Bloc of resilience

Gush Etzion residents are adamant that they will not allow terror attacks to dictate the way they live.

Gush Etzion
THE HUMAN chain stretches two kilometers west from the entrance to the community of Alon Shvut, in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem, toward Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, the settlement of Bat Ayin and the sharp drop to the coastal plain – 2,000 high school students, mainly separated by gender and dressed in the “uniform” of the national-religious world: denim skirts and elbow-length tops for girls, knitted kippot and casual dress for boys.
There is nothing coincidental about the timing and location of the demonstration. The bus stop that marks the beginning of the chain is the site where 26-year-old Dalia Lemkus was stabbed to death on November 11 and just 300 meters from the spot where Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped and murdered on June 12. To mark the end of the week-long mourning period for Lemkus, a group of 11th grade students from the nearby Neve Chana girls high school proposed the event – not as a political protest, they insist, but as a display of unity and community strength.
To outside observers, there was little to distinguish the event from any other national-religious high school gathering. Along the route of the human chain, groups of smiling teenagers appear happy to have the morning out of class. Many carry Israeli flags; nearly all have tied blue ribbons on their wrists and wear new, white T-shirts declaring “With one heart we will continue to beat.”
Small groups break into song and dance, with celebratory words like “am yisrael hai ” (The people of Israel live!”) and “The eternal people are not afraid of a long road ahead.”
Others, more somber, link arms to sway together and also to sing. Their songs include a phrase from the Passover Haggada that notes “In every generation enemies will rise up to destroy us,” with a Divine promise to ultimately protect his chosen nation from harm.
BUT TUCKED away from the road, the rally is dotted with other small groups, mainly girls, locked in em - brace and sobbing as they consider the reason for the event. Moreover, the teenagers arrive at the event as details of the latest terror, a synagogue attack in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem that left five men dead, trickle in. With nearly all the students from Orthodox families, the reality of a terror rampage in the midst of morning prayers hits particularly close to home.
The mix of emotions on display neatly encapsulates life in the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion), a Jewish enclave in the West Bank located 15 kilometers south of Jerusalem. The area is steeped in the Israeli consciousness.
After the original pioneers settled the area long before the founding of the state, Arab Legion soldiers overran Kfar Etzion two days before David Ben-Gurion declared independence, massacring the kibbutz de - fenders after they had surrendered.
In addition, the area is considered one of the consensus areas most Israeli negotiators say will remain under Israeli sovereignty under any final-status accord with the Palestinians.
Furthermore, because of the area’s proximity to Jerusalem, the city is the main center of employment, culture and entertainment for the region. In that sense, residents view the Gush almost as an extension of Jerusalem, meaning that in the local mindset the recent spate of attacks in the capital are aimed not only at Jerusalemites, but also at them.
A large majority of the over 30,000 residents in the bloc of settlements comprising the main elements of the “Gush” are strong supporters of national-religious ideals, especially of the notion that the State of Israel and the military victories in 1948 and 1967 mark the beginning of God’s ultimate redemption. Many residents view their homes, not only in terms of the Jewish right to settle the heart of biblical Israel, but also as a holy task to shore up Jewish settlement all over the biblical Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria in the West Bank.
Many residents believe the existence of Jewish communities in the Gush protects the southern flank of Jerusalem, much as residents of Samaria north of Jerusalem argue that ceding those areas to Palestinian sovereignty would bring a rain of rocket fire on Ben-Gurion Airport and the entire metropolitan area of Tel Aviv.
Residents note that even prior to the abduction of Shaer, Yifrah and Fraenkel there had been a sharp rise of stoning incidents on the roads. Moreover, there is no way to overstate the trauma the abduction and murders had on the community. In an area where teenagers and adults alike rely on hitchhiking for transportation, both around the Gush and farther afield, the teens’ abduction was an attack on every family. During the 18-day search for the boys, every parent strained to suppress the nightmare not only of a terror attack, but that their child could simply disappear without a trace.
Later, during the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, the area suffered multiple rocket attacks from Gaza – a trickle compared to the barrages on Sderot and other communities close to the Gaza Strip – but putting the Gush in the line of fire as well as other parts of the country. Toward the end of the war, a 21-year-old resident of Efrat, Second Lieutenant Yuval Heiman, was killed in action. More recently, Yehuda Glick, the Temple Mount activist who was shot on October 29, is the brother of Dr. Yitzhak Glick, founder and medical director of the Efrat Medical Center and a frequent visitor to the area. Away from the headlines, arsonists have repeatedly set fire to fields near Kibbutz Kfar Etzion over the past several months.
The resultant tension is palpable in all core communities that comprise the bloc. People jump at the sound of ambulances, clearly au - dible from Route 60, the main artery through the area. At synagogues, pizza joints, Shabbat meals and playgrounds, security has once again become a central topic of conversation.
As at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, local email lists have become heavy with questions about obtaining gun licenses and the pros and cons of carrying a weapon.
A local martial arts teacher said he has had to add multiple courses to keep up with demand.
Educators and school administrators say discipline and violence issues have been higher during the current school year than they have been in more than a decade. Calls to ban Arab labor from Jewish communities have been on the rise, although local officials including Gush Etzion Regional Council Mayor Davidi Perl say such a move would be functionally impossible and counterproductive.
