Promoting Peace in Israel
What is the Gush Etzion settlement bloc?
The term “Etzion” is rooted in the name of the early settlement of Kfar Etzion (see below for details). "Gush Etzion" (literally, "Etzion Bloc") refers to the group of settlements located south of Jerusalem, between Bethlehem and the present-day settlement of Kfar Etzion. Most Israelis think of the bloc as a relatively compact area abutting the Green Line. However, in recent years the idea of the bloc has gradually expanded to include the large ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, to the north of the historical bloc, and the settlement of Efrata, located far from the Green Line on the east side of Route 60 (the primary north-south road running through the southern West Bank). This expanded bloc is more formally defined in the route of the Israeli security barrier. Notably, the inclusion of Efrata in the bloc means that a major section of Route 60 will be located on the Israeli side of the barrier.
The Gush Etzion bloc should not be confused with the territory under the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion regional settlement council, which includes far outlying settlements like Keidar in the north (located just south of Ma'ale Adumim), Asfar (a.k.a. Metzad) and Ma’ale Amos in the east (bordering the Judean Desert), and Karmei Tzur in the south (bordering the Palestinian town of Halhul). The territory of the Gush Etzion regional council thus extends from the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem to the northern outskirts of the Hebron suburb of Halhoul, and from the Green Line to the Judean Desert.
What is the special historic significance of the Gush Etzion area?
In January 1927, a group of ultra-orthodox Jews from Jerusalem, accompanied by a few Yemenites who had immigrated to Palestine for religious reasons, moved to an area south of Jerusalem. The small community was called “Migdal Eder,” named for a site mentioned in the bible (Genesis 35:21). This early community did not flourish, mainly due to economic hardships and escalating tension with neighboring Arab communities. In 1929 Arab riots broke out and the community was destroyed. The inhabitants of Migdal Eder were saved by the villagers of the neighboring Palestinian village of Beit Umar but were not able to return to the land they left behind.
In the early 1930s the land which had been the site of Migdal Eder was purchased by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman in order to establish a Jewish community in the area between Bethlehem and Hebron. Holtzman named the community “Kfar Etzion” (from his own name, Holtzman – in German “holtz” means “wood”, which translates to “etz” in Hebrew). This second attempt to establish a Jewish foothold in this area was once again derailed before any significant Jewish presence was achieved, this time in the course of the 1936 Arab uprising, which led the inhabitants of Kfar Etzion to abandon the area. Most of what Holtzman and his partners had constructed was subsequently demolished by the Arabs living in the area.
Jews again attempted to settle the area between 1943-1947, resulting in the establishment of four Jewish communities (Kfar Etzion, Ein Tzurim, Massu'ot Yitzhak, and Revadim). All four were destroyed in the course of the 1948 war, and the entire area came under Jordanian rule. From 1948-1967, the loss of the four Jewish communities of Gush Etzion was one of the most painful traumas in the Israeli collective memory.
Almost immediately after Israel gained control of the West Bank in June 1967, a new and successful initiative to settle the area was launched. In September 1967, Kfar Etzion became Israel’s first settlement in the newly-occupied West Bank. Among the group that founded the new Kfar Etzion were descendents of the people who fought (and many of whom died) in the area in 1948. They justified the establishment of the settlement on the argument that they had a right to return to land from which they had been violently uprooted 19 years earlier – a rationale that the government of Israel eventually accepted (even while denying any similar right of return to Arab civilians who had fled or been expelled from communities inside Israel during that same war). In this way, Kfar Etzion was not only the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank, but it was also the precedent for what would become the settlers’ favored – and highly successful – tactic: establish facts on the ground and then demand, and receive, government approval.
How many settlements are located in the Gush Etzion bloc?
There are 12 settlements in what is commonly known as the Gush Etzion bloc: Har Gilo, Neve Daniel, Keidar, Rosh Tzurim, El’azar, Migdal Oz, Alon Shvut, Kfar Etzion, Bat Ayin, Gva’ot (a military educational Nahal), Beitar Illit, and Efrata. Of these, Beitar Illit and Efrata are large settlements that, due to their size, do not come under the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion regional council (Beitar Illit is its own municipality, and Efrata has its own local council). As a military site, Gva’ot officially does not have any permanent residents (according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics). However, the Gush Etzion Regional Council lists Gva’ot as a separate “community,” home to 10 families and looking to expand.
Are there outposts in the Gush Etzion area?
