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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Yochanan Ben-Yaakov doesn't remember his father, who was killed defending Kfar Etzion in 1948.
Nor does the silver-haired man recall the home there where he spent his first three years until he was evacuated with the other children, also in 1948.
But he has lived his life as if he had.
On the strength of his mother's memories and those of their friends and former neighbors, he was among the 15 young adults who resettled the religious kibbutz in 1967, three months after it was returned to Jewish hands in the Six Day War.
Here in the hills outside Jerusalem he has built his home and raised six children. While he remains confident that it will stay in Israeli hands, he participated Monday in an event initiated by the Religious Kibbutz Movement designed to tell the High Court of Justice that Jews throughout the country feel a connection to Gush Etzion, where close to 40,000 Israelis now live.
Heading into the 40th year of the resettlement of Gush Etzion, the Religious Kibbutz Movement had planned to hold a solidarity event there last April, in advance of a petition to the High Court regarding the security barrier's route there.
The Kibbutz Movement and Gush Etzion's leaders are concerned that if the court rules in favor of the petition submitted by neighboring Palestinians, it could endanger the area's future status, even though, according to them, there is a consensus among Israelis that the area should be included within the state's permanent borders.
The April event was canceled due to an outbreak of bird flu. Since then, the High Court has heard the petition and a ruling is pending.
The Religious Kibbutz Movement decided to hold the event on Monday, to celebrate the continued Jewish presence in the area.
Some 2,000 kibbutzniks came from all over the country to hike, visit the winery and listen to songs, skits and speeches at a closing ceremony in Kfar Etzion.
Speakers spoke of the 240 residents who were killed in 1948 and the growth that has occurred since Jews returned after 19 years of Jordanian rule.
Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, said he wished that those who lost their lives defending the area could return to see how it had blossomed.
Former MK Hanan Porat, who lives in Kfar Etzion and like Ben-Yaakov, was born there and returned in 1967, spoke of the need to prevent any further territorial withdrawal. He told the audience that there should never be another disengagement like the one in August 2005 when some 8,500 Jews were evicted from their homes in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.
Both Goldstein and Yair Reinman, the executive director of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, said that despite the support the Gush Etzion bloc enjoys from the public and the fact that the government speaks of retaining it in any final status agreement, they do not feel their future is totally secure.
Only last week, Kadima Minister Meir Sheetrit spoke of using the Saudi plan approved by the Arab League in 2002, which calls for a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, as a basis for talks with moderate Arab leaders.
"I fear parts of it [Gush Etzion] could be given away," said Reinman.
"I am not sure about anything," said Goldstein. "There is a fear that once one starts to surrender one will continue to surrender," he said.
Ben-Yaakov said he had faith that he was home for good after his family had endured so much both in Israel and in Eastern Europe.
Sitting on a plastic chair on a lawn filled with visitors, he described how his grandfather was killed in a pogrom when his father, Yaakov, was only three years old. As young adults, his father and uncle immigrated to Israel; the rest of their family was killed in the Holocaust, including their five sisters.
Instead the two men were killed in Kfar Etzion. Ben-Yaakov said that to keep his father's memory alive, he his took his first name as his last name.
Just like Diaspora Jews grew up on stories of Jerusalem and Israel, he grew up on stories of how he would one day return to Gush Etzion.
Now that the Jews are thriving here, it won't be given away, he said.
"I have a personal promise from [former prime ministers Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Rabin to that effect," he said.
He still trusts those pledges, he said.
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