Interview with Gush Etzion Foundation

gush-etzion-foundation

On Sunday, I spent much of the day in Gush Etzion, the most concentrated bloc of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Currently home to 20 communities, the area has over 75,000 Jewish residents and is located south of Jerusalem and north of Hebron.

The largest municipality, Beitar Illit, and second largest, Efrat, have about 40,000 and 8500 residents respectively. The twenty smaller communities receive municipal services and public funding through the Gush Etzion Regional Council (מועצה אזורית גוש עציון). While the Israeli government provides funding to the council as it does to each of the other 52 regional councils, the Gush Etzion Foundation collects private donations to address funding shortfalls and provide services over and above what the state considers necessary for the basic humanitarian services. Like the Golan Regional Council, privately collected funds contribute significantly to social, educational, cultural, and welfare activities run by in the Gush.

The foundation’s director, Shani Simkovitz, sat with me to discuss both the history of the Gush and its future. So first, the history: Modern Jewish settlement of this area began in 1927 with the establishment of Migdal Eder as a small farming community consisting of orthodox Jews. It was destroyed completely during the 1929 Arab riots and its population attacked and forced to flee. Jews returned a decade later to properties purchased by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman, who names the settlement Kfar Etzion, a rough translation of his family name. Jews again fled during the 1936 Arab riots and most of what they had built was again destroyed.

Between 1943 and 1947, Jews again returned to the area to settle what became known as the Etzion Bloc or Gush Etzion. The religious Zionist movement, Hapoel HaMizrahi, founded three kibbutzim: Kfar Etzion (1943), Ein Tzurim (1945), and Massu’ot Yitzchak (1945). This despite the area’s rocky and hilly terrain, poor soil, and remoteness from more well-established Jewish settlements and proximity to large Arab population centers in the pre-state period. Following on their successes, a secular kibbutz movement, Hashomer Hatzair, founded Revadim in February 1947.

For the religious settlers, they saw Gush Etzion as critical to bolstering the emergent Jewish state’s claim to Jerusalem. By developing Jewish populations which would ring the city, they, like the secular kibbutzniks, believed that their patterns of settlement would determine future political borders. Hashomer Hatzair was also motivated by an ideal of settlement of the land, but their political program was one of explicit binationalism. Its leadership saw settling in land surrounded by Arab villages not as strategic, but as a means to ensure that the two populations could not be separated in any political settlement. To the dismay of both movements, the United Nations Partition commission determined that the whole of the Gush was to be assigned to the proposed Arab state.

Its residents decided not to abandon their homes and the settlements suffered a five month siege at the hands of Arab irregulars and then the Transjordanian Arab Legion. In January 1948, most of the women and children of the bloc were evacuated. On 12 May 1948, the Legion broke through the defenses, killed twenty four of thirty two defenders at the old Russian Orthodox Monastery which served as a perimeter defense. On 13 May, they attacked Kfar Etzion and massacred 240 defenders leaving only thee men and one woman alive. Most of the inhabitants of the remaining kibbutzim were taken as prisoners of war and only released by Transjordan a year later.

Despite the massive losses suffered by the bloc’s defenders, it did succeed in long delaying a major Arab assault of Jerusalem. David Ben Gurion remarked following the war that if a Jewish Jerusalem exists today, it was because of the sacrifice of those who fought at Gush Etzion. In the 19 year period between the end of Israel’s War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War, former residents of the Gush would gather every Independence Day to commemorate the bloc’s fall and express their hope that they would someday return. Indeed, the first Jewish communities to be rebuilt in the West Bank following the war was Kfar Etzion, led by some of the grown children whose parents had died defending it. Many too became leaders of Gush Emunim.

Moving from the history of the area to political substance, I asked Shani why Israelis should be living in this territory. She responded that it is her belief that the Jewish claim to this space is, first and foremost, historical. The most important sites of Jewish history began in the area of the Gush (Judea), the “cradle of Jewish civilization. It is further notable for several key landmarks. The first, the Path of the Patriarchs (דרך אבות), weaves between the Judean hills and is popularly held to be the path by which the Patriarchs traveled between Hebron and Jerusalem. It follows the remains of a Roman highway built during the Second Temple period and has numerous archaeological ruins along the way. The second, Herodium, is a man-made mountain believed to be the burial place of King Herod and later used by Bar Kokhba as a headquarters in his revolt against Roman rule. It was just added to Israel’s list of national heritage sites.

Secondly, she cited a religious claim to the land. According to the Torah, those who support the Jewish people in the land will be blessed and those that do not will be cursed. The realization of Jewish national destiny, such a perspective holds, cannot be accomplished anywhere else in the world. Eretz Yisrael, she insists, is not up for bid or division and Judea and Samaria are inseparable parts of the whole of the country. While she does not believe that everything the state does is correct and that many reforms are necessary to make the country a better place, this will not be achieved through territorial partition.

This approach leads to her third, which is that Israeli control of the hills and mountains of Judea and Samaria are critical for Israel’s defense. Still today, Israel is engaged in a war for its survival which did not end in 1949, 1967, or 1973. Just as the Arab world declared that it would not accept the UN Partition Plan of 1947, demanding all or nothing, so too today does she believe that the surrounding Arab states and the Palestinians do not seek peace with Israel but its destruction.

As such, she cannot accept assessments which claim the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the expansion of Israeli settlements.  “Is it because of my little house on the prairie that there is no peace? No, it is because of my little house that we are surviving.” Pointing to the experience of the Disengagement from Gaza, she noted that this did not lead to a fundamental change in the Palestinian approach to Israel. Nor did Yasser Arafat accept Ehud Barak’s offer for a Palestinian state in 95% of the West Bank and Gaza in 2000 because he wanted it all.