There are eight unauthorized outposts – i.e., proto-settlements created without Israeli government approval, but often with Israeli government assistance – located within the Gush Etzion bloc. They serve mainly to create (or try to create) contiguity between existing settlements, as well as between settlements and the Green Line or the security barrier. These outposts are:
Bat Ayin West - between Bat Ayin and the Green Line
Bat Ayin East – between Bat Ayin and Kfar Etzion
Derech Ha'avot – “thickening” the area between Rosh Tzurim, El’azar and Neve Daniel
Givat Hadagan – northeast of Efrata, between Efrata and the security barrier
Givat Hatamar – north of Efrata, between Efrata and the security barrier
Givat Hahish – stretching Alon Shvut farther to the east toward route 60
Neve Daniel North – north of Neve Daniel
Old Massu'ot Itzhak – northeast of Bat Ayin. This outpost is listed on the official Gush Etzion website as a separate “community”
In addition, there are seven outposts located outside the bloc, in the outlying areas of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. These outposts are:
Ibei Hanachal – west of Ma’ale Amos. This outpost is listed on the official Gush Etzion website as a separate “community”.
Ma'ale Rehav'am – located far to the east of Tko’a, deep inside an area designated as a nature preserve. This outpost is listed on the official Gush Etzion website as a separate “community”.
Pnei Kedem – north of Asfar. This outpost is listed on the official Gush Etzion website as a separate “community”.
Sde Bar - northwest of Tko’a and Nokdim. This outpost is listed on the official Gush Etzion website as a separate “community” and has its own website.
Tko’a B+C – south of Tko’a
Tko’a D - south of Nokdim
Tzur Shalem – northwest of Karmei Tzur
How many settlers live in the area?
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, at year-end 2004, there were around 41,000 settlers living in the 11 settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc, and approximately 3,300 more settlers living in the other six settlements of the Gush Etzion regional council.
As noted earlier, the Gush Etzion bloc includes two large settlements that together account for more than half of the total settler population of the area. They are the ultra-orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit (with a year-end 2004 population of around 25,000) and the predominantly religious settlement of Efrata (with a year-end 2004 population of around 7500).
How many Palestinians live in this geographic area?
(Palestinian population figures are based on numbers provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.)
The Palestinian population of the Gush Etzion bloc itself (i.e., located west of the route of the security barrier) is 18,651 people, living in five villages. The Palestinian population of the larger area that includes all the settlements of the Gush Etzion Regional Council is around 230,000, and includes the large urban areas of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, as well as many villages and two refugee camps.
Is the settler population of this area growing?
Yes. The Gush Etzion bloc remains attractive to new residents, due both to its location (close to Jerusalem, to which it is connected via a system of roads and tunnels that allow settlers to bypass the heavily populated Palestinian areas of Bethlehem and Beit Jala) and the benefits that the Israeli government provides to settlers across the West Bank. In addition, many Israelis believe that Israel will never give up control of the Gush Etzion bloc - a belief that is reinforced by the route of the security barrier. As a result, the disengagement from Gaza does not undermine the attractiveness of the area.
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the population of the Gush Etzion bloc settlements increased by almost 3,700 new settlers during 2004. In absolute numbers of settlements, the most significant growth was recorded at Beitar Illit (an increase of 2094 settlers, or 9%) and Efrata (an increase of 446 settlers, or 6.3%).
In percentage terms, six of the Gush Etzion bloc settlements saw double-digit growth in 2004: the greatest growth was in Rosh Tzurim (35%, or 91 new residents), Kfar Etzion (30%, or 120 new settlers), Migdal Oz (27%, or 79 new residents), El’azar (21%, or 185 new residents), and Neve Daniel (20%, or 216 new residents), and Har Gilo (12.6%, or 46 new residents).
The settlement population is also expanding outside the bloc itself, with the greatest percentage growth for all the settlements in the Gush Etzion regional council recorded in Asfar/Metzad (41%, or 95 new residents).
Are the settlements in this area expanding?
Yes. In addition to the outposts (discussed above), physical expansion of the Gush Etzion settlements (infrastructure and construction of buildings) continues unabated.
In Beitar Illit, hundreds of apartments are currently under construction; Beitar Illit is presently one of the largest construction sites in the West Bank.
Large-scale construction (100-200 new units, mainly apartments) is also ongoing in Efrata, and at Neve Daniel work is being complete on a few hundred new houses and apartments, with preparations underway to begin additional construction.
A few dozen homes are currently being built both in Har Gilo and in El’azar (according to the regional council, the plan is to double the population of El’azar in the coming years). In Rosh Tzurim construction of a few dozen apartments has recently been completed and preparations are underway for additional construction. Smaller-scale construction (a few houses) is taking place in Keidar and Tko’a, and in the latter land is being prepared for additional new construction.
