Are grassroots peace measures outpacing the work of the political class in the West Bank?
The realization that political leaders have been unable to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that involvement of the international community has only sharpened the division between Arab and Jew, has prompted the people of Eretz-Shalom (Land Peace) to seek peace from the bottom up.
The Israeli Left has made numerous attempts to make peace between Israeli-Jews and Palestinian-Arabs. The Geneva document drafted by MK Yossi Beilin- and P.L.O spokesperson Abd –Rabbo in October 2003 failed as did the previous attempt, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Peace Plan of July 27, 2002, both of which were supported and funded by the European Union and Western (mostly European) NGOs. These two peace plans represented the views and expectations of the secular leftist-European-and liberal worldview to the exclusion of the traditional values of the people who are both physically and emotionally tied to their land. Both these peace plans have been relegated to the dustbin of history. It is the people who work on the land and who have personally experienced closely the price of war and its cost in blood, who are, in the end, the best possible peace-makers.
In “settlement” communities such as Kedumim in Samaria, the people are determined to live in peace with their Arab neighbors. There is no fence around Kedumim, and the residents travel to Arab villages, while Arab villagers come to be served in the settlement’s gas station. This is true for other communities as well. “We are open and ready to settle our differences with our Arab neighbors on the basis of live and let live with mutual respect for one another” says Raphaella Segal of Kedumim. Although Raphella is not yet an active member of Eretz-Shalom, she supports the idea behind the movement.
The Land Peace movement began with meetings between local Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion) and moved southward to the Mt. Hebron region and northward towards Samaria. In an interview with the Israeli Hebrew daily Makor Rishon, Nachum Petznick, one of the founders of Land Peace explained that,
"Land Peace grew from the bottom by regular people both Palestinian-Arabs and Jewish settlers who understood that there is no time to wait while politicians who try time and again to present unsuccessful peace plans. Reality is more complex, however, and while the politicians discuss peace agreements something entirely different is occurring on the ground. Our aim is to impact on reality while understanding that both the Palestinians and we, the Jewish settlers, are here to stay.”
“We are now several hundred strong.” says Petznick, “The mere fact that we are meeting with scores of Palestinian-Arabs who are interested, and that we are getting to know each other is of immense importance, Petznick said. The conversation in the political Left is about “recognizing” the Palestinians while at Land Peace we “get to know” real Palestinians as individual people,” Petznick added. To recognize something is undefined, but to know somebody is real, according to Petznick. The people associated with Land Peace want to live side by side in peace with their neighbors, but as Petznick puts it, the word “peace” has been exploited and beaten up from all directions, “I prefer to talk about good neighborly relations and mutual respect - rather than use the word 'peace.'”
S., a former Hamas activist who must hide his name for fear of retribution, found his way to Land Peace through an Israeli prison system. He tells the story of a young Palestinian named Tzudki Zaro in prison with him who told him without remorse that he murdered the Jewish baby Shalhevet Pas. When S. asked him if he was proud of his deed, Zaro replied “of course, why not?” S. described the shock he felt knowing that this human monster was proud of murdering a baby who was just a few months old. After that S. recounts, “I began to think differently.” As S. told a Makor Rishon reporter, “I reached the conclusion that I did not want to be with people like Zaro, and that both you (the Jews) and us (Palestinians) live on this land, and that we do not have another land, so what are we to do? You fire at us, we fire at you, you kill and we kill, and when will it end?"
S. described how he has been searching for ways to talk to Israelis and how he found the Land Peace movement. According to S., the peace from above failed, and the leadership on both sides failed. “I do not care about Abu Mazen or Netanyahu, but I do care about my neighbors, and I want the firing on each other to stop. I want my Jewish neighbor to give me a ride and I want to do the same for him, and we together will force our leaders to make peace.”
S. is clear about the way to peace: “The leaders failed to bring peace because the public was not prepared for it. The leaders sat together and wrote agreements and then delivered the message through the press to the people. But, the people have not seen a difference, and they are still suffering.” S. concluded, “Peace will come not when the leadership will cook and we will eat from it, but rather, when we shall cook for ourselves.”
Shai Ben Josef, another key figure in Land Peace observed that, “For seventy years people are trying to divide the land and have failed because it is a small land and because we live amongst each other, and share the same roads, breathe the same air, and drink the same water. We must therefore find a way in which each nation (Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs) will be able to fulfill its self determination separately, but at the same time share in things that could be run together.”
The message of Land Peace to President Obama and the European Union is clear: let us “cook” peace for ourselves.