Sunday, May 4, 2014

FROM THE ASHES OF THE ETZION BLOC    Nadav Shragai     5-4-14

"Queen has fallen," was the radio transmission from Aliza Feuchtwanger from the burning bunker at Kfar Etzion on May 13, 1948. "Queen" was the code name for the Etzion bloc. For about half a year, its defenders sacrificed their lives to hold their positions against larger and better-armed Arab forces, and on the verge of the war's end and the country's independence they could hold out no longer. "A desperate Masada-like battle is taking place in the village," Feuchtwanger told headquarters in Jerusalem in her final transmission. "The Arabs are everywhere. There are thousands of them." A few minutes later, she climbed onto the roof of the bunker and placed a white, blood-drenched sheet on the bunker's antenna to signal surrender.
The dozens of fighters who were still alive gathered in an empty lot adjacent to the school and old German monastery in order to surrender themselves and their weapons to the enemy, but their captors instead chose to slaughter them. Most were killed in a hail of bullets. A few managed to escape and survive. On that day, 127 fighters, men and women, some of them survivors of the Nazi death camps and ghettos, gave their lives. Only four, among them Feuchtwanger, lived to tell the story.
In total, 240 residents and fighters died in the battles for the Etzion bloc, of which Kfar Etzion was one of four communities at the time. Many of the fighters were taken captive by the Jordanians. The Knesset would subsequently make the fall of the Etzion bloc the date for Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. Few remember this fact today. The State of Israel rose amid the flames of the burning Etzion bloc. "Queen" fell, and a state rose.
Even fewer people remember that during the siege on the Etzion bloc, its defenders were not only busy protecting the communities, but also disrupting enemy movements toward Jerusalem. The Etzion fighters attacked enemy forces along the Jerusalem-Hebron road, the main artery connecting the Arab Legion and the armed gangs in Hebron to Jerusalem. Yohanan Ben-Yaakov, a researcher of the Etzion bloc's history, notes that at the beginning of May 1948, an Arab Legion officer fighting in the area said the Arab Legion had concluded that reaching and conquering Jerusalem would be impossible as long as the Etzion bloc remained in the way. The Etzion bloc, therefore, became the de facto forward position for the defense of Jerusalem, and essentially sacrificed itself so that Jerusalem could remain in Jewish hands.
David Ben-Gurion recognized this and would later write: "I can think of no battle in the annals of the Israel Defense Forces which was more magnificent, more tragic or more heroic than the struggle for [the Etzion bloc] …If there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of [the Etzion bloc]."
Indeed, despite waging a battle for their very survival, the Etzion fighters also fought for the survival of Jerusalem. They captured outposts at the Russian Monastery and at Hirbet Sawir, laid mines and roadblocks, and ambushed vehicles and Arab Legion convoys.
Moshe ("Mush") Zilberschmidt, the commander of the Etzion bloc who was killed in a battle for the Russian Monastery, coined the phrase that would guide the Etzion fighters throughout their ordeals -- "Netzach Yerushalayim" (Eternal of Jerusalem). One of his subordinates, who was also killed in the fighting, wrote the following last words to his loved ones: "I don't know if we will prevail, regardless our dear children will be free citizens in a free homeland, and for this we are prepared to fight ... this is Jerusalem's forward position. We are defending its walls."
In 1967, the descendants of the Etzion bloc defenders returned home. The second generation re-established Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and later Alon Shvut, Rosh Tzurim and Bat Ayin. Today, the Etzion bloc includes 20 communities that are home to some 20,000 people, alongside Efrat and Beitar Illit with their additional 60,000 residents. "The lone oak," a vestige of the original Etzion bloc, is no longer alone but remains a lasting symbol of its fight for survival to this day.
The residents of the Etzion bloc have done well to navigate themselves to the epicenter of Zionist consensus, which does not even consider relinquishing it again. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's holiday gift -- expanding its area by another 1,000 dunams (247 acres) -- is a more than fitting tribute to those who fought, died and rebuilt.