Gush Etzion is a group of Israeli settlements on the West Bank between Bethlehem and Hebron, about 950 meters above the sea level. It has a rich history dating from the 1920s and 30s to recent times. An area full of natural springs, green hills, desert views, amazing landscapes and unforgettable sunsets, besides a small population and an even smaller number of tourists.
Some attempts at Jewish settlement were made between 1927-1947 in the area, but during the Israeli independence war all the settlements were abandoned or destroyed. The renaissance began after the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israelis captured the area. A majority of the population is Orthodox (many of the smaller settlements entirely so), and the area is known in Israel for its high proportion of immigrants from English-speaking countries.
Gush Etzion lies along the Jerusalem-Hebron highway, on the beautiful mountains of Judea, surrounded by vineyards.
The settlements of Gush Etzion can be mainly divided into two groups:
- The main bloc, where the settlements of Bat Ayin, Alon Shevut, Kfar Etzion, Rosh Zurim, Elazar, Migdal Oz and Neve Daniel are. These are mostly small villages of 500-3,000 people each. Some are farming communities, while others are more suburban.
- The town of Efrat, an American suburb-style settlement with 9,000 residents. Like Amman, Bath, Istanbul, Lisbon, Moscow, Rome, San Francisco, Seattle and Yaoundé, Efrat is built on seven hills. The city is shaped like a snake, and has two entrances at its northern and southern edges.
Gush Etzion lies at an altitude of 900 meters (nearly 3,000 feet) above sea level. This makes its climate somewhat cooler and drier than most other places in Israel (but similar to Jerusalem, where the altitude is about 700 meters). Summer is hot but with low humidity. Winter is cool to cold and frequently rainy. Snowfall and below-freezing temperatures are quite rare, one or two days a year at most.
Although the official language in Israel is Hebrew, many people in Gush Etzion aren't fluent Hebrew speakers. English-speaking tourists have no problem speaking with Efrat's residents, since there are a lot of native English speakers. Even those who aren't will know sufficient English to guide you.
Aside from English, you might also bump into French and Spanish speakers.
Ben Gurion International Airport is Israel's main entry point for the international traveller. From the airport, the cheapest way to Efrat is to take the 485 bus to Jerusalem (see Jerusalem article), and then to take a local bus to Gush Etzion. If you have more money, then take a taxi from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion. If you have even more money, take a taxi directly from the airport to Gush Etzion. Hitchhiking (described below) can be difficult if you have a suitcase.
Trains come in hourly from across the country via Beit Shemesh to "Jerusalem - Malha" station. You can get off at one of two stops:
- Jerusalem-Malcha - the last station on the train line. Getting off here, you can walk to the adjacent bus stop, where all the Jerusalem-Gush Etzion buses stop (see below). If you prefer to hitchhike, take the 31 or 32 local buses to the trempiada (see below).
- Beit Shemesh - this can be quicker, because you avoid the slow (42 minutes long) but scenic ride through the mountains to Jerusalem. However, the only bus from here to Gush Etzion is the 409 which runs only 4 times per day in each direction.
There are numerous bus routes from Jerusalem (near the Central Bus Station) to Gush Etzion. They are generally armored, so you do not have to worry about possible sniper fire targeting Israelis in the West Bank. The fare from Jerusalem is always about ₪7. Some of the more important routes are as follows:
- 380/381/382 - runs down route 60 (the main north-south road in Gush Etzion and the West Bank as a whole) on the way to Hebron, stopping at each junction along the way. It is the most frequent route (several times an hour), and the fastest, if your destination is close to route 60. However, most places in Gush Etzion are not in walking distance. Efrat's southern entrance is 5 minutes walk from road 60, but most of Efrat is not within walking distance of the southern entrance. The only settlements that are adjacent to the road are Elazar and Alon Shevut.
- 361/362/364 - go into all the small settlements west of route 60. This can make for a long nauseating ride if you're towards the end of the route. Looking out the window rather than at your phone can help with the nausea. Frequency is about hourly.
- 367/369/377 - runs the length of Efrat. Frequency is about hourly.
Besides the Central Bus Station, these routes stop at the Malcha mall and the trempiada (the southernmost intersection before leaving Jerusalem, in the Gilo neighborhood, officially known as Tzomet HaMinharot) before leaving Jerusalem.
Until 2017, these routes had numbers in the 160s (such as 160 and 167), so don't get confused by references to the old numbers.
If you don't have a car, the fastest, cheapest and easiest travel option is hitchhiking, or in Israeli English, "to catch a tremp". Any time between 6am and 1am, you're likely to be picked up by a kippah-wearing, smiling nice guy which will take you for the 12-20 minutes ride to Gush Etzion.
The main hitchhiking hub is in the southern exit from Jerusalem, a place called "Tzomet HaMinharot", or informally the trempiada. Get on any Jerusalem local bus that reaches the Gilo neighborhood (buses # 30,31,32,71,72), and ask any of the passengers for directions to the Trempiada.
