From the Archive: Israel’s first West Bank settlements

Julie Wiener

Kibbutz members working in the orchard at Kfar Etzion in 1947, before the village was destroyed by the Jordanians. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kibbutz members working in the orchard at the original Kfar Etzion in 1947, before the settlement was destroyed by the Jordanians. (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Israel provoked international criticism with the announcement that it was seizing almost 1,000 acres in the West Bank, a prerequisite for settlement expansion that prohibits Palestinians from using the land for building or agriculture.

The seized land is in the Etzion bloc, the region where Israel’s first-ever post-Six Day War settlement — Kfar Etzion — was built. The bloc, known in Hebrew as Gush Etzion, had emotional resonance because it had been the site of four Jewish villages that the Arabs destroyed in the 1948 war.

Even before Jordan’s 1948 victory and subsequent 19-year rule there, the area had been the scene of some of the Israel-Arab conflict’s fiercest and bloodiest battles. A January 1948 Arab ambush of Kfar Etzion killed 35 Haganah members. Four months later, 100 residents of the settlement were killed in a three-hour bombardment by Arab artillery. And soon after, it was discovered that “all the inhabitants of Kfar Etzion, men, women and children, were killed after the [Arab] legion occupied the settlement after a three-day battle.”

Given the traumatic losses there less than two decades earlier, for many Israelis the decision to rebuild Kfar Etzion seemed justified. When Israel announced in September 1967 its decision to create the settlements, JTA’s headline was “Settlements at Etzion Jordanians Destroyed in 1948 to Rise Again.”

But, as with the land seizure last week, the move sparked criticism abroad. The U.S. State Department immediately condemned the decision, saying it was “‘inconsistent’ with Israel’s stated positions and in conflict with American policies.”

Israel nonetheless forged ahead with development plans in Gush Etzion, and in July 1969, a new settlement was inaugurated at the site of Ein Tzurim, “a settlement which was overrun and destroyed and its residents taken prisoner by the Jordanian Arab Legion in the 1948 War of Independence,” JTA’s article noted.

Although unable to attend the inaugural ceremony, Deputy Premier Yigal Allon sent a message in which he emphasized that “we are back to Gush Etzion not as conquerors but because this is part of our forefathers’ land.”

Just as last week’s land claim adversely affected area Palestinians, who are not able to use the land, the settlements in Gush Etzion negatively impacted Arabs, uprooting numerous Palestinian  families. On Dec. 16, 1969, JTA reported:

Eviction notices were served today on 45 Arab families living in the Kfar Etzion area near Hebron to take effect immediately after the current fruit-picking season. The order was originally issued last June for “overriding security reasons” but was postponed at the request of the Arab elders of Hebron.

The order amounts to the requisition of 300 acres of land occupied by five Arab clans. Part of the property originally belonged to Jewish settlers of the Kfar Etzion bloc from whom it was seized by the Jordanian Arab Legion during the 1948 war. The land was subsequently parceled out among the Arabs. It was recaptured by Israel during the 1967 war. The Arab farmers reportedly refused offers of compensation.

Julie Wiener is JTA’s online editor. Follow her on Twitter @Julie_Wiener