By Linoy Bar-Gefen and Meron Rapoport
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."
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.