Despite its inevitability, it was the worst of all possible news today, from the West Bank, with the discovery of the bodies of the three yeshiva students not far from Hebron. Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaar had been last seen hitch-hiking from a Gush Etzion intersection. Israeli authorities had gotten a cellphone call from one of the panicked boys, but botched the response—and several have since been dismissed or demoted. Two Palestinians, associated with Hamas, are the leading suspects but have yet to be caught as the IDF and Israeli Border Police scour the West Bank. All hell is about to break loose.

Two of the students had been studying at the yeshiva in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Coincidentally, I’d been working on a chapter—hopefully, the last in my book—about my visit to Kfar Etzion in December of 2012. To put it mildly, I’d be struggling with this chapter. And avoiding it for as long as possible. Almost everything is controversial in Israel/Palestine. But the combination of religion and an Israeli settlement in the West Bank is doubly so. And yet Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and the people living there, represent to me the deep complexity of “The Conflict,” and how there are no easy solutions.

It’s also why, amid the unbearable sadness of the news—and what has already been a forceful and fatal Israeli military response to the original kidnappings—I don’t have time for the social-media posturing on either side of this deep divide. The tit-for-tat calls for revenge. The whitewashing of terroristic murder by a crude accounting of past deaths and historical injustices. Or the belief that the killings were inevitable, maybe even justified, because the students were living and studying on occupied territory.

A fact of the matter: Kibbutz Kfar Etzion is not going anywhere in any realistic peace agreement. (Even if the words “peace agreement” seem like a wild fantasy right now.) The settlement was built before the War of Independence, and fell on May 14, 1948, and 157 defenders of the village—all but four—were executed by Arab Legion and irregular forces. In 1967, after the Six Day War, the kibbutz was re-established, led by rabbi Hanan Porot, who had lived there as a child. Any peace agreement will likely draw its lines around the borders of the Etzion Bloc, just as negotiators must wrestle with what to do about Ariel, the city of 18,000 that squats in the centre of the northern West Bank and disrupts the contiguity of any future Palestinian State. 

Other Israeli settlements might get uprooted, like those in Gaza during the unilateral disengagement. But smart money says the Etzion Bloc and Ariel are there to stay. No kidnappings or murders will change that. No international BDS movement will convince the residents to move or the government to move them. Kfar Etzion will remain and must be reckoned with, realistically, in any debate about the future of Israel and Palestine. 

Eliaz Cohen (left), poet & peace-maker of Kfar Etzion

During my visit there, I spent the afternoon with Eliaz Cohen, a religious poet and social activist who lives on the kibbutz. He is as complex, if not more so, than Kfar Etzion itself, and I will save a full profile of Eliaz for my book. In an essay of his own, he once linked the revival of Kfar Etzion to the plight of the Palestinians: “The unique characteristics of the return to Kfar Etzion offer a preparatory model for returns yet to come—this time, perhaps, returns by Palestinians. In whatever scenario comes to pass … we must not allow further dispossessions of residents of this land, whether Jewish or Arab, anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

He also published a book of poems, translated into English, written during the worst years of the Second Intifada. I will quote at length from one poem called “News” to cast light on these days of darkness:

The news on the radio said
another terrorist attack at the Kisufim
and a woman met her death
(which until now was lost in the valleys)


they also said:
at the government meeting they will discuss the threat of earthquakes
(unaware that the earth is already trembling)


a wayward bullet is searching for its soft address
I saw a man seeking brothers all along the way
in the analytical mind a red light went on long ago
the weather will come in desolation and ruin


the sea will be calm when at length we reach it with depleted strength.
And that’s the end of the news.