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In a Palestinian village somewhere between Hebron and Bethlehem, it was so cold and misty one day last month that you could barely see more than a meter away. It was as if the fog served as camouflage, a hiding place behind which a few dozen settlers and Palestinians were concealed. They had crowded together in the hall of a local school, ostensibly to talk about joint prayers for rain - which came even without the prayers - but in essence to talk about themselves. This time, for a change, within earshot of the other side.

It would be an exaggeration to say that brotherhood reigned in the school auditorium. Both sides spoke Hebrew, since most of the Palestinians work in settlements: one at the local council, another as a cleaner, a third as a veteran employee at a nearby yeshiva. When the son of the village elder complained that for 42 years they haven't been allowed to build even a wall, one of the settlers replied: "We're not being allowed to build, either."

"They're building everywhere in Kfar Etzion, in Elazar, in Alon Shvut," Muhammad, the mukhtar's son, responded politely, albeit without trying to curry favor. "Why not me? We see your children. My child asks: 'Why do the Jewish children have this and that, and I don't?'"

Similarly, the word "fear" held a double meaning at this session. "I don't want to be afraid any more," said Efrat resident Yael Goldstein at one stage of the conversation. Her two children took part in the meeting and introduced themselves in Arabic, which they are studying so that they can get to know the neighbors. "I want to pick up an Arab hitchhiker; I see them shivering from the cold in the rain, or in the summer, and I want to take them, but I'm afraid. What can be done so that I won't be afraid?"

"Why does a person have fear?" Muhammad answers. "You are afraid if you've done something wrong. If I haven't done anything bad, why should I be afraid?" Muhammad did not go into specifics.

No one dared that evening to outline the definitions of evil. "There were a lot of words that were not spoken," said Emily Amrussi afterward. She is one of the more familiar faces in the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria. At one time, Amrussi was the council spokesperson, but now she is a writer and journalist, and serves as a sort of "foreign minister" for the settlers. "The word 'occupation' was left hanging in the air, as was the word 'terrorist,' as were the words 'terrorist attacks.'"

"We looked the conflict in the eye," said one of the Jewish participants with unconcealed disappointment, "and then we looked away."

Two poles

It was hard to remain altogether cynical at the sight of dozens of settlers and Palestinians sitting close to one another, so much so that it was at times difficult to distinguish who was who. It was hard to remain altogether cynical when Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa said: "I am ashamed," after the hosts told how the poor-quality road they had paved in the center of their village had been plowed under by the Civil Administration, and said they were not permitted to build a minaret atop their small mosque. It was hard to remain altogether cynical when the poet Eliaz Cohen, who lives in Kfar Etzion, read the verse "Seek not in your hearts the misfortune of another man," from the words of the prophet Zechariah, above whose grave, according to Muslim tradition, stands the local mosque. There was not a bit of cynicism harbored by anyone who watched Rabbi Froman adjourning the meeting that evening with the words "Allah Akbar" accompanied by "May the Lord make peace," and bearded settlers spreading forth the palms of their hands in the Muslim prayer custom, repeating the words of the rabbi together with their Palestinian neighbors.

The meeting in the village, like the two meetings that preceded it, are the outcome of an initiative by a new group that has begun to form in the past few months among the settlers, known as Yerushalom. The group is headed by Shmulik Klein of Neve Daniel, Nahum Pachnik (of the "unlawful" settlement outpost Sde Boaz) and Eliaz Cohen. The group aims to carry on a dialogue with the Palestinians, religious at its root but political in its evolution. They believe that only a conversation held between these two poles, settlers and Palestinians, can bring about a sustainable peace, the kind that cannot happen under international threat or the terms of a UN resolution. The role adopted by the settlements in this discourse is to be "the fingers spread forth for peace," as Rabbi Froman is wont to say. Froman serves as the group's unofficial spiritual father.

Right now it is still a small group, whose members are trying to navigate their way through unmapped terrain - afraid, on the one hand, of what the settlement people will think of them. They fear being construed as traitors, of having a "pulsa denura" curse invoked against them (like a threat made to one member when she tried to publicize in the local newsletter the fact that the sessions were taking place). On the other hand, they are afraid that publicizing the meetings will torpedo them and panic the Palestinians. Therefore they have opted not to reveal the name of the village where the get-togethers were held, nor the full names of the Palestinians who have taken part in them.

