Undoing the myth of Israel’s flagship settlements

The settler movement likes to pretend its flagship settlement bloc, Gush Etzion, was built entirely on land purchased by Jews decades before Israel’s founding. History says otherwise.

By Dror Etkes

Israeli setters hitchhike at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, June 16, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Israeli setters hitchhike at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, June 16, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

During the years 1943-1948, four Jewish localities were established in the area located approximately six miles southwest of the heart of Bethlehem. On the eve of the 1948 War, there were several hundred residents, including children, living in these communities (Kfar Etzion – 1943, Masuot Yitzhak –1945, Ein Tzurim – 1946, Revadim – 1947). Prior to the establishment of these four localities, there had been three attempts to establish Jewish localities in the area, none of which succeeded. These attempts are described on the Gush Etzion Regional Council’s website:

On three recent occasions, Jews have tried to settle Mt. Hebron. They were greeted by a rocky, dry, hostile, stormy and snowy mountain. On three occasions they were uprooted from the land and then returned on the fourth. They – like the nation of Israel in its homeland; three times they ascended to Eretz Israel, struggled with its multitude of limitations, were uprooted from it, and returned and clung to it on the fourth.

The Jewish localities present in this area until 1948 were established on lands bought by Jews beginning in the second half of the 1920s from Palestinian farmers, mainly from the villages of Beit Ummar, Nahhalin, Al Jab’a, and Surif. A map I received from the Civil Administration reveals that the size of the area purchased by Jews prior to 1948 in the area south and southwest of Bethlehem is approximately 10,500 dunams (an Ottoman unit of land; four dunams are approximately equal to one acre).[1]

Over time, with the occupation of the West Bank by the Jordanian army, these four localities were conquered and destroyed. In September 1967, a few months after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the settlement of Kfar Etzion was founded, the first settlement to be established in the West Bank.

The Gush Etzion Regional Council was established by military order in 1980, and its spokespeople invest considerable efforts in the attempt to convey to the Israeli public and to the world the impression that this settlement movement is a continuation that draws from a “unique consensual legitimacy” in that the settlements in its boundaries were established on lands purchased by Jews. Mythology is one thing — facts, another.

Suffice it to say in the present context that the official area of the Gush Etzion Regional Council is now seven times larger than the area purchased by Jews in this area prior to 1948. The regional council includes today approximately 20 settlements and a number of outposts, the overwhelming majority of which were established on lands that were never purchased by Jews. The mechanism that has enabled the establishment of these settlements is the takeover of lands that Israel uses in all other parts of the West Bank – a mechanism based on land seizure for ostensible security needs, expropriations for public needs, declarations of state land, and of course, countless pirate takeovers carried out against the law but enabled by the state turning a blind eye time and again, and sometimes, with its outright support.

It is sufficient to mention in this context that to this day, approximately 22,250 dunams of state land have been declared to the west and southwest of Bethlehem (the area customarily called Gush Etzion) and this, as stated, is in contrast to the 10,500 dunams purchased in the area by Jews prior to 1948. The process of declaring state land in this area began in the early 1980s and continued until 2014, in which 5,000 dunams of state lands were declared on two separate occasions.

In this appendix, we will focus on examining the history of the land of only of those settlements located in the western portion of what is defined today as the Gush Etzion Regional Council, which effectively includes all of the settlements west of Road 60, as well as the settlements of Efrat and Migdal Oz.[2]

In what follows, we present a summary table [3] and maps displaying the land history of each of these settlements. It is important to note that we received all of the information presented in these maps from the Israeli army’s Civil Administration under the Freedom of Information Law, and therefore, it should be viewed as official information:

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In contrast to the manner in which the spokespeople of the settlement movement seek to present matters, less than one-fifth of the de facto territory of all of the settlements in the area that is today called “Gush Etzion” is land that was purchased by Jews prior to 1948. The settlements in this area were established over the years, mainly through a combination of institutionalized and pirate land theft, just like in other places in the West Bank, and including: seizures for military purposes, declarations of state land and takeovers of private Palestinian lands whose owners are denied access to them.


[1] Included in this calculation is also the area of the Dheisha Refugee Camp, most of which was established on approximately 300 dunam purchased by Jews prior to 1948 and registered as absentee land during the period of Jordanian rule. This area is today located within Area A, which includes Bethlehem and nearby towns and villages.

[2] Efrat and Beitar Illit are the larger settlements, and therefore, they are independent municipal entities and not part of the Gush Etzion Local Council. However, since they are in this area, we have included them in the present appendix.

[3] In this table we did not take into account seizure orders in the settlements of Alon Shvut, Kfar Etzion, Rosh Tzurim and Efrat, which were established based on seizure orders that overlapped with Jewish land purchased before 1948 or lands later declared as state land. Mapping of the actual area of the settlements was carried out based on the distribution of construction, the route of the fence and the service roads of all of the settlements. According to the IDF’s Spiegel Database, the subsidiary of the JNF – ‘Himanuta’, claims that the land of Giv’at Ha-Hish was purchased. If the claim is true, the purchase in question is in any case relatively recent and unrelated to the land purchased prior to 1948.

Dror Etkes follows Israel’s land and settlement policy in the West Bank. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.