What about settlement-related infrastructure?
There are two major infrastructure projects currently underway in the Gush Etzion area – both taking place outside of the actual Gush Etzion bloc and for the exclusive benefit of settlers living outside the bloc and on the eastern side of the route of the security barrier.
The first is the Za'atra bypass, popularly known as the “Lieberman Road” (named for Avigdor Lieberman, a prominent right-wing politician who served as the Minister of Transportation in the first government of Prime Minister Sharon; Lieberman lives in the settlement of Nokdim, one of the primary beneficiaries of the bypass road). Probably the largest infrastructure project currently under way in the West Bank, the Lieberman Road is a multi-million dollar venture to carve a 10 km. modern highway through remote hills and mountains (requiring the construction of at least four bridges). The purpose of the road is to furnish a more direct route for around 2,500 settlers (living in Tko’a, Nokdim, Ma’ale Amos, and Asfar) to reach Jerusalem while bypassing Palestinian population centers. As is generally the case, the construction of the Lieberman Road has involved massive land confiscations from local Palestinian landowners. The Lieberman Road does include a few access points for Palestinians; experience has shown, however, that Palestinian access to bypass roads is often denied or so heavily restricted as to make routine use by Palestinians impossible. Moreover, even if they manage to access the road, most Palestinians do not have permits to travel to Jerusalem.
The second is a new access road for the isolated settlement of Asfar and its neighboring outpost of Pnei Kedem, which together are home to around 350 people. While this road has not yet been paved, work to carve the road through the area’s mountains has been completed. This very expensive new bypass road (the high costs are due to the rugged landscape, necessitating major earthmoving and shoring up of the slopes of the mountains) actually bypasses an existing bypass road that serves these two communities.
Where does this part of the West Bank stand in the context of final status agreements?
The Gush Etzion bloc is generally viewed as an area Israel would like retain under any final status scenario. This is due both to its unique historical/political status and to its location. While, with the exception of Beitar Illit, the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc are located far from the Green Line, the bloc is viewed by most Israelis as abutting the Green Line and relatively easy to include inside Israel.
During Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations that took place between 1999-2001 (including Camp David and Taba), all Israeli proposals left the Gush Etzion bloc under Israeli sovereignty. It is has been reported that the proposals put forth by the Palestinians in this period included seeing at least part of the Gush Etzion bloc annexed to Israel. The December 2000 final status framework proposed by then-President Bill Clinton included Israeli annexation of 4-6% of the West Bank; while the proposal did not specify where exactly these annexations should take place, it is generally understood that they include the Gush Etzion bloc. Similarly, in an April 14, 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, President George W. Bush implied that eventual final status negotiations over borders will need to take into account “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers [sic].” This comment was generally understood to refer to major settlements blocs, including the Gush Etzion bloc.
The Gush Etzion bloc has also figured into Track II agreements (i.e., model agreements negotiated by officials and experts acting in an unofficial capacity). The earliest model agreement negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement – which was negotiated during a period when the settler population of the Gush Etzion bloc was a fraction of what it is today – left the Gush Etzion bloc under Israeli sovereignty. Similarly, the most detailed public model for final status borders, outlined in the 2003 Geneva Initiative, designated most of the Gush Etzion bloc (but not Efrata) for Israeli annexation. The exclusion of Efrata was reportedly due to Palestinian insistence on maintaining control over Route 60, which as noted earlier is the primary north-south route for the southern West Bank.
What is the religious and political orientation of the Gush Etzion settlers?
(note: Voting percentages reflect results of the last Israeli elections.)
The ultra-orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit accounts for the majority of the settlers in the Gush Etzion bloc. As discussed in Settlements in Focus, October 2005, this community votes predominately for the ultra-Orthodox parties, with an increasing share of the vote (right now around 9%) going to the hard-line parties (Herut and National Union). The second largest settlement in the area, Efrata, is home to a mixed population of secular and religious settlers, including a high proportion of English-speaking immigrants from North America. Efrata is generally viewed as a settlement that attracts settlers who are somewhat ideological but also seeking a higher quality of life than they could afford inside Israel or than they would find in a more remote settlement. Efratra settlers vote primarily for the National Religious Party (34%), National Union (24%) and Likud (20%).
