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.

Joshua Mitnick
Sheikh Abu Khader al-Jaberi, a Palestinian clan leader in Hebron, sat in an ornate reception room, where he met settlers and Israeli army officers earlier this month.
Joshua Mitnick
Settler: In Hebron, Elyakim Haetzni, says he has hope that unprecedented talks with a powerful Palestinian leader will help the cause of Jewish settlers of Kiryat Arba.
Rich Clabaugh

With a reputation for daily scuffles and extremism, Hebron is the last place one would expect Jewish settlers and a prominent Palestinian leader to sit down together. Now, in an unlikely détente, an Israeli-Arab odd couple believe they may have their own formula for coexistence.

A breakthrough for peace? Symbolically, perhaps.

Sensing that the international push to fast-track Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking spelled an end to their West Bank settlement, Jewish leaders reached out to Sheikh Abu Khader al-Jaberi. Perhaps to their surprise, the prominent clan leader welcomed his longtime Israeli adversaries into his home for a high-profile sit-down earlier this month. His guests snapped pictures and sat alongside their robed host.

The aim was to forge a mutual understanding, one that could benefit both sides and end the violence that has been constant here for decades.

For Elyakim Haetzni, a resident of neighboring Kiryat Arba and a former far-right parliamentarian, the meeting affirmed the permanence of the Hebron's Jewish environs, a notion that many of his own countrymen might dismiss as ludicrous, as most expect any peace deal between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government to include the removal of settlers from Hebron. The settlers also want the sheikh to improve security in the city, and prevent further attacks on settlers.

For Mr. Jaberi, the meeting, which included a local Israeli military commander, is a chance for him to advance his agenda: reopening Palestinian roads and shops after years of military restrictions.

"We shouldn't wait for the Norwegians to come and solve our problems. Why shouldn't I sit with my neighbor and solve the problem?" asks Yitzhak Magrafta, an Israeli peace activist who negotiated for two months with both sides to have the meeting. "This isn't a peace of the Left – this is a peace of the people."

But while some Palestinians and Jewish settlers in Hebron may be approaching their own solution to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the rapprochement contains challenges to the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who have been unable to make such progress in their rounds of internationally sponsored peace talks. The two leaders met again in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

To be sure, decisions that are made between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert, as the two sides work toward a possible peace deal before the end of 2008, could contradict any agreements made outside the spotlight of their negotiations.

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.

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.

"It caused the Jewish settlers to realize they have good neighbors. Everything starts from respect. The sheikh respected a place that's holy for Jews. How can I not respect him?" he asks.

After recovering from their initial surprise, the settler leaders saw a political opportunity. Fearful that they may experience a repeat of Israel's forced evacuation of some 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, the ties to the Jaberi clan may help them defy the assumptions of peace negotiators that Jewish settlers should not remain deep in Palestinian regions.

Unlike the West Bank landscape of separated Arab and Jewish towns, about 7,500 settlers live in and around Hebron in intimate proximity to the city's Palestinian population of about 130,000.

"We want to build a new peace situation that is built on the rights of people to live in this area without being the victim of evacuation," said Noam Arnon, the spokesman for the 600 or so settlers who live inside the city limits.

Jaberi says the settlers' status in the city ultimately depends on the outcome of these fledgling talks. If the Israeli army does remove checkpoints and opens Palestinian shops in the vacated old city, he'll be able use his family's power to possibly prevent attacks from Palestinian militants.

But analysts are skeptical about the potential of this new alliance.

"A local initiative for a limited period of time could work. But I wouldn't expect it to go beyond that into political recognition," says Gershon Baskin, the copresident of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "It's difficult for me to see any kind of modus vivendi between the settlers in Hebron and the Palestinians there. You're talking about the most extreme group of settlers – and the Palestinians of Hebron don't represent the most moderate group of Palestinians, either."

The next move

On a Hebron road severed by concrete blocks and a military watchtower, settling old scores seemed less important than easing life for the thousands of Palestinians who cannot drive.

As she neared the blockade with her elderly mother-in-law and year-old son, Dalal el-Muhtasib explained how visiting her aunt inside the restricted neighborhood once took five minutes by taxi. Now, the ban on Palestinian vehicles means a 20-minute walk.

Ms. Muhtasib says she has hope that the sheikh's talks with the settlers may improve daily life for Palestinians like herself living in Hebron. "We will sit with the devil to remove the siege."

Magrafta, the negotiator, says action is needed from the government to respond to the progress in Hebron. "There is a population is really suffering from the road closure. It needs to be solved as soon as possible, to show to the people that the shiekh brought results and that it's not [just] another meeting that looks nice."

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