Nevertheless these meetings, the attempt to encounter Palestinians on the other side of the road or the roadblock, seem to answer a real need of the settlers. It is no accident that a majority of the participants are young people, the second generation that was born, or at the very least grew up, in settlements. It is a generation that sees the state running away from it - with the separation fence, disengagement, Amona [an evacuated settlement on the West Bank] and the construction freeze - and realizes that the Palestinian neighbors are not going anywhere.

"Why am I drawn there?" asks Amrussi. She does not belong to the group, but ever since describing in her book "Tris" ("Shutter" in English) a meeting between two women, a settler and a Palestinian, has fantasized about such get-togethers. "I am looking for roots. I know with utter certainty that I am in my homeland, but the red roofs of the settlements are not enough to transmit the feeling that we are rooted here. The Palestinians are not just passing through. When I go into their homes it invokes in me a desire to connect. If only I could use them to put down roots. Not in the sense of exploitation. In the sense of something that would sprout, bringing new growth."

Members of the group, and the dozens of settlers who have taken part in its meetings, do not subscribe to any one political orientation. They want to defer talk of a political solution to a later stage. But the direction is clear: a binational state, which Eliaz Cohen openly preaches, and which even Amrussi prefers over the other options; or a Palestinian state in which the settlers will remain as citizens bearing equal rights, according to Pachnik, or even as people "under the protection of" - an idea attributed to Rabbi Froman during his contacts with Hamas.

Because of the Ashkenazim

What do you think of what Muhammad said to Yael, Pachnik is asked a week later - that anyone who has not done anything wrong has nothing to fear? "It is a beautiful and strong and correct statement," he answers without hesitation. The meeting still beguiles him, as if it lent validity to everything he has been ruminating over and sifting through for the past 20 years. "But all of us have done something not so good, not only the settlers. When he makes that statement, he doesn't direct it only at us, but also at the Palestinians, for after all, they are also afraid, right?"

Pachnik, who lives on the settlement outpost Sde Boaz, teaches his young daughters not to pick figs from the trees that are bursting with fruit only a few meters from their home, because we should not steal Palestinian property. "So there you have an example of my being a person of contrasts," he laughs. "I am teaching them this lesson while living on an illegal outpost; the State of Israel wants to evacuate me, they've issued a demolition order for my house, but I feel that I live there because I have the right to, I don't live there as an occupier. I also feel that every Palestinian has a place here," placing emphasis on the words "has a place here."

To drive home the point, Pachnik relates an incident that occurred last Ramadan, when he was driving to the outpost. An old Palestinian signaled for him to stop. He hesitated. "One voice inside me said: 'Why should you stop?' And another voice told me: 'Stop.' I stopped. When the Palestinian walked up, it turned out that he needed help loading his donkey with the grapes he'd been picking. Pachnik helped, and for his trouble received a few clusters of grapes, and a blessing for a "kareem Ramadan." Pachnik sees the episode as an example of overcoming the fear, hatred, and alienation.

"The hatred and the alienation are not a consequence of the occupation," says Pachnik "If this state had not been founded by Ben-Gurion and the Ashkenazim, but by the Sephardim, with their mentality, after having lived in Muslim countries, there could have been a wonderful binational state here and we would be managing to live with them in peace. It is easy to say that it's all because of the occupation. That let's you off easy, places everything into nicely organized categories. But that's not what it is. It's the fear that is eating us up."

Pachnik's parents are among the founders of Kiryat Arba, what he terms "the hard core of the settlers." A mother who survived Theresienstadt, a father who still holds onto his American passport, and an impressive family tree. He is attracted to Tel Aviv "because I also have liberal genes inside me," but unflinchingly guesses that the neighborhood in which our conversation takes place in the northern part of the city is "for sure filled with gay painters."

