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Settlers and Palestinians who chose to live as neighbors

12:00 Jun 29 2011 West Bank

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By Harvey Stein

There’s a loose “movement” taking place in the West Bank: some settlers and Palestinians are meeting. It pushes the envelope on both sides, making a lot of people cynical – or angry (I have some leftist Israeli friends who think it’s totally hypocritical). Rabbi Menachem Froman, the rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa, is usually viewed as the inspiration for the work. Froman is notorious for befriending Yasser Arafat, as well as meeting several times with Sheikh Yassin in Gaza (before the wheelchair-bound, spiritual leader of Hamas was targeted by an IDF missile in 2004).

In the last few years, a few in the next generation of settlers continued in Froman’s spirit. These include Nahum Pachenik, Eliaz Cohen (who published an article in +972 here) and others. Sometimes they act in concert: when the mosque in Bet Fajjar was vandalized by right wing settlers, Rabbi Froman led his younger cohorts to visit (the first time any Jews besides soldiers had entered the village since before the Second Intifada), bringing new Korans to replace the ones burned by the vandals.

For the last few months, I have been following some of these settlers and their Palestinian friends, working on a documentary tentatively called “A Third Way – Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors.”

Much of the activism is informal and individual (although there’s a group called Eretz Shalom that meets semi-regularly). As in other movements that bear some resemblance to this (like the American Civil Rights Movement) , most of the bridge-building starts on the side that’s “privileged.” Eliaz Cohen (who lives in Kfar Etsion, the first Israeli settlement, founded in September 1967) has been meeting with the mukhtar of a neighboring village, and pushing the local Israeli government to pave the single road in the village (not to mention give permission to repair the village minaret, which they have refused to do for almost 30 years).

Mohammed Abuayash lives in the town of Beit Ummar, just south of Gush Etsion. There is a permanent Israeli guard tower and gate at the main entrance to the town – the gate is often closed during times of tension with some of the settlers who live on three sides of the town. In spite of all this, Abuayash meets with settlers as often as he can, and frequently tells them the story of his grandfather, Musa Ibrahim Abuayash. While the Lone Tree of Gush Etsion is on the Gush Etsion flag – a symbol of Israel ‘regaining’ Gush Etsion after 1967 – Abuayash tells another story: his grandfather was killed under the Lone Tree on May 15, the last day of the 1948 War.

The settlers stake out various political positions – Froman laughed when I asked him about the future: “I am a citizen of the state of God, it’s not so important who is the government.” Another man told me, “2-States, 3-states, 7-states doesn’t matter – what matters is whatever the number of states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, none of the models can work if there are no good relations between the people.”

From my time spent with many of the participants, I certainly see the imbalance. Many of the settlers come from a place of naivete, or guilt. And some of the Palestinians come with suspicion.

Eliaz Cohen tells me that at the moment there’s a struggle “for the soul” of the settler movement. While many might fantasize that the settlers will all move back to Brooklyn or Kfar Saba – until that time, maybe some face-to-face time will at least shift the status quo a millimeter or so. Since posting the trailer on Facebook, I’ve gotten two emails from settlers basically asking me, “I also would like to meet Palestinians in the village nearby, but I don’t know how. Can you help me?”

Harvey Stein is a filmmaker and video journalist from NYC, now living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted at harvey33@gmail.com, and friended at www.facebook.com/harveystein33

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