For the last year or so, I've been spending time with unlikely friends: a loose group of West Bank Palestinians and Jewish settlers, most of them neighbors, living within a few miles of each other. The mainstreams of these two populations seem like they are in almost constant conflict -- last week, settlers are suspected of throwing into a Palestinian taxi a fire bomb that wounded six people, including two children. Meanwhile, members of this small group of friends have met, responding to such acts of violence, and also planning longer term projects.
It seems like a dilemma has been created during the last three years of Netanyahu's right wing administration: the settler population has been steadily increasing, and no progress has been made in the less and less likely "two-state solution." And so the West Bank has become, more and more, a seemingly permanent patchwork of Israeli settlements and nearby Palestinian towns and villages. The neighbors share many of the same roads, but almost never meet face-to-face.
Nahum was born in Hebron, in the West Bank, and so has lived his whole life in the West Bank. His great-grandfather, a rabbi whose name Nahum shares, was killed by the Nazis in the Ukraine. But Nahum tells me that, over the years, he decided to "stop taking the victim's position." Later in the conversation, he smiles mischievously and jokes, "You know, the Palestinians are victims -- but we are more victims!"
Ziad was in prison for five years during the first Intifada (1987-1993). He hasn't been clear with me about why he was imprisoned, but since he was a teenager then, I assume it was for rock throwing. Ziad told me he realized there, "I don't want my kids to have to learn the same way I did -- in prison -- that peace is the right way."
Ziad and Nahum originally met at events organized by Rabbi Menachem Froman, the "settler rabbi for peace." Froman has been perfecting his rebel rabbi wisdom for many years.
Froman was one of the founders of Gush Emunim, the Israeli political movement, started in the 1970s, that encouraged founding settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. He is now the chief rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa. But Froman was also friends for many years with Yassir Arafat, and also met in Gaza with Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual founder of Hamas (who was killed by the Israeli military in 2007). When I asked Froman what he would do if his settlement became part of a future Palestinian state, his response was, "I am a citizen of the state of God ... It's not so important who is the government."
This spring, Nahum, Ziad and Shaul, another settler, came up with a concrete idea to manifest their lofty ideals: they decided to start a small organic farm business together. While many Jews and Muslims here believe their religions have exclusively bequeathed them the land, these guys assert a higher wisdom, "The land doesn't belong to us, we belong to the land." They're calling the project Fields of Heaven.
The guys went on a first visit together to the wadi (valley) next to Ziad's town, where they plan to start the farm. It was an amazing spring day, and the perennial springs were full.
Becoming more public with their ideas, the farm will be a test of their commitment, and probably also their courage. Especially among Palestinians, an "anti-normalization" movement has arisen recently, which believes generally that until the Palestinians have more rights, or a state of their own, fraternizing with Israelis, and especially settlers, is frowned upon. There have even been rumors (causing fear among several Palestinians I've talked to) that Palestinian Authority officials have scoured YouTube, looking for videos that show local Palestinians and settlers together.
Still, Nahum, Ziad, Shaul and their friends believe that the best way to change preconceptions about "the other" is face-to-face meetings. They want Fields of Heaven to be a place that will attract people from all sides, to do precisely that. To spend an hour, volunteering at the farm together, or taking a workshop there, that will give them precisely what is missing for most settlers and Palestinians: a place where they can meet, even for an hour, as equals.