discussion of the viability of pragmatic single-state integrated solutions, among those that are current or former enemies.

      It is also the site of harrassment by outsiders. The murder of the three western yeshiva students in June was at the Gush Etzion bus stop, conducted by Hebron residents (not far but not local either).

      Ironies abound. Many right and left pride themselves on their ability to create history.

      This is an opportunity to do just that in Gush Etzion, to make peace, on the ground, between real people.

      Reply to Comment
    8. ish yehudi

      Gush Etzion is s place– much like Richard described- where we Jewish and Palestinian people can show that respecting each other, working for and with each other can provide the ultimate model for how our peoples get off each others throats and stand together. We can stand together against violence, extremism and zero sum games. But not if we don’t listen and humbly recognize each others place here- both jewish and palestinian in the heart of the land… The paradigm outlined by the political leaders- of recognizing the Jewish peoples connection to the Land in places like Gush Ezion-which in its religious cloakings, points to a deeper acceptance of Jews as “from here” is a criical piece to building a lasting peace in the land. This detenta can empower and lead Jewish settlement leaders (Meimad was BORN in Gush Etzion) to make their stand against the extremist elements in their camp-and we can recognize the people to people connections- and stand together against injustices… don’t believe? too late…

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Thank you Richard and Ish for your nuanced comments on the subject – we need such voices more often to drown out the fanaticism of others.

        Reply to Comment
        • Baladi Akka 1948

          Yeah, isn’t that lovely.
          Richard Witty, an American Jew (everyone knows him from Mondoweiss before he was kicked out) hasn’t been to the Middle East more than twice, and that was more than 40 years ago. He’s so full of it, thinks he’s the new (internet) Gandhi all while supporting every fucking agression on Gaza.
          Why don’t you ask Palestinians living in the area what they think about Richard and Ish Yehudi’s “nuanced comments”. People who’ve had their fields destroyed by sewage dumped by settler thugs in the Gush Etzion area. People who’ve had their land stolen. You could start by people in Beit Ummar.
          How can you be so totally out of touch with how Palestinians see these intruders that you just buy what’s nothing else but Judeocentric navel gazing ?
          And why don’t you ask the two guys with the “nuanced comments” what they think about Palestinians returning to their rightfull homes and land within the State of Israel proper. Why not expand their ‘peace-and-love-among-good-neighbours’ to all of historical Palestine.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            Baladi Akka – My comment was an accurate one – I deliberately used the word “nuanced” rather than “balanced” or any other term – because it means a “subtle distinction or variation”. Of course both posters are Zionists, but these are important concessions from the standard dialogue voiced by “my country right or wrong” posters on this site. Witty, and I know him of old, admits that the area contains “some of the most vehement kahinists around, conducting price tag operations on people, property and fields” and that “activists like Ali Abu Awad” (a man deserving of enormous respect)started “a Gandhi-like international peace community nearby”. Both acknowledge the need to make peace, though of course without defining what that peace should exactly look like. We should applaud such sentiments when they are openly expressed especially when hell-raising fanatics on this site attempt to close down any reasoned discussion. Patiently exposing the bigotry of Zionism (as Bruce and Brian attempt to do) with reasoned arguments will achieve more than simply shouting at each other.

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            I do agree: exposing Zionism with reasoned arguments is the best thing to do. But telling people like Witty (the name fits him perfectly) that his comments are ‘nuanced’ is not part of that, in my opinion. But then again, I don’t care what a self-absorbed American Jew thinks about the situation. I care what the Palestinians living in the area think, and I guarantee you: none of them would think these are ‘nuanced comments’.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            My banning from Mondoweiss was an injustice, a censorship.

            I am a Zionist, in the sense that I believe that the Jewish people are a people, and require a home place to self-govern from.

            And, an “enough” Zionist, consistly advocating for the green line as border, not the wall, not Area C.

            I have “skin in the game”, in the form of my oldest son residing in Israel. I was in Israel for a week in early July, in which Hamas “thankfully” celebrated my son’s wedding with fireworks immediately overhead.

            The next day, I went to Gush Etzion, upon an indirect invitation by Ali Awad, and traveled with one of the progressive kibbutzniks in the area, met a number of Palestinians personally, including a price-tag victim.

            There is an irony in Gush Etzion and surrounds, which is that there is respectful contact between some settlers and some Palestinians, those that realize that they are both there, and that reconciliation is a better status than ongoing animosity.

            Both communities “feel” insulted, violated, harmed, targets.

