As the second week of the ordeal of the three Israeli teens kidnapped by Hamas terrorists begins, there were few signs, other than yesterday’s announcement of the names of two suspects, of progress in the search. But the indifference of much of the world to the abduction stems from the fact that the yeshiva to which the trio was hitchhiking is located in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion. But, as historian Benny Morris noted this week in Tablet, the notion that a resident of this community is an “illegal settler” contradicts history.
To most Westerners, the “West Bank” is a place where illegal Israeli colonies have been planted among Palestinians in order to rule over them. That this territory is the heart of the historic Jewish homeland to which Jews have legal, religious, and moral claims is something that is almost never discussed. But even if you wish to ignore the fact that the West Bank is merely disputed territory where both Jews and Arabs have valid claims rather than “occupied Palestinian land,” it is not possible to classify Kfar Etzion in that manner.
As Morris writes, the existence of what is known as the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem on the road between Bethlehem and Hebron predates Israel’s War of Independence. When war broke out in 1947 after the Arabs rejected the United Nations partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states, the Etzion bloc came under siege from Arab gangs and eventually the Arab Legion, the Transjordan army commanded by British officers.
Though the leaders of the Jewish state sought to reinforce the bloc, the settlements succumbed to Arab attack in the days before Israel declared independence. The battle cost the lives of 151 Jewish fighters (27 of them women), most of which, as Morris writes, were killed while surrendering or after they had surrendered. Both local Arab fighters and British-led Legionnaires carried out the massacre of the Jews.
While Palestinian Arabs have burnished the memory of the towns and villages they abandoned when their war of aggression against the Jews failed, they and their foreign cheerleaders have conveniently forgotten the fact that in some cases, it was the Jews who lost their homes. As with the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was similarly besieged and eventually fell, the survivors of Kfar Etzion were driven from their homes. But in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel came into possession of all of the Jewish heartland, the first request of many Israelis was to see the Etzion bloc rebuilt.
As such, the communities of Gush Etzion were Israel’s first West Bank settlement. But the notion that the people who live there on Jewish-owned land and in homes that were built on the ashes of those torched by the vandals who destroyed the place and killed its inhabitants in an orgy of anti-Semitic blood lust are “illegal settlers” is a hard sell even among left-leaning Israelis. When Israelis speak of retaining settlement blocs close to the 1967 lines they are speaking primarily of the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods that were built in Jerusalem and its environs after the war where hundreds of thousands now live. But they are also speaking of Gush Etzion, which came to symbolize both the heroism of the Jewish nation and its indomitable will to survive on its own land.
For Palestinians, the presence of any Jew in the West Bank (if not inside the 1967 lines) is both an intolerable insult to their national pride and an indicator of the theft of what they believe to be their country. That is why the majority of Palestinians has not only condoned terrorism against Israelis, but have cheered the abduction of the three boys. To them, the mere fact that they were studying in the Etzion bloc is a crime that renders violence against them an act that can be rationalized if not treated as a heroic endeavor. This is an expression not merely of Palestinian nationalism but of intolerance. But though violence against all West Bank Jews cannot be defended, the notion of treating the inhabitants of the Etzion Bloc as “illegal settlers” is particularly objectionable.
If the Palestinians wish to live in peace with Israelis, they must come to terms with the permanent nature of the Jewish return to the country and give up fantasies of Israel’s elimination. Even more to the point, if they wish Israelis to come to terms with the reality of Palestinian nationality, the abduction of the Etzion yeshiva students is a good occasion for them to stop ignoring or denying Jewish history.