You will notice a large group of people waiting on the other side of the road. That's who you're looking for. The rule is first come - first serve, so don't push. On the other hand, don't be too soft. The tremps will stop in the bay, and the driver will announce his destination.
There are two entrances to Efrat, so drivers to Efrat will say which one they'll be entering from, the southern entrance ("Efrat Darom") or the Northern Entrance ("Efrat Tzafon"). Another common destination is Tzomet HaGush, the road junction at the center of Gush Etzion. From here you can get another tremp to a specific settlement, although many Israelis consider it unsafe to hitchhike here (in the past, it has been the site of kidnappings and shootings by Palestinians). But you don't need to risk this: if you wait a bit longer at the Jerusalem trempiada, someone will likely come for your specific settlement.
When you enter the car, say "Todah" (Thank you), buckle up, and switch your cell phone to vibrate. Try not to talk during the ride, unless the driver initiates the conversation - they might not enjoy a stranger's background noise during their daily commute. When getting off, make sure you took your belongings, and thank the driver once again. There is no need to pay him/her.
From Beit Shemesh, hitchhiking is easiest, but the 409 bus also runs several times a day.
Within each settlement, walking is the best option. The only exception is Efrat, which is very long and narrow, so hitchhiking or taking an (infrequent) bus may be more effective.
Between settlements, it is unsafe for visibly Jewish people to walk unarmed. Also, the distances between settlements are often large. Hitchhiking (from within a settlement) is a safer and faster option. The bus is even better, when it comes.
- Herodium - a hill shaped like a truncated cone (758 m. above sea level) built as a fortress palace by King Herod the Great.
- 1 Biyar aqueduct (On route 60 southbound, just south of the Elazar settlement). An underground aqueduct constructed by King Herod (2000 years ago) to bring water from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem. You can explore the aqueduct, but bring a flashlight and prepare to get wet and muddy.
- 2 Neve Daniel view (Mitzpor HaElef). Neve Daniel is the highest point in the Gush Etzion area. From the northern end of the settlement, there is an amazing view which stretches west to Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, east to Jordan, and north to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Of course, the air has to be really clear to see as far as Tel Aviv, so try to come here the day after rainfall, when all the dust has been washed out of the air. There are binoculars to aid your view.
- 3 Lone Oak Tree. A 700-year-old oak tree next to the settlement of Alon Shevut. When Gush Etzion was destroyed in 1948 and the residents expelled to Israel, this tree was the only remnant of their settlement. Former residents would gather periodically on the West Bank border to gaze towards the tree. After 1967, they fulfilled their dream of returning, and the tree is at the center of Gush Etzion once again.
- Gush Etzion Heritage Center (In Kfar Etzion). Visits by prior coordination. A memorial and sound and light show to the memory of the Gush Etzion residents who defended their homes in 1948.
- 4 Bubble House. A bizarre residential house where every room looks from the outside like a bubble or eyeball.
- Natural Springs All around the area, many people enjoy the natural springs Gush Etzion has to offer. Most popular springs are the Palestinian village of Ein Sajma (near Bat Ayin) and En Chaniya (on the road from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem via Wallajeh road). For more information- ask the locals!
- 1 Deer Land (Havat Eretz HaAyalim). Contains various attractions such as a petting zoo, climbing walls, bungee trampoline, paintball, and Israel's longest zip line.
- Caliber 3. A leading counter-terrorism and security training school. There are programs for tourists where you can learn counter-terrorism tactics, how to fire assault rifles and other skills.
- Gavna Restaurant In the forest near Bat Ayin, a dusty road (follow the signs) leads you to a nice wooden construction, built by two brothers from the nearby settlement. With an amazing panoramic view by day and a great atmosphere and music by night, this is a fantastic place (though quite expensive) to enjoy a good dinner.
Efrat has a range of basic restaurants: There are a few places to eat.
- Burgers Bar, which serves burgers and other meaty dishes.
- The Bagel Place, serving American style bagels
- Angel's, which is a bakery and coffee shop.
- Two different pizza Shops, offering pizza and ice cream.
- 1 Gush Etzion Winery (Next to Gush Etzion Junction ("Tzomet HaGush")). This winery is now well-known for its good products, and the restaurant besides has an ever-growing number of returning customers.
- Neve Efrat Hotel, ☏ .
- Never exit from a ride in the middle of the road. The only safe option is to exit inside a settlement, after you've passed the security checkpoint. The only exception is Tzomet Gush Etzion, where it's easy to take a ride to Kfar Etzion, Efrat, Alon Shevut or the southern side of the area.
- Don't enter a car while a person sits in the back seat, but you're being offered the front seat. Otherwise you may end up kidnapped by a militant group.
- Get to know the locals. They will tell you about the safest places to go, and will sometimes even take you to the tourist spots themselves. This will prevent you from strolling around and straying into a military camp.