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As Mideast talks begin, Palestinians find unlikely support from Jewish settlers

A small but growing group of Israeli settlers is seeking to bridge the volatile divide with their Palestinian neighbors as Mideast talks begin in Washington.

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IN PICTURES: A West Bank Wall

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"The settlers are part of the problem," says Ali Alarej, a Palestinian who leads weekly protests against the wall going up around Walaja, a community that will be cut off from Jerusalem. "Instead of joining our protest, they should get up and move back inside the Green Line," he added after a recent protest, referring to the 1949 armistice line.

Nachum Pachenik, who lives in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, encountered such resistance when he led a group of settlers to join the Walaja protest in April. When the settlers heard locals were preparing to throw stones at them, they abandoned the trip.

Fellow settler Myron Joshua was also turned away from Palestinian protests in the town of Umm Salamuna last year. "I called the [organizer] up, and when he heard I was a settler, there was a problem," he says.

Such cold receptions are a reminder of how hard it is to reach across the charged divide between Israel and the Palestinian territories. It also underscores the mistrust between the two sides as Netanyahu begins direct peace talks Thursday with the Palestinian Authority headed by Abbas.

Halting the wall's construction in Walaja, due to be completed in December, is unlikely. Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror says Palestinians already appealed to the High Court of Justice four years ago and lost, adding that the barrier is essential to Israel's security.

“We checked a lot of options,” Mr. Dror says. “We can’t say, ‘Don’t build a fence’ and just wait for terrorist attacks.”

Two cups of tea

But settlers like Mr. Pachenik aren't giving up on breaking down the barriers – tangible and intangible – between Israelis and Palestinians.

Pachenik last year founded the Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace) movement to foster settler-Palestinian dialogue, which now has "a few hundred" members, he says. Earlier this summer, he hosted Muhammed Abu Ayash, a Palestinian engineer and peace activist. They chatted over tea and cakes in the cluttered kitchen of Pachenik’s white mobile home, known here as a "caravan," part of an unauthorized outpost.

Unlike the Palestinian protesters in Walaja, Mr. Abu Ayash entertained the idea of settlers staying in the West Bank.

“We cannot split from each other,” he said. “We have the same land, the same holy places, the same border, and the same resources.”

Such dialogue is rare in the West Bank, where settlers and Palestinians live apart, use separate roads, and speak different languages.

“I am ashamed that there are separate roads for Jews and Arabs, and I have rights Muhammad doesn’t have,” Pachenik said.