            The craft is to actually make a different reality.

            Its been advocated for so long to oppose normalization until the politics are satisfying. (Oslo, very large obstacles – Hamas/PA infighting, Israeli division; BDS getting nowhere but with rage and violence)

            The hope is in the bereaved parents sentiments. “You are a respected and symptathizable human being. The repeated and repeated recent history is STUPID. We are here together and will be for a long time. Lets be good neighbors.”

            That is MY and many others’ commitment.

            Baladi. Your commitment? Or something else?

            Maybe you can be explicit.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            I stand by my comment that these two comments were “nuanced” compared with the standard fare we get on this site from Pedro, Ginger, Icat, Tomer, Baruch and other fanatics. I hope I am fully familiar with the injustices, past and present, inflicted on the Palestinians, but also the huge disparity in power between the two sides. Palestinians cannot end their own oppression, either by violent resistance (now largely abandoned) or by peaceful means (promising, but whose effectiveness depends directly upon the support of Israeli and international activists). Palestine has increasing support in the UN but this can achieve very little against the great power veto). The ICC route will be very long even if it is not completely frustrated. Justice for Palestine will come only when Zionism is discredited in the West and legal and commercial sanctions can bite, and for this to happen requires dialogue, constant activism, the pressure of a younger generation channeled through social media, etc. If you are a Palestinian nationalist who wants a resolution, you need to reach out to Americans, including Jews, who regard as immoral and wrong-headed the occupation, the wall, the torture, the house-demolitions, the targeted assassinations, the arbitrary detentions, the mowing of the lawn, the theft of land, water and resources, and the various other crimes. Thus i believe an attitude that says “I don’t care what a self-absorbed American Jew thinks about the situation. I care what the Palestinians living in the area think” will give you comfortable victim-hood, a strong sense of self-righteousness but no solution.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            Whereas I do believe that Palestinians can end their oppression by entirely non-violent means.

            My observation over a long period is that militancy cements the occupation in all its dimensions (denying self-governance to the residents).

            And, it imposes and implements an ideological basis of governance, rather than democratic self-governance, thereby proposing to replace one injustice for another.

            My understanding is that BDS is a component of the militancy that cements the occupation rather than changes it, that the only way to change the occupation is to change hearts and minds, NOT external force.

            Reply to Comment
    9. viktor arajs

      Justice will not occur until all of Gush Etzion is consigned to the bullodzer.The tacky disneyland of Tel Aviv and West jersualem should be bulldozed too. Then the zionist settlers can form a startup nation in Belarus and Brooklyn

      Reply to Comment
    10. Mikesailor

      Since Gush Etzion seems to be the Zionist version of Shangri-la (for it is not bound by earthly boundaries but as an idea far, far away), then if Jews are allowed to claim it because they were forced off by Jordanians, then neither Ish nor Witty could possibly object to Palestinians reclaiming their property from which they were expelled. Whether in Israel or in the territories. Otherwise both Witty and Ish would be racist hypocrites, wouldn’t they? Come on the both of you, why don’t you answer? How do you show “respect”, by taking another’s land and building upon it? Scratch a “liberal” Zionist and find the racist underneath.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Yoni

      Somehow, the fact that the land had been purchased in 1925 by Zikhron David, a private Jewish land holding company, never seems to make its way into the commentary.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Jim Hale

      What is Palestine?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Bob Johnson

      You neglected to mention that the Mexican government set aside the Mexican constitution and courts and its congress passed a law signed by the President of Mexico. This allowed the Mexicans to murder Texians even when they surrendered as the Mexican Army swept through Texas. Hence the Goliad and Refugio massacres. Note that both anglos from Germany and the U.S. and mexicans fought against the tyranny of the Mexican Government in the war for Texas independence. The real reason for the war was that Mexico became alarmed and decided to commit genocide when it learned that white immigrants outnumbered Mexican immigrants by 3 to 1, although it had encouraged immigration in the past.

      Racism is evil whether it be directed at whites, browns, yellow, blacks, hebrews, palestinians, or arabs. People who claim someone is racist today are often the racist. Just look at the U.S. today and the loud cry of “racism” when you disagree. The Democratic party voted against the civil rights acts of 1866, 1875, and 1964. It was Democrats, being out of power, who created the KKK and put up statutes of civil war heroes. (Maybe the DNC should pay reparations to blacks!)

      When will it end? Perhaps when each person looks at their own heart before God, looks beyond their own race to find neighbors, and becomes slow to speak.

      Reply to Comment
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