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By Larry Domnitch
In the winter of 1943 a decision made by a few idealistic and brave pioneers impacted the very future of Israel. In Kfar Pines, members of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, mulled over a recommendation by the Jewish Agency that they resettle Kfar Etzion; an abandoned Kibbutz located about two miles east of the Jerusalem-Hebron road. They all understood that the task at hand was immense. The area was isolated and heavily populated by Arabs, but they nevertheless courageously decided to take the challenge.
The hilly Gush Etzion region is located several miles south of Jerusalem near the city of Bethlehem. It was initially settled decades earlier, but efforts to populate the area with Jews were thwarted during Arab riots in 1929, and in 1936. Both times, the region was evacuated. This third return of Jews to the region was heralded by Jews throughout the Yishuv.
As expected, the conditions were rough but the young pioneers persisted and their ranks increased. By 1945, Kibbutz Massuot Yitzchak was established, named in honor of the chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog. Soon Kibbutzim Revadim and Ein Tzurim were established. Three of the four communities were religious Zionist, Ein Tzurim was composed of members of the HaShomer HaTzair youth movement. The communities were successful and by the Autumn of 1947, the region's Jewish population rose to 457. Once again, the Biblical hills which surround the "path of the patriarchs," were inhabited by Jews. However, the greatest challenges would soon emerge.
United Nations resolution 181 passed on November 29, 1947, provided for the partition of the Land of Israel but the proposed borders would exclude the Gush (bloc) Etzion region. In total thirty settlements throughout the land were affected by the vote and the city of Jerusalem was internationized and divided. As the rest of the nation, the builders of Gush Etzion celebrated the news, but had to face their own grim prospect being within the borders of the newly proposed Arab state. Despite the precariousness of their own situation, the Jewish agency's plan for them was to remain and they faithfully abided.
War was imminent as all attempts would be made by the Arabs to prevent the creation of the Jewish State. Due to its location within the boundaries of the newly proposed Arab state, and its proximity to Jerusalem, the Gush Etzion region was a priority target for Arab forces. Jewish convoys transporting supplies to the area were attacked. One attack near 'Neve Daniel' resulted in many casualties. By early January, most of the women and all the children of Gush Etzion were brought to safety in Jerusalem while the men along with soldiers of the Hagana prepared the defenses. All the settlements of the area were besieged, and they valiantly managed to repel the enemy. Thirty-five members of the Hagana en route to reinforce the settlements were detected and ambushed. They all fell in battle. Their names were immortalized as the 'thirty-five'.
The residents and soldiers were in a strategic location, but making their presence even more unwanted, they had obstructed the movements of the Arab Legion en-route to Jerusalem by firing upon their convoys. In order for Arab forces in the region to join the fight in Jerusalem, Arab the main road had to be clear and thus the Bloc had to be completely defeated. The Kibbutzim were under continual attack by forces under the regional command of Abdul Khader al-Husseini, brother of the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Thousands of troops from the Arab Legion along with irregulars launched repeated attacks upon the settlements of Gush Etzion. The defenders heroically managed to keep the enemy at bay. The defenders blocking of that main road linking Hebron, and Jerusalem, significantly contributed to vital victory in the Jerusalem Katamon neighborhood. Thousands of Arab troops were kept out of that battle. The last commander of the defense of Kfar Etzion, Moshe Silberschmidt, termed the mission, "Netzach Yerushalayim," Jerusalem Eternal. One of the defenders wrote in his diary, "our readiness for self sacrifice will preserve the six-hundred thousand Jews of this country."
The final Arab assault on Kefar Ezion began on May 12. The carefully planned attack severely weakened the Kibbutz's defenses as thousands attacked supported by heavy bombardments. Supplies were depleting, and manpower was short due to the many casualties. Attempts by the other settlements to come to their aid would not turn the tide. The prospects for the Gush Etzion bloc were grim, but their mission was clear and it was carried out to its utmost. On May 13, they received the following message. "The Provisional government and the entire Yishuv are following with awe and anxiety the unequal battle that is your fight. Your stand in previous battles has not only been glorious, it has helped directly and indirectly to save Jerusalem"
As the battle for Kefar Etzion waged on, its defenders could no longer hold on. On May 13, two days before Israel declared its independence; Kfar Etzion was forced to surrender. Yet, the white flag of surrender did not prevent enemy troops from continuing to fire upon Jews, adding to the Jewish casualty count. In the final two day battle, 151 defenders of Kfar Etzion fell, only a few survived. Following the surrender, a message was sent to Jerusalem "the queen has fallen." The day after the fall of Kefar Etzion, the other Kibbutzim of Gush Etzion also surrendered.
The Haganah radio station, Kol HaMagen HaIvri, reported. "Today at 1:00 a.m., the enemy took Kfar Etzion by storm. The defenders fought a courageous hand to hand struggle until they were overwhelmed."
The defenders of Gush Etzion selflessly took all risks to ensure that Jerusalem remain in Jewish hands. For the next nineteen years, the Jewish section of 'west' Jerusalem thrived while the Gush Eztion region was desolate and abandoned. Upon the ruins of Kfar Etzion, a Jordanian army camp was built. Only a memory remained of what was once established there. Yet that situation was only temporary.
As the Arab attack on Gush Etzion helped save Jerusalem in 1948, in 1967, during the Six-Day-War, the Jordanian attack on Jerusalem helped lead to its liberation. Despite pleas from Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol not to attack Israel, Jordan's King Hussein began shelling West Jerusalem on the first day of the war forcing Israel into another front. Two days later, on June 7, as victorious Israeli soldiers stood in awe at the Western Wall, the hills of Gush Etzion also were liberated giving the people of Israel additional reason to rejoice on that day.
The sons and daughters of those who had sacrificed all on behalf of Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, and the newly created State of Israel during those fateful days on the eve of Israel's independence, approached Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who gave his consent to rebuild Kfar Etzion. Just months later, the first families returned to celebrate Rosh HaShanah and officially reestablish the Kibbutz.
The sacrifices of Kfar Etzion's builders resonate today where thousands are living their dreams building their lives on the area's majestic hills which overlook the splendid city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel.
from the June 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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