“Massacre that Marred the Birth of Israel” reads a headline in the Guardian, and your heart sinks. This is the last thing one feels like reading as Israel enters into forty-eight hours of commemoration, celebration, mourning, and remembrance; today is Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, tomorrow Israel’s independence day marking sixty-six years since the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Yet, on closer inspection the headline might be thought a little misleading.
This column by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont turns out not to be just another hit piece laden with the usual allegations of Zionist crimes against forlorn Palestinians. In a newspaper typically more inclined to give over its pages to stories about what Israel’s opponents call the Nakba—the catastrophe of Israel’s creation—it is rather disorienting, if refreshing, to find a piece so sympathetically recounting the macabre events of the Kfar Etzion massacre.
Supporters of Israel still regularly try to remind the world of how the surrounding nations attempted to strangle Israel at its birth, yet they rarely do so with any reference to the specifics. By contrast those seeking to paint Israel’s creation as the original sin of an illegitimate state have long been equipped with arguments provided by Israel’s revisionist historians, with their allegations of orchestrated ethnic cleansing on the part of the nascent Jewish state.
A closer inspection of the events as they actually unfolded reveals how Israel’s precarious war of independence was the culmination of an ongoing conflict which reached its most frenetic point as the British Mandatory forces prepared to pull out and the surrounding countries invaded in an effort to undo the United Nations’ decision to back the establishment of the Jewish state. Messy and disorganized battles followed as the ill-equipped Jewish forces—with their poorly trained ranks of newly arrived immigrants and holocaust survivors—tried to repel five invading armies.
Talk by Arab leaders at the time of “driving the Jews into the sea” has since been dismissed by some as mere rhetoric. The events at Kfar Etzion, however, should serve as a reminder of how things might have looked had Israel lost in its fight for independence. Beaumont recounts the massacre that took place on May 13, 1948 when Jordanian forces were responsible for killing some 127 Jewish captives who had been holding out in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Among this number were some twenty women who had been hiding in the cellar of the adjacent German monastery. Beaumont’s piece focuses on the story of Yossi Ron, whose parents Yecheil and Tzipora Rosenfeld, both Holocaust survivors, were among those murdered following the fall of the Kibbutz.
These events were in fact the second massacre involving Kfar Etzion. In January 1948 a convoy set out from Jerusalem to bring supplies to the four besieged kibbutzim of the Gush Etzion region south of Bethlehem. Their fate became apparent when the Irgun intercepted an Arab radio communication apparently celebrating some kind of attack on Jewish forces. All thirty-five of the young men in the group had been killed by local Arab villagers, many mutilated beyond recognition. What happened to this group was not unique for the time, with Jewish convoys often serving as easy targets. During the early stages of the civil war, many young people lost their lives accompanying convoys bringing aid from Tel Aviv to the desperately encircled Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And perhaps most shocking of all was the ambush of a Jewish medical convoy on its way to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus. Among the seventy-nine people murdered in that attack were doctors, nurses, patients, students, and a British soldier.
Beaumont’s piece notes that it was out of the memory of Kfar Etzion that the settlement movement would be born. The kibbutz was the first settlement to built after the 1967 Six-Day War when Hanan Porat and the other children of Kfar Etzion—who had been evacuated prior to the massacre—reestablished the community. Today the Gush Etzion region is one of the quieter parts of the West Bank and arguably one of the settlement movement’s greatest success stories. Its pastural landscape dotted with Kibbutzim, vineyards, seminaries, and a number of small towns has been envisaged as remaining part of Israel even by those proposing the most extensive Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
The easygoing Kfar Etzion of today is just one expression of the Israeli tendency to redeem sites of loss and tragedy with new life. With some 23,169 Israelis having fallen in combat in the course of Israel’s short history, and with another 2,495 civilian victims of terrorism, it seems unjust to highlight some cases over others. Yet while it may be surreal to be reminded from the pages of the Guardian of all places, the events at Kfar Etzion are a particularly harrowing testament of what could have been Israel’s fate, and of all that has been achieved instead.