The Etzion Bloc ("Gush Etzion" in Hebrew), which today consists of 18 communities and nearly 40,000 residents, is located between Jerusalem and Hebron. Because of its strategic location, the Bloc was heavily contested during Israel's War of Independence in 1947 and 1948. Although the area was not granted to Israel under the 1947 partition plan, the commanders of the Haganah considered it an essential buffer against a southern attack on Jerusalem.
In early 1927, a small group of immigrants from Yemen, along with a few ultra-Orthodox residents of what was then Palestine, established a community south of Jerusalem named “Migdal Eder,” named after a site mentioned in the Torah in Genesis 35:21. The community failed to flourish due to constant economic problems and tensions with the nearby Arab villages. During the Arab riots of 1929, Migdal Eder was destroyed. The residents were spared by the villagers of the neighboring Palestinian community Beit Umar.
In 1930, the site of the former Migald Eder was purchased by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman, who wanted to establish a Jewish community in between Bethlehem and Hebron. The word “holtz” in German literally means “wood,” which is translated into Hebrew as “etz,” so Holtzman named the community Kfar Etzion after his own name. Again, Arab riots, this time in 1936, demolished most of what Holtzman had built, and the violence forced the inhabitants out of the area. Jews finally did settle the area between 1943-1947, and established four small communities, which were all subsequently destroyed during Israel’s War of Independence.
At the outset of the conflicts in 1947, Gush Etzion consisted of four settlements: Kfar Etzion (the first settlement in the area, founded in 1943), Masuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim. On January 14, 1947, an army of more than 1,000 Arabs, led by Abdul-Khadr Husseini, attacked the settlements. While the 450 settlers were able to repulse the attackers, the settlements were devastated, in need of reinforcements, and vulnerable to a future attack. The Haganah sent a platoon of 35 soldiers from Hartuv, led by Commander Danny Mass, with medical supplies and ammunition. But reaching the Bloc proved difficult. On their first attempt, the soldiers were detected by Arab forces, and were forced to retreat. Before a second attempt could be fully organized, Mass pushed ahead without orders, and proceeded towards the besieged area.
While still on the way from Hartuv, the platoon was detected by the Arabs. With no way to call for assistance, Mass led his troops to the top of the highest hill in the area, and searched for cover. But the 35 were unable to escape, and they were massacred by hundreds of Arab militants. Their stripped, mutilated bodies were found the next day by a British patrol, but were not sent to Jerusalem because of a fear of retaliation.
Gush Etzion was again the center of conflict in May of 1948, when, for a period of three days, residents of Kfar Etzion were able to hold off a large Arab army headed for Jerusalem. Eventually, despite surrendering to the Arab army, 240 residents of the kibbutz were massacred, another 260 were captured, and the settlement was razed.
After Israel regained control of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in the West Bank in June 1967, a new initiative was launched to resettle the Etzion area. Several of the new residents of Kfar Etzion were descendants of the people who fought and died in 1948. Kfar Etzion was the first settlement established in the West Bank after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
The population of Gush Etzion in 2004 was, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 44,000 residents, which includes the 3,300 residents living in the other six settlements of the Gush Etzion regional council outside of the main bloc.
Communities in the Etzion Bloc