Gush Etzion: Emblematic of Zionist History

Most Israelis, young and old, know only too well where the guilt belongs for the seemingly never-ending Jewish-Arab conflict.

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vigil rabin square
Most of our leaders are men, who decide when we next wage war, but we women pay the price. Vigil held at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found. June 2014Credit: David Bachar

The murder by two Hamas terrorists from Hebron of three Israeli youngsters – Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel – while trying to hitch a ride home after school should be seen as part of a long chain of murderous acts committed by Hebron Arabs against Jews in Palestine.

It began with the massacre of the Hebron Jewish community in August 1929. In a three-day rampage 67 Jews, men, women and children were hacked and knifed to death. These murders put an end to the Jewish community in Hebron, a community that had existed there since the Middle Ages. Hebron, the home of the Cave of the Patriarchs, was considered by Jews for centuries as one of the “holy cities,” together with Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, cities in which Jews coming to the Holy Land settled. After the massacre a Jewish community in Hebron was reestablished only after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Gush Etzion, a group of four kibbutzim – Kfar Etzion, Massu’ot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim – was established about 20 kilometers north of Hebron on the road to Jerusalem during the British mandatory period. To the Arabs of Hebron and the surrounding area they were unwelcome visitors. In November 1947, Ali Jabari, the mayor of Hebron, suggested that the Jews of Gush Etzion abandon their settlements for their own good, since the Arabs in the area had decided that they should be thrown out. From then Gush Etzion was isolated and besieged, and supply convoys from Jerusalem were ambushed.

On January 15, 1948 a group of 35 volunteers, boys and girls, students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, set out on foot from Har Tuv to reinforce the defenders of Gush Etzion. They were attacked by Arab militants along the way, fought until their ammunition ran out and fell. Their bodies were mutilated to such an extent that photographs of the bodies that were discovered later have not been released to this day.

On May 12, 1948, the British still in the country, Gush Etzion was attacked by Jordanian British-officered and equipped forces. Far superior in numbers and weapons, they overcame the defenders after three days. Over 100 of the defenders fell during the battle, over 100 were massacred after they had surrendered, and 320 were taken to Jordan as prisoners. The settlements were destroyed. They were rebuilt by the children of the original settlers after the Six-Day War.

One will have difficulty finding a description of these events, so emblematic of Zionist history, in Ari Shavit’s much acclaimed book “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, which purports to present a panorama of the Zionist endeavor. The 1929 massacre of the Hebron Jewish community does not even rate a full sentence, and is only mentioned as being part of a “short burst of violence.” There is no mention of the desperate combat of the legendary “convoy of 35” on their way to Gush Etzion, nor of the defense of Gush Etzion during Israel’s War of Independence and the subsequent massacre of those who surrendered. Gush Etzion is only mentioned by Shavit as having been “abandoned and destroyed in 1948.”

What receives pride of place in Shavit’s book is the battle for Lydda (now called Lod), part of the IDF’s “Operation Danny”, named after Danny Mas, commander of the “35” who led the group that rushed to the rescue of Gush Etzion. The operation began on July 10, 1948, almost two months after the armies of the surrounding Arab armies, in overwhelming force, invaded Palestine with the aim of the destroying the nascent Jewish State. At the time Israel’s fate still hung in the balance, as the IDF faced the Jordanian Arab Legion whose forces had established themselves in the Lydda area.

Ignoring the life-and-death struggle that had been forced on Israel by the Arab invasion, picking and choosing the facts which suit his narrative, Shavit concentrates on this particular battle of Israel’s War of Independence, and accuses Zionism of war crimes. “Zionism instigated a human catastrophe in the Lydda Valley,” he writes.

Shavit writes that since his youth he has been obsessed by an existential fear. He obviously feels guilt-ridden. Those abroad who read his well-written book should know that these feelings are not representative of the feelings of most Israelis, young and old. They are not afraid, and know only too well where the guilt belongs for the seemingly never-ending Jewish-Arab conflict. The murder of the three boys was a reminder to those who might have forgotten.