"My parents were part of the historic movement in which there is a heavy dose of redemption and messianism," says Pachnik. "They thought they were coming back to the land of the Bible, without being aware that there were people here. The biggest sin of the first generation of settlers was not the return to Judea and Samaria; the return to the land of our forefathers is not a sin. We returned to a place to which we have a historic belonging. The story of the People of Israel has much more to do with Gush Etzion than with Tel Aviv. But the big mistake for which we are now paying the price is that we did not dare, we did not agree, we were unable to look around and say: there are other people here. You have to know how to live with them and how to accept them."

Eliaz Cohen, 37, concurs. While he was born in Petah Tikva, at age seven his family moved to Elkana, and later still to Kfar Etzion, where he married and is raising his children. Cohen is a well-known poet, and along with Shmulik Klein established "Maishiv Haruah," a periodical devoted to religious poetry. He has been talking for years about the need to live with the Palestinians, and has even put them in his poems, reflecting an unconcealed erotic attraction. "Arab boys do it for me/ Sending me back three-thousand-seven-hundred years," he wrote in one poem.

As early as the late 1990s, Cohen was involved in organizing meetings with Palestinians. He feels this is actually a return to the early days of the settlements. He even recalls how Hanan Porat, a member of his community and a neighbor, formulated a program to rehabilitate the Deheishe refugee camp. One year ago, after an inter-religious meeting with Muslims and Christians, he and his friend Klein decided that there was a need for a more formal organization. Thus Yerushalom came into being. At the same time, Cohen is a bona fide settler, serving as cultural affairs coordinator at the Gush Etzion regional council, and is a member of the Yesha Council.

"The people who joined Yerushalom are from the second generation of the settlements," Cohen explains. "There is an awakening to the fact that there is another people here, that there is a story that has been suppressed. The first generation was engaged in the business of building the infrastructure. The second generation created all of the overtures to more pragmatic worlds - less 'tower and stockade'. They didn't tell us the whole story. The Palestinians appeared in it, but only as a threatening shadow."

Amrussi: "There is an expression [appearing in Deuteronomy 7:2] 'Thou shalt not show mercy unto them,' which forbids us from giving other peoples a reason to stay. This expression was adopted by the settlers. They didn't buy from Arabs in order not to give them a reason to stay. Now we are undergoing a process. There had been this fantasy that the Palestinians would vanish. But the Palestinians are a landscape that will forever be seen from my window in Talmon. We live on the same hill, are sustained by the same water."

Pachnik: "When I lived in Beit El we would, as children, walk to the village right below us, sit at the edge of the spring and talk with them. Us with the beginnings of Arabic that we'd learned and them with the beginnings of the Hebrew they'd learned. Swimming in the spring. There was the start of a coexistence. Rabbi Levinger, who is the father of the settlement movement and still represents the hawkish faction, would at first travel only in Palestinian taxis, explaining that 'we have to live with them.' All of this ended very quickly. Because we were the occupier and they were the occupied, and because they really did not have rights, an intifada developed. At some level I completely understand it."

So why are you waking up now, and wanting to recognize them?

"Guilt always goes backward, and caring always goes forward. Emily says: 'I will embrace the Palestinian because I want the Zionist enterprise to survive,' because she is a politician. I'm not. I come from a religious place. I say that peace is a despicable, chewed-up and forced word, so it should be put to the side, and we should go to a meeting instead. There is no doubt that we've done wrong and that they've done wrong. We want to be here, in the present. We have to loosen our grip on these old paradigms of guilt, and move on to a discourse about responsibility. The discourse of the left is so full of self-accusation."

What opened your eyes?

"These are very personal things that it's not easy to go into, but if there is one thing that opened my eyes it was the deaths of my neighbors in the middle of the first intifada, Ita and Efraim Tzur. I could have taken the energies of their murder to a fanatical place, but I remember myself standing somewhere above their house, looking out at Ramallah, and telling myself: What happened here? And that is the simplest and the hardest question. Because there is room here for everyone, so why did it happen? Why are they murdering us, and we respond with helicopters over Ramallah? Suddenly it all made sense to me - there is no actual problem of finding room in the physical territory; the problem is finding room in the heart. The fear is that if I recognized the other I would give him room, and then I wouldn't have room."

