Thursday, February 19, 2009 News Item: “West Bank Settlement Gets Green Light for Major Expansion” — Ha’aretz, February 16, 2009

Efrat – That headline above now echoes around the world. Criticism from Al Jazeera was to be expected. Now come the attacks from Israel’s most rabid Jewish critics in the U.S., the same ones who opposed Israel’s operation in Gaza last month.

I live in Efrat, the community in question. I have no regrets about living in that “settlement” in the West Bank, even as the international fire and brimstone is unleashed after the barren 420 acres were declared public land eligible for Jewish housing.

The legal and bureaucratic decision has been working its way through the courts for years. That the decision came under the administration of Kadima’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak is sweet irony. Israel’s critics would have preferred the decision to have come down during a Netanyahu administration to give greater legitimacy to their dream of an Obama confrontation with Israel. In fact, there has been no criticism of the decision from Israel’s Left.

Without letting the facts interfere with his attacks, one of Israel’s nastiest critics in Washington, an official at the Israel Policy Forum, wrote, “Less than a month into the Obama administration, the settlers are sticking it to the new President by expanding Efrat. It’s a test for Obama and for Special Envoy George Mitchell.”

The History of Gush Etzion and Efrat

Efrat is situated in the Etzion Bloc on the road from Jerusalem to Hebron. The town is named for the Matriarch Rachel’s final resting place (Genesis 35:19), and her tomb is located a few miles to the north. When my wife and I considered moving here in the mid-1990s, I asked the opinions of two friends prominent in the dovish wing of the Labor Party, Yossi Beilin and Avrum Burg. They responded that they believed that Gush Etzion would remain within Israeli boundaries even after a territorial compromise. Burg quipped, “Anywhere Yitzchak Rabin fought in the 1948 war will stay in Israel.”

Parts of the Etzion Bloc were purchased by Jews 20 years before the State of Israel was declared in 1948. Kibbutzim were established, and when Arab militias and the Jordanian Legion mounted their military campaigns against Palestinian Jewish communities throughout the region in 1947 and 1948, the Haganah dispatched soldiers to hold the Etzion Bloc, a key position on the southern approaches to Jerusalem. Five months of siege and attacks against the Jews of the Gush Etzion ended with the massacre of 250 Jewish defenders on May 13, 1948. The Jewish communities were erased. The next day, the State of Israel was declared. Said Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, “… If there is a Jewish Jerusalem today…, the Jewish people owe their gratitude first and foremost to the defenders of Gush Etzion… “

After Israel captured the West Bank in June 1967, the children of Gush Etzion’s defenders returned. As a young rabbinical student, I spent a blustery Shabbat in the winter of 1968 in the remains of a Jordanian army Quonset hut being used as a yeshiva study hall and dormitory in Kfar Etzion. There were no other buildings standing from the Jewish communities. One oak tree remained – the “oak of return” or alon shvut. I once showed the oak to a group of Texas politicians. Upon hearing the story of the massacre and the return, one declared, “Why, this is your Alamo!” Today the modern Yeshiva complex in the community of Alon Shvut trains more than 450 students; more than 550 overseas alumni, mostly from the United States and who spent one or two years in the institution, have moved back to Israel.

Eventually 20 Jewish communities were re-established in the area.

Adjacent to Alon Shvut one passes several Arab houses and fields, still inhabited and cultivated by Palestinian Arabs who have legal title to the lands. It is likely that their parents and grandparents were involved in the massacre and ransacking of the original communities, but there they live and work.

A short distance away is the community of Elazar with some 400 families. It was founded in 1975, but it is named for Elazar, the brother of Judah the Macabee, who died in the nearby battlefield of Beth Zachariah 2,000 years ago. Part of the Channuka lore recalls Elazar’s brave and fatal attack against the Greek’s “tank” of the day, combat-trained elephants on which the Greek generals rode.