Many Israelis today share this perspective. Indeed, as recently as October 2010, 80.4% of Jewish Israelis surveyed by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research noted their agreement with the statement, “The Palestinians have not accepted the Jewish State and would destroy it if they could,” while only 26.8% disagreed. Yet, this had not prevented a majority from supporting continued negotiations with the Palestinian Authority: 72.1% in support and only 25.8% opposed in the same survey in the same month. One plausible thesis is the fear that a large and growing Palestinian Arab population will make Jews a minority in their own state, forcing them to either give up Israel’s democratic or Jewish character.

As with many in the settlement community, Shani rejects this calculus. Pointing to the “Million Person Gap” study led by Yoram Ettinger, they dismiss such demographic alarmism as premature and far from empirically sound. The problem still remains of living in peace with Arab neighbors which Israel and Palestinians surely must do, partition or not. This, she asserts, is significantly less of a problem on a day-to-day basis than it is in the political arena. For instance, the Gush Etzion Regional Council engages in annual emergency drills to which they regularly invite the surrounding Palestinian villages to participate. Several years previously, they abstained while the next year they actively engaged. What changed? The prior year, they asked Ramallah for permission, which was denied, and the second year they chose direct cooperation with the Jewish communities for the advancement of mutual interests, ignoring the dictates of Ramallah.

Moreover, living in the relatively remote community of Tekoa on the eastern reaches of Gush Etzion, Shani insists that her town has always had good relations with its Arab neighbors. During the intifada, Gush Etzion lost 25 residents to terror attacks, including 2 young boys from Tekoa. Considering all this, they still have a positive relationship. The two communities mutually benefit from their interaction. The Jewish communities gain the employment of reliable manual labor and relatively inexpensive consumer goods while the Palestinian communities enjoy access to a much larger labor market able to pay them better than most employment available in Palestinian administered areas. They also attend each other’s family and community celebrations.

Asking her Arab contractor what he teaches his children about the Jews, she said that he says the Jews give us work and so we can eat. In this instance, mutual respect is the model behavior. Unfortunately this pattern clearly does not hold for everyone, but its existence at all, she believes, offers promise for coexistence in the future. In any case, the Palestinian Authority has moved to close off these relationships by passing laws which make it illegal for individual Palestinians to seek employment in the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria. More recently, they officially made the selling of land to Jews a capital crime.

Finally, no matter how opposed she and other residents of Judea and Samaria may be to territorial withdrawal, it is difficult to ignore that successive Israeli governments in the past two decades have been vocal about their willingness to evacuate territory for peace. So do they take Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech (14 June 2009) in which he declared support for a Palestinian state seriously? Absolutely not. It is a mistake for Israel to put all its bets on peace, while the state neglects issues of everyday survival and social welfare.

The Israeli government has a much longer history of supporting Jewish settlement in the territories than blocking it. Having provided tax breaks and benefits for the creation and expansion of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria as well as Gaza and the Golan, Jewish residents have the feeling that they are not only fulfilling their own interests by living here but those of the state. Moreover, while every government has come up with new terms for partition(withdrawal, disengagement, convergence), the fact of widespread Jewish life and settlement in the territories coupled with growing awareness of Jewish history in the region has blocked further serious withdrawals.

Of course, many in the settler camp, reject this assessment. The examples of Homesh, Amona, and other smaller scale Israeli military dismantling of Jewish outposts have stoked a greater militancy among anti-withdrawal activists to block such actions. I raised the example of Netzer, where Women in Green activists have been fighting a daily battle to secure Jewish ownership of designated “state lands” from seizure by Arab farmers. Here a difference in philosophy and practical approach was clear. She is vocally opposed to the government’s policy of limiting Israeli settlement on the land, but it was elected democratically. While she respects their energy and commitment to Israeli sovereignty over the “whole of the land,” Shani believes it is critical to “play by the rules” and build and plant only where the state issues permits.

Although this is a struggle for land “all of which is ours,” if the struggle does not follow the law, chaos will replace it. A large protest was also recently raised over the demolition of a Jewish home in her own community of Tekoa. While she cannot condone the destruction of homes and displacement of families, and while there are many other homes which have been built without proper permits, the state chose to make an example of this one. This could have been avoided if building had been done by the book. And indeed, without a new building freeze in place, Tekoa is expanding housing on hundreds of lots with government approval.

Given the history of Jewish settlement of the Gush, broad popular support for Jewish return to this area post-1967, and a near consensus belief among Israelis that it will remain a part of Israel in any territorial compromise, the more moderate tactics used by the Gush Etzion leadership are hardly surprising. Yet even as the residents of Gush Etzion are generally considered to be much less radical and much more mamlachti than their counterparts in more remote areas, they, along with many Israelis outside the territories, share a belief that the land on which they are living is rightfully theirs.

The international conversation may be one of how to force, compel, or “encourage” Israel to withdraw from illegally occupied territories which must become a Palestinian state. Yet Israelis, particularly those who live in the territories, do not see these spaces in this light. To many, it is a security asset, a land in which they have poured their life and labor, and an inalienable historical birthright. If peace in the region is to be achieved, either on the basis of territorial partition or something more “creative,” and for it to be popularly accepted by Israelis as well as Palestinians, these narratives will likely need to be substantively acknowledged and incorporated into the discussion.

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