Fingers for peace

The first get-together was held about three months ago. A month later, a second meeting took place at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala, which is in Area C (under full Israeli military control). The view from the hotel takes in the Judean Desert with Jordan as a backdrop, and Bethlehem in the near foreground. The few settlers arrived at the site in modest cars. The number of Palestinians, from the Hebron area, was nearly double. The settlers looked terrified, by the site, by their mere presence in "Palestinian" territory. Both groups tried to make small talk at the hotel entrance, but were stopped at the roadblock of language. The settlers turned to small talk among themselves: better schools versus less good schools in settlements; an interesting religious community in Betar Ilit.

An old basketball hoop stood in the hotel yard. Pachnik's children started shooting baskets, and a Palestinian child joined them. Without language, they managed to play, to cooperate. As far as Eliaz Cohen is concerned, the game was the high point of the get-together.

Pachnik walked into the lobby and whispered, practically to himself: "I can't believe it; I'm in a Palestinian hotel." The meeting began with Cohen recounting the evolution of food restrictions from the dawn of creation until after the flood, which he described as an act of Divine regret over his creation of evil mankind. Palestinian inquisitiveness quickly turned into a smoldering, stifled rage.

One older man, visibly restraining himself, asked for permission to comment. "What has been said here is incorrect. God does not make mistakes," he declared. The religious foundation, intended to draw the sides closer, had instead created tension. "Eliaz has gone too far with his commentary," whispered one panicked settler. Two weeks later, at the third session, both sides steered clear of attempts to explain God's will.

How would you sum up the most recent meeting?

Cohen: "The big significance of the last meeting is that it was the first time any of the settlers were seeing the Palestinians as other than 'hewers of wood and drawers of water.' Seeing their state of distress. The most interesting discussion revolved around the issue of fear. We understood that the fear is not one-sided."

So the settlers and the Palestinians will bring peace?

"I don't buy 100 percent into what Rabbi Froman says, about the settlers as fingers stretched out in peace toward the Palestinians, because some of these fingers are pulling triggers or burning down mosques, and they don't want the Palestinians to be there. But one finger really is just that. There is a potential for a conversation starting here, on the ground; ground that is now the object of daily conflict."

It's all because of us

In fact, the success of the last session made Cohen realize that there is a chasm between him and his comrades, the other settlers. Shortly after the end of the meeting with the Palestinians, an assembly was held at Kfar Etzion to debate the proper response to the government decision to freeze construction in the settlements. Cohen chaired the assembly; also in attendance was Meir (Myron) Joshua, a Kfar Etzion resident who had taken part in the meeting with the Palestinians.

"Myron and I arrived from the meeting with the Palestinians in a storm of emotions," Cohen relates. "It was hard to see the narrow-mindedness of people who can only see themselves. Myron interrupted, and skewered Hanan (Porat), whom everyone here treats with a great deal of respect. 'You folks are blind,' he said. 'You are taking the country and disregarding the neighbor. They freeze things for us for a few weeks and we're crying. There is a village here that has been totally suffocated for 42 years already, within lands that belong to it, and it's all because of us.' People could not understand where Myron was coming from. The troubles of the neighboring village are not of any great interest to anyone."

The participants at the Kfar Etzion assembly haven't figured it out yet, but for Amrussi, something has started to move. Although she has written about a quasi-friendship between a Palestinian woman and a settler woman, it was the first time that the former spokeswoman of the Yesha Council had met with Palestinians "not as service providers."

"Following the session at the school, we went together to the local mosque,' she said. "Are you clean?" the host asked Amrussi by the entrance. Amrussi hesitated for a moment before understanding what he meant. "Only religious women could have understood," she said, and for the first time in her life entered a Muslim house of worship.

"Afterward, we went to the home of the village elder. A single room, black with soot, in wretched condition. Amrussi crowded next to his elderly wife, who gave Amrussi a blessing. The older woman looked with interest at the photos of Amrussi's children that she showed on the screen of her cell phone. "I felt I was going into a place from which I would come out different," Amrussi reflected when we left.

