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 courageously decided to accept the challenge.
The hilly Gush Etzion region is located several miles south of Jerusalem near the city of Bethlehem. Efforts to populate the area with Jews were thwarted during Arab riots in 1929 and 1936. This third return of Jews to the region was heralded throughout the Yishuv.
As expected, conditions were rough, but the young pioneers persisted and their ranks increased. Within a couple of years a kibbutz, Massuot Yitzchak (named in honor of Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog) was established, and others soon followed. By 1947 the region’s Jewish population had risen to 457. Once again, the biblical hills surrounding the “path of the patriarchs” were inhabited by Jews. The greatest challenges were still to emerge, however.
United Nations Resolution 181, passed on November 29, 1947, provided for the partition of the Land of Israel. But the proposed borders excluded the Gush (bloc) Etzion region. In total, thirty settlements were affected by the vote, and the city of Jerusalem would be internationalized.
Along with the rest of the nation, the builders of Gush Etzion celebrated the news of an imminent Jewish state – though they faced the grim reality that their community would be located within the borders of the proposed new Arab state. Despite the precariousness of their situation, they planned to abide by the Jewish Agency’s dictate that they remain where they were.
War appeared inevitable; the Arabs had every intention of attempting 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 regularly 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 Haganah, prepared the defenses. All the settlements of the area were besieged, but they managed to repel the enemy. Thirty-five members of the Haganah en route to reinforce the settlements were ambushed and killed. They were immortalized as the “thirty-five.”
The residents and soldiers obstructed the movement of Arab Legion forces en route to Jerusalem by firing on their convoys. In order for Arab fighters to join the fight in Jerusalem, 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 Arab Legion troops launched repeated attacks on the settlements of Gush Etzion. The defenders managed to keep the enemy at bay. By blocking the main road linking Hebron and Jerusalem, they significantly contributed to a vital victory in the Jerusalem Katamon neighborhood as 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 Kfar Etzion began on May 12. The carefully planned attack severely weakened the kibbutz’s defenses. Supplies were quickly depleted and manpower was short due to the many casualties.
As the battle for Kefar Etzion raged, its defenders found it increasingly difficult to hold out. On May 13, Kfar Etzion was forced to surrender. Yet the white flag did not prevent enemy troops from continuing to fire, adding to the Jewish casualty count. In the final two-day battle, 151 defenders of Kfar Etzion fell; only a few survived.