Route 60, the road connecting the Etzion Bloc to Jerusalem to the north and Hebron to the south, gives lie to the claim that Israeli roadblocks choke Palestinian travel and commerce. Every day we share the 40-mile-long artery with thousands of Palestinian taxis, trucks, buses and private cars shuttling between Bethlehem and Hebron and competing with Israeli drivers for the dubious honor of the most reckless. If only there were a checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem 10 years ago when a Palestinian terrorist launched a stolen five-ton truck into traffic and collided with my son’s Ford Fiesta with his four passengers. Miraculously they all survived, as did the terrorist who jumped out of the truck and fled back into Bethlehem. During the last intifada, Route 60 became a terrorist shooting gallery where Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli cars and buses, and several Efrat friends died in those attacks. A checkpoint at the end of route 60 at the entrance to Jerusalem was often the point at which suicide bombers were stopped before they could get on board crowded Jerusalem buses.

Arafat’s Thugs Poisoned Relations

Efrat’s relations with the neighboring Arab communities were friendly and cooperative until the late 1990s when Yasser Arafat’s security apparatchiks that he brought from Tunis and Iraq started throwing their weight around. Until that point, skilled subcontractors Mahmoud, Mohammed and Khalil were frequent visitors to Efrat, and the latter provided my family with firewood, raisins and olive oil. At his request, I’d bring him leather jackets, cameras and perfume from overseas – but only on condition that he’d order for his wife, as well. One day when cement was being poured at our house, my wife noticed that one Arab worker brought his six-year-old son. Concerned that he was going to be put to work, my wife asked his father why he brought him. “To show him good Jews” was the response, and, of course, the boy was stuffed with even more cookies.

Efrat set up a nursery school in the neighboring Arab village, and Efrat’s doctors treated local Arab sick. At the initiative of Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (pictured), a local Arab student was sent to medical school and a clinic was set up in one of the villages. Arafat, however, put an end to the cooperation. The clinic was burned, and $100,000 in medical equipment collected by Rabbi Riskin was rejected.

During the intifada two Palestinian suicide bombers were killed before they could blow themselves up in a local supermarket and medical center. Security fences were constructed; access to neighboring Palestinians was restricted. Nevertheless, Palestinian farmers still work their vineyards and groves located within Efrat. They have title to their lands, such as the very large plot across the road from my house. They could make millions of dollars for the prime real estate, but they will never sell: The Arab concept of “sumed – steadfastness” plays a role, as well as the death sentence awaiting any Palestinian who sells land to Jews.

In the late 1970s, Rabbi Riskin discussed his dream of establishing a community in Gush Etzion with Yitzhak Rabin. The original plan for Efrat was to build it closer to Jerusalem to help provide a buffer and security for the capital city a few miles to the north. But, as Riskin explained, the state lands on the hills to the south also needed to be populated; the more obvious section in the building plan, that area first approved by Rabin, could wait. That wait turned into almost 30 years, and finally, in recent weeks, approval was granted to begin planning. The approval was also conditional on clearing all legal objections raised by local Arab property holders. According to Israel’s Ha’aretz this week, eight appeals by Palestinians were rejected. A ninth appeal was accepted, and “the land covered by this appeal was consequently removed from Efrat’s jurisdiction.”

The charge that settlements such as Efrat are illegal under international law is viewed here as part of the war against all of Israel’s legitimacy. Why should a Jewish community, built on Jewish land in the real “Bible Belt,” be less legal than Jewish communities built in pre-1967 Israel? Indeed, in the eyes of many Arabs and Palestinians there is no difference, and both are “cancerous cells of infidels.” The call for a “freeze” of settlement growth as demanded by some in the international community simply makes no sense to residents in communities like Efrat. I have married children in Gush Etzion with burgeoning families who need kindergartens, playgrounds and health clinics. The freezing of communities is, to paraphrase the 1960s slogan, “unhealthy for children and other living things.” Sorry, I cannot tell my pregnant daughters, “Freeze what you are doing!”

Gush Etzion is one of the “major population centers” in the West Bank cited by then-President George Bush in a letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 that would remain under Israeli control after a peace agreement: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 [i.e., the ’67 borders].”

The previous Olmert, Sharon and Barak-led governments tried to slow settlement growth, but with little success. Not because of their lack of will, but because natural, organic growth is an irresistible and irrepressible force.

The growth of Gush Etzion in the 1980s and 1990s served all of the region’s people – Muslim and Jew. Jobs, healthcare and community cooperation projects took place – under the strict scrutiny of Israel’s supreme court. With the pending change of government in Israel, the growth will undoubtedly continue.