As the spokeswoman of the Yesha Council, you probably issued hundreds of press statements about "unlawful Palestinian construction." After seeing the situation here, do you think you now know things you didn't know before?

"I knew them before, too, but it's different when it hits you in the face."

What changed for you?

"The fence led to this insight. You feel it in Talmon. The fence leaves us on the hill with our partners. The fence changed something in my consciousness. We are not first and foremost Israelis. We are first and foremost residents of Talmon."

Has Tel Aviv forgotten the conflict and left it to settlers and Palestinians?

"The cliche settlers will tell you is that we, who are here, understand what is happening to the Palestinians, and in Tel Aviv they don't care. But that really isn't such a cliche. People will say it's hypocritical, but I really do suffer with them. I see the Palestinian at the roadblock, and say to myself: 'Again he's standing here in the sun? He was here yesterday and he was here the day before that. Why don't they let him pass through?' I am conscious of the great suffering."

They said at the meeting that the settlers could be the bridge to peace with the Palestinians. Do you take that seriously?

"People see it as a right-wing scam. They tell me: 'How can you talk about peace?' But it's real. I am opposed to territorial withdrawal, in any peace process. So let's start from below, let's start with these sorts of get-togethers. We'll see what happens 10 years from now. They have to hand over the reins to us, for making peace. You people failed. I don't know what the end of the process will be, 20 years from now, but just like I left that meeting different, it may turn out that I will find myself in a different place."

The Palestinians don't have the patience to wait another 20 years. They want equality now.

"I am opposed to a Palestinian state and I understand that if there are equal rights, it will be a binational state. But there are much more urgent things than political rights. More urgent is the condition of their hospitals and schools, to bring them closer to the West."

The Palestinians aren't looking for this patronage.

"That's patronage? I must object to the fact that the Civil Administration is destroying their road. I must support a more equitable allocation of resources."

So what is the direction? A binational state?

"Increasingly more voices are being heard among the settlers in favor of a binational state. In the very religious circles and in the political circles as well. The idea of a return to Zion is an idea of return to territory, to where it all began. Beit El, Shiloh, Hebron - they are the homeland. Therefore, the vision of two states is unsuited to the return to Zion. Between these two terrifying dreams, the left's terrifying dream of a binational state, and the right's terrifying dream of a Palestinian state, I am more panicked by a Palestinian state. I prefer a binational state."

Eliaz Cohen is also prepared to say "binational state" without flinching. Except that for him the thought is more spiritual and less political. "My idea is one big wide open space," he says. "If I were Barack Obama, I would take the two-state idea off the table and start to sew together the Israel-Palestine geopolitical space; I would start to create a confederation, with equal rights for all. It would also boost democratization within each of the entities of the confederation."

And what would happen to the states? Would Israel disappear?

"The confederation structure sees the national story as secondary, as only one of the constituent elements."

Pachnik is somewhere in between the two others. He wants to remain part of the State of Israel, but also wants to stay where he lives. Dilemma.

The solution, as proposed by one member of the group, is the settlers staying where they are, under Palestinian rule. "It is important that there be a Jewish democratic state, and if there were a binational state, it would be vague and distorted," explains this individual. "I believe that when we live under Palestinian rule they will very much respect us and accept us."

"There are two processes here," says Pachnik, describing why increasingly more settlers are willing to hear new ideas. "There are those people who were in any case at a remove from the state, and the expulsion (from Gaza) moved them another step further away. They are saying: 'We are here, with or without the state. We have Israeli citizenship, but that's only technical. We'll go on from here without Israel. We will sanctify the Jewish sovereignty, not the Israeli.'

"And there are folks like me, for whom the expulsion came as a cold, hard shock, hastening their realization that something needs to be done in order to protect the People of Israel and Israeli society, so that this crack won't turn into something irreversible."

There was no cold, hard shock in Tel Aviv.

