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An Israeli-Arab odd couple seek peace in Hebron

In the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, Israelis and a Palestinian leader met in search of a unique solution to the conflict.

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The new round of official peace talks, which started following the November summit in Annapolis, Md., has continued to face obstacles, such as continuing Israeli building in east Jerusalem and the constant rocket fire from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

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On Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he was doubtful a treaty, which would set in motion the creation of a Palestinian state, would be possible by the end of 2008. "My own sense ... is that not enough has happened over the past nearly three months that could suggest to me that a treaty per se is going to be possible."

Hebron's troubled past

The Jews and Arabs of Hebron have been locked in a decades-old blood feud that is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While still under the British Mandate, in 1929, 67 Jews were murdered in an Arab riot. In Kiryat Arba, a memorial was raised to Baruch Goldstein, a New Yorker who gunned down more than two dozen Palestinians in 1994 in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The ensuing Palestinian uprising triggered militant killings of more than a dozen settlers and an Israeli-army enforced segregation of the city, which has forced thousands of Palestinians to vacate residences, according to human rights groups.

Given all that baggage, participants said the unlikely meeting last week mixed went off successfully, mixing the trappings of a summit and familiarity of town meeting.

Dressed in a traditional robe, Jaberi, a relative of one of Hebron's first Palestinian mayors, welcomed the visitors with pita bread and fruit. The guests of honor – settlers infamous in Israel as ideological provocateurs – snapped pictures and sat alongside their hosts.

"I told them we've been living together for 60 years. There's bloodshed every single day," recalls Jaberi. "We cannot cancel you and you cannot cancel us."

Settler leaders said they took that to heart.

"This was music to our ears," says Mr. Haetzni, a longtime resident of the neighboring settlement of Kiryat Arba. "We want to live together, and have no dream that there should be no Arabs in Hebron."

The turning point came last September over the Jewish New Year, when the sheikh was approached by a group of radical Israeli peace activists who asked permission to destroy a makeshift synagogue tent constructed illegally on his property by Jewish settlers. The peace activists don't approve of the structure as it sits on Palestinian land. Sensing the potential for new violence, Jaberi turned them down.

"That gave huge leverage to open hearts and to unfreeze the way to peace," says Mr. Magrafta, who spends so much time among Palestnians in Hebron that he is known as Abu Naim, an Arab nickname, which means father of Naim.