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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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Indeed, Abu Ayash's hometown of Beit Ummar, near Hebron, is hemmed in on all sides by settlements that enjoy more freedoms than the Palestinian villages. But for now, even just talking is an unusual breakthrough. “We have many things to do, and not just talk,” Abu Ayash said, adding: “When [Pachenik] invites me to visit his home, it gives me hope.”

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'You're living here, I'm living here – let's see how to do it together'

Mr. Joshua, the settler who was turned away from protests last year, is on the Eretz Shalom mailing list and also regularly meets Palestinians through the Interfaith Encounter Association.

The association has 29 groups of Israelis and Palestinians throughout Israel, plus two recently formed settler-Palestinian groups over the Green Line. Gush Etzion's branch was founded in late 2009 and meets with Palestinians from around Hebron. About 25 settlers and Palestinians attend the monthly meetings. The second branch, in East Jerusalem, was founded in 2008 and has about 15 Palestinians and settlers from Maale Adumim and Abu Dis.

Joshua sees the growing movement of settlers as ambassadors for finding an informal solution where government leaders have failed. "It's people saying, 'I'm fed up with politics. You're living here, I'm living here, let's see how to do it morally and legally together,' " he says.

The increasing number of settlers involved in Interfaith Encounter Association and Eretz Shalom can be credited in part to a new generation of Jews born in the West Bank, says Froman, the prominent rabbi whose teachings have inspired settlers to interact with Palestinians. The new generation has grown up alongside Palestinians.

"They know the Palestinians not from the point of view of, 'How do they fit into my ideology,' but from direct contact with them," he says.

Skepticism from Israelis

Many fellow settlers don't share the vision espoused by Froman, Pachenik, and Joshua.

Dani Dayan, chair of the settler umbrella organization known as the Yesha Council, says it is "defeatist" to give up on trying to ensure the West Bank is part of the Israeli state.

"The situation is not ripe for a solution," says Mr. Dayan, who lobbied against Israel's 10-month partial freeze on settlement expansion that expires in late September.

Moreover, Palestinians don't want to live alongside the Jewish settlers, says Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, highlighting how West Bank Palestinians have already banned all goods made by Jewish settlers, including plastic furniture and seltzer machines.

Professor Ezrahi says he doubts that settlers can peaceably remain in the West Bank, but "if settlers will fight against the wall for what it does to the Palestinians on a large scale, I will change my mind."

IN PICTURES: Israeli Settlements