Rare twist as Palestinians, Israeli settlers cooperate
After years of struggle, Mohammed Saed is about to finally secure army permission to build a home in his West Bank village after an Israeli in a nearby settlement stepped in to help.
Saed's village, Khirbet Zakariya, is in a part of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control. As a Palestinian, he cannot build without Israeli permission, which is often extremely difficult to secure.
"Settlers came to visit the village three years ago and were surprised when they saw how little housing there was," he told AFP.
"They offered to speak to the (Israeli) Civil Administration to help us obtain the necessary permits," he said, referring to the defence ministry unit responsible for zoning and planning in most of the West Bank.
"We were shocked because we usually get harassed or attacked by settlers."
The presence of half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which, along with the Gaza Strip, were occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, is a source of much bitterness for Palestinians who want these areas for their long-promised state.
But a settlers' movement called Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace) is trying to bring both sides together to soothe some of those open wounds.
Eliaz Cohen, a Jew living in the settlement of Kfar Etzion, was one of the first to get involved in efforts to help the villagers of nearby Khirbet Zakariya. He said he struck up a relationship with Saed as they battled to get a permit for his house.
"For three years, I fought by his side," said Cohen, a poet and a pioneer of efforts to start dialogue between the settlers and their Palestinian neighbours.
For him, peace starts with mutual recognition of the right of both sides to the same land.
"It's not that the land should be divided, it should be shared by everyone," he told AFP.
"I think there is room for two national entities to exist in the same place, whether in the form of a confederation, or two states, but without anyone losing their historic rights to this land, to which our two peoples are both attached."
Two years ago, Cohen's friend Nahum Patchenik set up the Eretz Shalom movement to promote religious, social and economic cooperation with the Palestinians.
"Peace between us is mandatory," said Patchenik, a father of four who lives in Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc in the southern West Bank that lies close to Bethlehem.
With a bushy black beard, a large skullcap and sandals, Patchenik looks exactly like one of the nationalist religious settlers who are usually little inclined toward dialogue with their Palestinian neighbours.
A rabbi's son, he was born and raised on settlements and says he can't imagine living anywhere else.
"I am tied to this land and I will stay, but the Palestinians are too, and I want to learn to live with them," he said.
"We've organised interreligious meetings, food package distribution, joint demonstrations against the separation wall," Patchenik said of the huge barrier Israel is building through the West Bank.
Eretz Shalom is involved in a growing number of projects, including farming a field together.
"The project is called Sadot Shamayim (Fields of Heaven) because we Jews and Muslims believe that the land, in the end, belongs to no one but God," he explained, saying the food grown there would be distributed to needy families.
'Peace isn't made on the White House lawn'
Patchenik's views are not shared by many of the 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Eretz Shalom has around 1,700 members, including 150 Palestinians.
Many in the settler community consider Eretz Shalom to be utopian dreamers at best, traitors at worst.
And for many Palestinians the idea of cooperating with the settlers is also anathema.
But not for those living in Khirbet Zakariya, who say they are happy to accept any help if it will secure them a rare permit from the military to build much-needed homes.
"We are 650 people here and we need all the help we can get," said Saed, adding that settlers are often seen in the village, visiting the grave of the biblical prophet Zechariah.
"Am I crazy?" Patchenik asked. "Yes, I'm crazy for peace."
He refused to propose political solutions, but said that if a two-state solution were adopted one day, he'd stay where he is -- even if he became part of a Palestinian state.
"It's my right to be part of a Jewish minority in a Palestinian democracy, just like the more than one million Palestinians living in the state of Israel," he said.
"Peace is made between people of good will on the ground, not on the lawn of the White House," he added.
Ibrahim Anbawi, a Palestinian member of Eretz Shalom from the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he also wants to spread these ideas among his compatriots.
"I've met with settlers who agree to live in a future Palestinian state and this dialogue is a good thing for the future," he said.
"I met with settlers who lost children to the conflict, and they still agree with the idea (of dialogue)."
Patchenik recently met with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as part of a delegation of Jewish religious dignitaries.
"This meeting was very important for us because Abbas authorised the continuation of the dialogue. It's another step towards peace," said Anbawi.
In a climate marked by a growing number of settler attacks on Palestinians and their property, the movement faces an uphill battle. United Nations statistics show there were 411 such attacks last year, up from 167 in 2009.
But Cohen insists that ideas about coexistence and cooperation are gaining ground as more people realise their futures are irrevocably intertwined.
"People's mentalities are changing more and more, among the settlers and among the Palestinians," he told AFP.
"They're understanding that their futures are closely linked," he said.
"We are condemned to make peace."