One of the more interesting slogans that emerged from this summer's Israel social justice protest movement was "Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies." Although this looks good on a poster, how realistic is it on the ground, particularly in the West Bank? In these disputed territories, Jewish settlers and Palestinian Arabs continue to be locked in a struggle for their countries' futures.
Frustrated with the lack of progress from direct negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority has petitioned the United Nations for recognition as a member state. The Israeli government, as if acting out a part in a tragedy that has already been written, vigorously opposed what they termed a "unilateral" act and has dug in its heels. The Palestinians are not backing down either, even in the face of U.S. opposition to their UN bid, including cutting off $200 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians by the U.S. Congress.
As the extended diplomatic confrontation continues unabated, the mood on the ground is becoming increasingly tense, the negotiations between Israel and Hamas that led to the successful return of Gilad Shalit notwithstanding. A recent spate of mosque desecrations has now spread from the West Bank to Israel proper; the threat of possible Palestinian demonstrations looms. It is against this backdrop of increasing tensions that a nascent movement of Israeli settlers and Palestinians has come together to explore ways to communicate and co-exist. But their movement, which they call the "third way," is now struggling for its very existence.
These settlers and Palestinians have been meeting with each other in an effort to find a "third way" between domination and confrontation. The members of this small but slowly growing movement are pushing the norms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, often in ways that puts them at odds with their respective communities.
Rabbi Menachem Froman, the rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa, is often viewed as the spiritual father of the movement. Froman is notorious for befriending Yasser Arafat as well as meeting several times in Gaza with the wheelchair-bound, late spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin. Today, he is a voice of reconciliation.
Last month, as part of their "price tag" strategy designed to punish Palestinians (and now Israelis too) when the Israeli authorities don't bend to their will, settlers vandalized a mosque in the Palestinian village of Qusra following the Israeli Defense Force's demolition of illegal houses in the Migron settlement outpost. In response, Rabbi Froman visited Qusra to seek penance for the deeds done by his co-religionists. Leading the crowd in chants of "Allah Hu Akbar," the Rabbi tried to show that the two sides belong to the same land and share the same destiny, whether or not they're willing to acknowledge it.
Over the past few years, a new generation of settlers has arisen to continue on Froman's path. Two of these activists are named Nahum Pachenik and Eliaz Cohen. Much of their activism is informal and individual. There is also a similar group, called Eretz Shalom, that meets semi-regularly.
At times, in movements like this, some of the first bridge building comes from the side that's privileged -- in this case, the Israelis. Eliaz Cohen lives in Kfar Etzion, the first West Bank settlement, founded in September 1967, and has been meeting with the mukhtar of a neighboring village. He has been pushing the local Israeli government to pave the single road in the village, as well as to give locals permission to repair the village minaret, which Israel has refused to do for almost 30 years.
Eliaz believes that there's a struggle "for the soul" of the settler movement currently underway, with new thinking challenging the old zero-sum orthodoxy that has traditionally characterized relations between settlers and Palestinians. Rabbi Froman proclaims that he is "a citizen of the state of God, it's not so important who is the government." Others hold that, whatever the future political arrangement, it will ve irrelevant if Israelis and Palestinians can't learn how to live together. "Two states, three states, seven 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," said another settler.
Some Palestinians are also reaching out to their settler neighbors. Although they risk censure -- or worse -- not only from some of their brethren, but from the Palestinian Authority as well.
Mohammed A. lives in a Palestinian village just south of Gush Etzion. There is a permanent Israeli guard tower and gate at the main entrance to the village -- the gate is often closed during times of tension with the neighboring settlements, which sit on three sides of the village. Still, for several years, Mohammed has been meeting with settlers as often as he can. He frequently tells them the story of his grandfather, who was killed under the Lone Tree on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel declared its independence. For many Israelis, the Lone Tree of Gush Etzion is a symbol of Israel "regaining" control over the settlement after the 1967 war. For Mohammed and other Palestinians, the tree has a different meaning altogether. But it is by describing his grandfather's connection to that place to Israelis that Mohammed hopes that each side can reach new understandings of old narratives, and perhaps new thinking about an old conflict.
Over the past year, we have been filming these people and others for a documentary film on their efforts, The Third Way. Getting to know this group of Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank has challenged some of the pre-conceived notions that each of us had about the conflict -- even the word "settler" has started to feel a bit loaded. The significance of the West Bank, the "cradle" of biblical Judaism, has imbued this conflict with a religious element that has rendered a straightforward or rational solution increasingly difficult to envision. But it is also on the West Bank where the biblical pronouncement "you shall not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt," has taken on a very real meaning for us and for the people we've met. These settlers are predominantly religious - unlike most of the Tel Aviv peace activists -- and, despite the stereotypes that often make the headlines, they have taken this decree to heart.
What also strikes us are the unavoidably different realities facing each group; despite their physical proximity to one another, the settlers and the Palestinians are "galaxies apart," as one of them told us. While some settlers have reached out to visit Palestinians in their homes, the Palestinians by and large haven't reciprocated. The imbalance is symbolic of the larger situation -- Israelis have more freedom of movement (among other freedoms) than their Palestinian neighbors. For there to be some kind of resolution to the existing quandary, it seems there must be a way to achieve some kind of a more equal relationship. That's why we wanted to document some of this face-to-face work to establish a more equal relationship. What we've experienced until this point is proving that this journey will be a long one. Unwittingly, these few brave Israelis and Palestinians may be at the forefront of a movement whose end result even they cannot know.