BUT RESIDENTS remain conflicted. Some, like Yitzhak Glick, have been involved for years in coexistence projects with Palestinian residents of neighboring villages and have used the current wave of violence to increase their efforts. Others note the involvement of local Arabs in terror attacks. “In 2002, it was a Palestinian construction worker, known to local residents, who attempted a suicide attack at a supermarket in Efrat [the urban center of the Gush, with some 9,000 inhabitants],” resident Bruce Abrams wrote on Facebook. “It was a regularly employed Arab equipment operator who first turned his bulldozer into a lethal weapon, killing three pedestrians in Jerusalem. This morning, one of the terrorists who broke into a synagogue, murdering five men, was a locally employed Arab grocery store worker.
“So when one of my neighbors calls for a ban on all Arabs entering our town, what should the response be? A plea for restraint and against racism? Recognition of reality? We have a responsibility to teach our children tolerance and not hatred, but also a responsibility to protect them. How do we reconcile these competing moral imperatives? Can they be reconciled?” Abrams wonders.
In conversations with the media, local residents stress the fact that previous rounds of Palestinian violence have forced residents around Judea and Samaria to develop a tough outer shell and they note that that the current round is far from the worst terror offensive they have faced.
There is plenty of evidence that despite the repeated attacks, the Gush is flourishing: the Gush Etzion Junction shopping center, near Alon Shvut, is thriving, with bakeries, health food stores, electronics shops, a Rami Levi supermarket and more – all of which are clearly busy, despite the fact that the bus stop at the junction has frequently been the site of Palestinian terror attacks.
“Thank God, I can say business is thriv - ing,” says Yitzhak Safdie, owner of the Nitzat Haduvdevan health food store at the junction and a resident of Alon Shvut. “Obviously, the retail business goes in waves – people don’t feel like spending money when they are wor - ried or feeling down, so there was a bit of a slowdown over the summer. But it wasn’t a sharp hit – after all, people still have to buy food – and all the businesses in the shopping center say they bounced back quickly after Operation Protective Edge ended.”
“Let me tell you two things,” Safdie stresses to The Jerusalem Report . “One, nobody lives in Gush Etzion for the financial benefits.
We live here for ideological reasons. I live in Israel because this is the greatest Jewish project in 2,000 years. That gives me incredible satisfaction.
“The second thing I would say is that even if I felt unsafe, what choice do I have? Where could I live that would make me safer? Har Nof? Tel Aviv? Paris? I grew up in Buenos Aires at a time when street crime was so bad you had to think 10 times before walking out of your house. You think the current round of violence has something to do with settlements, East Jerusalem or anything else? Don’t fool yourself. The day that Dalia was murdered, there was another fatal stabbing in the heart of Tel Aviv [of IDF Sgt. Almog Shiloni]. This is nothing more than the latest battle in the War of Independence. There’s a lot to be said for that,” Safdie said.
Around the bloc, in Efrat, the Gush Intersection, Bat Ayin and Neve Daniel, there are no fewer than 13 sit-down restaurants, a boutique winery and a relaxation center for IDF soldiers founded by local women following a string of drive-by shootings on the road to Jerusalem. The center is staffed wholly by local volunteers who also take care to stock the “club” with homemade cookies and cakes, as well as tea and coffee.
Still, one cannot escape the fact that the security situation is causing many people here to reconsider long-held community norms, most prominently hitchhiking. In the wake of the abduction and murders in June, and the subsequent revenge murder of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem the day after the boys’ funeral, many parents reined in or curtailed their children’s hitch - hiking over the summer, severely limiting holiday activities for teenagers. Most local teens, including this author’s sons, report that their restrictions on hitching have been lifted, or at least restored to pre-summer norms (one theme is that teens are permitted to hitch a ride out of their home communities, but must return home by bus). But the issue remains a hot topic.
“It’s a very difficult question, one that we have yet to answer conclusively,” Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi tells The Report. “Some people say that hitchhiking is somehow an indica - tion of Israeli sovereignty and of the strength of our communities, and they are adamant that we will not allow Palestinian murderers to dictate the way we live.
“ON THE other hand, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality. If the IDF does not allow soldiers to hitchhike any - where in Israel, we cannot pretend there is nothing dangerous about hitchhiking. I am 100 percent sure that Gilad, Naftali and Eyal got into a car that appeared safe to them – perhaps the killers were wearing kippot and listening to Israeli music, I don’t know. We have to be careful to never, ever suggest that they brought the abduction on themselves, but the issue of hitchhiking is one that we certainly should have to think about.”
Ultimately, Revivi says that residents of Gush Etzion have a long history of respond - ing to times of crisis with proactive initia - tives. There is no shortage of examples to cite to illustrate his point, such as the human chain or the relaxation center for IDF soldiers mentioned above. Over the summer, several IDF battalions were deployed in Gush communities during the search for the missing teens, and residents responded en masse to provide nightly barbecue dinners and entertainment for the soldiers. Revivi says the result was beneficial for the IDF – and for local residents.
“We didn’t plan it this way, but after the army called asking if Efrat could host some of the soldiers taking part in the search, people here focused their energies on making sure our soldiers had places to sleep, food to eat, and that their clothes were clean. At the time, it served a little bit to take our minds off the horrible situation, and it made us feel like we were contributing something, however little, to the search for the boys.
“Unfortunately, we all experienced the tragic end of the search, but the episode left an indelible impact on our community, in terms of national unity, of the phenomenal young people who dropped everything to search for three kids they’d never met, in terms of the phenomenal power of a Jewish People that is much greater than the sum of its various communities.The strength we garnered, as individuals and as a community, was much greater than the pain of the incident itself. It’s something we will take with us into the future,” concludes Revivi.