Of the remaining smaller communities located inside the Gush Etzion bloc itself, Kfar Etzion and Rosh Tzurim are religious communities whose inhabitants vote primarily for the National Religious Party and National Union. Keidar is a mostly secular community composed of Mizrahis (i.e., Jews from Arab countries) where there is strong support for the Likud. Likewise, Har Gilo is a mostly secular community which is home to strong support for Likud, but also for Labor (almost 20% in the last elections) and probably some of the strongest support for the dovish Meretz party in the West Bank (around 7.5% in the last election, coming from Har Gilo’s resident “pro-nature” community). In contrast, Bat Ayin is a stronghold of Jewish religious and political extremism, composed mainly of “born again” Jews who have come to the West Bank with a far-right ideological agenda. This is borne out in the fact that in the last election, 51% of the settlement’s votes went to Herut (a party that did not receive sufficient votes in the last election to get into the Knesset, and whose hard-line positions flirted with political ideas associated with Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach party). Bat Ayin is second only to the Nablus-area radical stronghold of Yitzhar in terms of support for the far right.
Looking outside the bloc to other settlements of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Asfar and Ma’ale Amos are ultra-Orthodox settlements. However, as noted in Settlements in Focus, October 2005, there is a trend of increased support for the hard-line parties in ultra-Orthodox settlements of the West Bank (as compared to ultra-Orthodox communities inside Israel). This trend is strongest, as one might expect, in the smaller, isolated ultra-Orthodox settlements like Asfar and Ma’ale Amos, where in the last elections the far-right parties claimed around 23% and around 14% of the vote, respectively (with the bulk of the remaining votes going to the ultra-Orthodox parties). Of the remaining settlements, Karmei Tzur is a religious community with strong ties to the mainstream settlement movement (the Yesha Council); its inhabitants vote primarily for the National Religious Party and the National Union. Tko’a and Nokdim are mixed religious/secular communities, with a high percentage of supporters of the hard-line radical right. Nokdim is also home to a relatively large number of Russian immigrants.
What is the economic basis of the Gush Etzion bloc?
As is the case throughout the West Bank, settlers living in the Gush Etzion bloc, as well as those in the more far-flung corners of the Gush Etzion Regional Council’s territory, receive substantial subsidies, tax breaks, mortgage benefits and other financial incentives for living in settlements.
As far as employment, the Gush Etzion bloc, as noted earlier, is located close to Jerusalem, facilitating commuting to jobs inside Israel. In addition, there is some employment inside the settlements (schools, services, administration, agriculture, small industry). There is also a small industrial zone east of Migdal Oz. As is the case with most industrial zones in the West Bank, there is little active or successful industry in this zone, and its primary purpose appears to be to expand the footprint of the settlers in this area.
In addition, the Gush Etzion settlements (like other settlements) actively raise funds outside Israel. The main fundraising arm for the entire area is the Gush Etzion Foundation, which raises tax deductible donations through its U.S. arm (located in Manchester, New Hampshire). Individual settlements also raise funds directly for their own projects. These include the settlement of Alon Shvut and its yeshiva, which raise tax-deductible funds via the Etzion Foundation, with its U.S. arm located in New York City. Similarly, a women’s school in Bat Ayin raises its own tax-deductible donations via an organization with a U.S. arm based in Aventura, FL; Tko’a raises funds on its own website, and Efrata appears to raise tax-deductible funds via The Central Fund of Israel, based in New York City.
How do these settlements impact the civilian/economic life of the Palestinians?
In its comprehensive study of the impact of West Bank settlements, “Land Grab,” the Israeli Human Rights group B’tselem notes (with regard to the Gush Etzion bloc):
“In terms of the ramifications of the bloc of settlements on the Palestinian population, this bloc also includes several of the main phenomena identified in other areas, from the blockage of urban development to the restriction of freedom of movement. The area of jurisdiction of the settlement of Efrata extends in a diagonal to the northeast over an area of approximately 6,500 dunam. The tip of this area touches the southern border of area A in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Al-Khader and Ad-Duheisha refugee camp – total 16,000 [as of 2002]), continuing along almost this entire border and completely restricting urban development in this direction. The town of Nahalin (5,500 [2002 data]) has effectively become a Palestinian enclave surrounded by settlements preventing any possibility for urban development. As in the case of the settlements in the Western Hills, the settlements in this bloc also create an obstacle separating the villages and towns of the Bethlehem area from the city of Hebron and its environs. As in the case of the settlements in the Mountain Strip, some of the settlements in this area also lie along Road No. 60, creating a bloc that controls a broad stretch of the road. As a result, the IDF extensively restricts the freedom of movement of Palestinians along the road, as it does in the areas of the settlements in the Mountain Strip.”
In addition, as noted earlier, the completion of the Israeli security barrier along its currently approved route will make a major section of Route 60 difficult or impossible for Palestinians to access, further isolating the major Palestinian population centers of Hebron and Bethlehem from each other and the villages of the area, as well as from Jerusalem.