Gush Etzion, West Bank — (JTA) — At a shopping center in the middle of Efrat, families eat pizza, a deliveryman unloads a cart and a barista serves coffee. On a passing bus, a banner reads “Gush Etzion – an Israeli home.”
In many respects it’s a normal, quiet Monday in this settlement that has grown into a large commuter suburb for Jerusalem.
At a nearby intersection, though, the calm feels absent. Israeli soldiers patrol the crossroads, and a curb usually crowded with hitchhikers looking for a ride is empty.
The June 12 kidnapping of Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel while they were hitchhiking from the area has upset life in the Etzion settlement bloc, or Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.
During the past week, Israeli residents say, life has felt more tense and their communities less secure. For a week following the kidnapping, Palestinians living in the area who work in Israel were unable to get to their jobs.
“I feel scared that there’s no security,” said Tali Ardani, 32, a supermarket employee in Efrat. “I didn’t feel like that before. I used to hitchhike at that very intersection.”
As West Bank settlements go, Gush Etzion – with Efrat at its center – is about as mainstream Israeli as it gets. The Gush Etzion area southwest of Jerusalem and Bethlehem includes 20 Israeli settlements and about 70,000 Israeli residents living among about 18,000 Palestinians.
Shortly after Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, settlements were established in the area. Some of the first residents were the children of Jews massacred after the Kfar Etzion settlement was seized by Arab forces during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
The settlement bloc has since become a collection of Jerusalem suburbs. It is widely expected to remain part of Israel under any peace deal.
Opponents of a Palestinian state also recognize the Israeli national consensus on the area’s future as part of Israel. In his proposal to annex vast swaths of the West Bank, Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has lobbied to start with Gush Etzion.
But the kidnapping of the teens has served as a harsh reminder to Efrat residents that they live in a conflict zone. Locals say that since the kidnapping, the number of residents trying to hitchhike here has dropped dramatically.