"That's part of the tragedy of what happened in Gush Katif. The indifference, the alienation, the lack of concern. There are people for whom the stranger and the other are the Palestinians, and there are those for whom the stranger and the other are the settlers. The fact that the Tel Avivians didn't even blink stemmed in part from a type of hedonism, of materialism. You think Tel Aviv can lead us to a two-state agreement? If it were up to Tel Aviv, there would be hostility and hatred between these two states, because they don't want peace there. They only want to raise the fence higher. We are in the way, preventing the leftists from thinking of themselves as Westerners. Because what are we saying? This dream is going to explode! The Palestinian state would form a connection with the Syrians and with Iran, because we haven't solved the hatred problem.

"And I'll say it in not such a nice way, because the truth has to be told: Most of the people on the left don't care about peace. This is an awfully materialistic society; money is everything. It's starting to happen to us settlers, slowly. But the Holy one, blessed be he, put the Palestinians down in front of us, and they are telling us: 'If you don't recognize us, it is not going to work out for you.'"

Saw the truth

Several days after the most recent meeting with the Palestinians, the mosque in Kafr Yasuf was torched. Members of the group, led by Rabbi Froman, went to the village, stopping off along the way to buy a new Koran, seeking to help the Palestinians repair the damage. The Palestinian governor of Salfit was in favor of letting them enter the village, but the Israel Defense Forces refused.

Eliaz Cohen: "I feel that this activity of 'Yerushalom', and our activity in general, is also important as a spiritual and practical counterweight to the fundamentalism that has developed among the settlers in the hills of central Samaria, among the pupils of Rabbi Ginsburg. These are bad seeds that need to be rooted out of Israeli society, and especially from settler society. What began as a small circle has turned into a circle of hundreds of activists, backed by thousands of supporters. It is the 'price tag' people, who think that Arabs in general, and even 80 percent of Israeli society, are a motley group of corrupt individuals.

"I'm not looking for legitimatization from Amos Oz. I think that people like Oz are practically as dogmatic as Hanan Porat, dogmatic in their faith in the idea of separation, in their desire to flee from the Levant. I think we should adopt what was written by Rabbi Biniamin [Yehoshua Radler-Feldman Hatalmi] in "The Burden of the Arab World" almost a century ago: the dream of a mingling of the peoples, not mutual assimilation, but a connection between the two peoples that would conceive something new."

There is increasingly greater awareness of the activity of Yerushalom within the settler public. They are aware, and they give their blessing to it, perhaps because they understand the political profit to be realized from it: the possibility of showing that the settlers and the Palestinians in fact get along extremely well, that only the "leftists" are disrupting this idyll. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan, who heads the Har Etzion Yeshiva, has given his blessing. And the rabbi of Bat Ayin, a settlement that is considered an extreme right-wing stronghold, has shown interest.

Even Noam Arnon, spokesman of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, sanctions it cautiously. "We'll have to study the solutions they are proposing," says Arnon. "I believe it has a chance. I believe only in peace between the residents."

The Yerushalom people know they could be serving Arnon and others as merely a fig leaf. But Rabbi Froman seems unfazed by the notion that all sorts of interested parties are jumping on the bandwagon. "If you don't take the forces of evil into account, there is something egoistic, egocentric about it, and then you are not humble," says Froman. "These wrongheaded motivations also need to be part of the peace plan."

Pachnik echoes his words: "One of our people at the meeting on Monday is coming from exactly that place. He said: 'We need maximum media coverage with them because it will serve our interest to continue living here.' He was at the session and something happened to him. After the meeting, he sent us an e-mail expressing his congratulations. What happened? He saw the truth, too. So I say that it is okay, let them hitch a ride on our wagon. What's important is that a real process happen - the motive is less important.

Some of the members of the group sought a stamp of approval from the left, in the persons of Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. Both asked that they recognize the idea of two states for two peoples. "They don't need my support," says A.B. Yehoshua. "They need the support of their own public."

Pachnik does not despair. "We live in a world in which the individual does not feel satisfaction when he is in the midst of accomplishing his goal, but only after having accomplished his goal," he says, after the meeting with Oz. "What characterizes the world to come is that during the process itself, the individual will be able to taste the flavor of the end of the process. The flavor of the tree will be the flavor of the fruit. I am already starting to taste that flavor, of the end." W