In the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion south of Bethlehem, not far from the spot where three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered in June, a small group of Israeli settlers has spent weeks secretly planning what most might regard as a suicide mission aimed at local Palestinian villagers.
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This week, as sirens blared to warn of more incoming rockets from Gaza, two of the settlers unveiled their plan to Haaretz at their unmarked West Bank headquarters, hidden behind high walls and locked gates, on condition that certain names, locations and other details would not be revealed.
But Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger of Alon Shvut and Shaul Judelman of Bat Ayin weren’t shy about revealing the aim of their mission: dialogue, co-existence and peace.
There are many Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups, but trust and contacts have been battered by the kidnapping of the three teens, the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Hamas rocket attacks and the Israeli assault on Gaza.
So it’s unusual to find any co-existence movement starting up in these troubled times, and even more unusual that it should emerge from within the Israeli settler community. They are quietly getting up to speed, organizing small, grassroots projects involving adults and children from both sides. They asked that Haaretz not reveal any details but I observed two days of inspiring and fun activities that helped to break down the barriers of hostility and suspicion between the communities.
“Our goal here is empowering moderate voices on both sides to be able to stand with their communities and look beyond the other side as a pure enemy and see that our destiny here in some way is together,” says Judelman, a follower of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, a settler rabbi who forged close ties with Palestinian religious figures and met frequently with Yasser Arafat.
“The politicians will work out the way to a diplomatic solution, but we are working from the ground up,” he says.
On the Palestinian side, there is fierce resistance to anything seen as “normalization” with the Israeli occupiers. None of the Palestinians that spoke to Haaretz would allow their names to be published.
One former Palestinian prisoner whose brother was murdered in cold blood by a soldier who was never punished, says he has become an activist for non-violence and peace.
“We want to show the children another side of the enemy. At the end of the day, they are the ones who pay the price for the conflict. They are not responsible for what the grown-ups are doing. They are just the victims of the grown-ups and their lack of responsibility. We want to encourage them to have hope for the future,” he says.
Judelman says he understands why Palestinians are suspicious of Israeli attempts to gloss over the inequality between the two sides.
“This is about whether we can get to a place where we’re seeing each other as peers and living a normal life together,” he says. “But it’s also an awareness that we’re not getting here from equal places at all and there’s a lot of work to do within both of our communities for that vision to come alive, and we both have a lot of responsibility to make a lot of change.”
Judelman and his colleagues have established contacts with Palestinians in several neighbouring villages. For many, it is the first time they have ever spoken to anyone on the other side.
Rabbi Schlesinger says he was introduced by Judelman to a Palestinian family at a joint cookout only to discover they had been his close neighbours – but on the other side of a barrier he had thought impenetrable, both physically and ideologically.
“We looked on Google maps and I found that my house was right on the other side of the fence from this family. We cried,” said Schlesinger.
“I said I never thought I’d talk to a Palestinian. He said he never thought he would talk to a settler. He described to me how my kippa to his children is a symbol to be feared. I described to him how for me his village was a place you go and don’t come back. He tells me how afraid the Palestinians are of the settlers. I say: You’re afraid of me? I thought I was afraid of you.”
Settlers from Bat Ayin have been associated with a string of anti-Arab “price tag” attacks but Judelman says the community is more diverse than it’s portrayed.
“We had a community meeting about what’s going on in the town and there was an initiative to kick the two families most identified with the extreme out of the community. It passed but legally it wasn’t feasible. In the meeting, people said very strong things. They said: ‘Our children need to know that to hit an Arab because they are an Arab is the same as to hit a Jew because they are a Jew.’ There is a vibrant discussion going on,” he says.
But he acknowledges that many Israelis, as well as Palestinians, view the settlers as a major part of the problem, rather than a source for a solution.
“The settlers have become one of the most ostracized bad words in Israel. Nobody talks to us. The more our communities feel vilified, we play the role. I really see that happening,” he says.
“People here are almost all religious on the Jewish side. They are not peaceniks. The people here would not be chosen for Seeds of Peace. But it’s clear here that we live together – more clear here than almost anywhere else in Israel that we’re living together,” he says.
“I’ve spent the last four years meeting Palestinians, hearing their side and learning how they see us,” he says. “I realize, of course, that they hate us. They don’t believe that Israel is connected to the Jewish people. They think Israel is a colonial entity from the outside with no connection to this land. They construct a narrative of us just like we construct a narrative of them. For me it’s very important to bring people who are connected to this land to tell the story of what it means to be in the area of Bethlehem to Hebron for us. It has to be part of a dialogue.”
Schlesinger says he was embarrassed to realize after beginning to meet Palestinians that the Zionism he had believed in – and still believes in – was only part of the story.
“We believe the Jewish people have a connection to the land. We believe in some sense that it’s right and proper that we’re here. But at the same time we know, or we’re coming to realize, that other people are here also, and we have to balance those conflicting truths,” he says.
“When you only live among your own and only know your own narrative, you are naturally very suspicious of the other who is just an intruder and just a thorn in your side and something that doesn’t belong there,” he says. “But when you open up your heart and you see the other, you begin to see the truth is complex – that my truth is true, but it’s a partial truth and there’s another truth that’s also partial and I have to learn to put them together and make the larger truth. I believe we can do that.”