In tense West Bank city, she secretly meets Israelis to talk peace

Haya, a Hebron college student, has stopped telling friends about peace and started boycotting Israeli products. But she meets twice a month with Israelis and says one day she might be Palestinian president.

Mussa Qawasma/Reuters/File
Palestinian protesters prepare to throw stones at Israeli army soldiers during clashes following an anti-Israel demonstration in solidarity with al Aqsa mosque, in the West Bank city of Hebron November 14, 2014.

Amid a sea of demure Palestinian young women in high heels, she wears jeans and Converse sneakers. In a city where many people support Hamas’s brand of armed resistance against Israel, she secretly meets with Israelis to talk about peace.

“I think it’s better than doing nothing,” says Haya, a university student with fluent English. “And I might be president one day, and I will change everything. Because our president is not doing anything.”

Haya was born in 1993, the year the Oslo Accords were signed. They laid out a framework for establishing a sovereign Palestinian state by the time she would be five years old.

Now she is 21, and she has yet to know what it is to be a citizen. But she knows all too well what it is to live under Israeli occupation.

She lives in Hebron, one of the most intense crucibles of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. A unique arrangement allows Israelis to live in the heart of the city and pray at one half of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, while Muslims pray on the other side of the site, which they call the Ibrahimi mosque.

When Haya goes to pray there, soldiers check her ID and sometimes her bag. Even though the process is humiliating, she makes a point of smiling and saying thank you at every checkpoint, hoping such gestures could help change things. Once that drew the unwelcome come-on of a young soldier, who said to her in Arabic, “I didn’t know there were pretty girls in Hebron.”

She also has frequent run-ins with Israeli settlers in the city. Once she came around a corner of the old city on a Saturday morning to find a settler pointing his gun at her face. On a recent settler tour, some boys held up their middle finger at her.

“Seriously?” she says, describing the incident. “You are the new generation. You should have a new way of thinking.”

Hebron is known as not only the largest and most industrious city in the West Bank, but also for generating some of the most passionate defenders of the Palestinian cause. Yet rarely does one find a Hebronite stubbornly committed to peace. And even the few who did dare to speak have become quiet since the Gaza war this summer, which together with an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank deepened bitterness toward Israel.

“After the war, almost everyone changed,” says Haya, who doesn’t even talk to her Palestinian friends about her peace ideals anymore.

Even as she keeps up her bimonthly engagement with Israelis seeking peace, she has started boycotting Israeli products, including water, milk, cheese, and chocolate – even though, she says, the Arab dairy products aren’t nearly as good.

“When you see small children dying, you feel something inside of you – you gotta do something, so let’s boycott at least,” she says, referring to the hundreds of children in Gaza who were killed in the summer war. “Because I thought, I’m really funding them to buy bullets and kill those innocent children.”

Unlike many Israelis, who are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the only way to ensure their security is to build walls between themselves and their enemies, Haya sees heightened protection for both sides in establishing one democratic state for all.

“Maybe if Palestinians and Israelis live together, it would be safer for both,” she says. “We don’t need walls … we should demolish [the border] and dance over it.”

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