- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

HEBRON, West Bank — With a reputation for daily scuffles, extremism and violence, Hebron is the last place one would expect Jewish settlers and a prominent Palestinian clan leader to engage in dialogue.

Now, in a surprise detente, an Israeli-Arab odd couple think they may have their own formula for coexistence.

With the rapprochement public, it poses a challenge to the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as they struggle to push peace talks forward.

Sheik Abu Khader al-Jaberi sat down with settlers and the local Israeli military commander earlier this month, trying to reopen 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,” said Yitzhak Magrafta, an Israeli peace activist who had mediated between the sides for two months before the meeting.

Jews and Arabs of Hebron have been locked in a decades-old blood feud that is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For settler leaders from the neighboring town of Kiryat Arba and a tiny Jewish neighborhood in the city, the public sit-down with the Palestinian dignitaries of Hebron represents an affirmation of the permanence of the city’s Jewish environs — a suggestion that many fellow Israelis might dismiss as ludicrous.

Under the British Mandate in 1929, 67 Jews were killed in an Arab pogrom.

In Kiryat Arba, there’s a memorial to Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down more than two dozen Palestinians 14 years ago in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site to both Muslims and Jews.

The Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 triggered killings by militants of more than one dozen settlers and an Israeli army-enforced segregation of the city, which has forced thousands of Palestinians to vacate their residences, according to human rights groups.

Despite the historic baggage, participants said the unlikely meeting last week was successful, mixing the trappings of a summit and familiarity of town meeting.

Sheik al-Jaberi, a relative of one of Hebron’s first Palestinian mayors, dressed in a traditional robe and 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,” recalled Sheik al-Jaberi. “We cannot cancel you and you cannot cancel us.”

Settler leaders said they took that to heart.

“This was music to our ears,” said Elyakim 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 in September over the Jewish New Year, when the sheik was approached by a group of Israeli peace activists who asked permission to destroy a makeshift synagogue tent constructed illegally on his property by the settlers.

Sensing the potential for new bloodshed, Sheik al-Jaberi turned them down.

“That gave huge leverage to open hearts and to unfreeze the way to peace,” said Mr. Magrafta, who spends so much time among Palestinians in Hebron that he is known as Abu Naim.

“It caused the Jewish settler to realize they have good neighbors. Everything starts from respect. The sheik respected a place that’s holy for Jews. How can I not respect him?”

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 al-Jaberi clan 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, a minority of about 7,500 settlers live in and around Hebron in intimate proximity to the city’s Palestinian population of about 130,000.

To the uninitiated visitor with a good view of the city, it is difficult to discern where Jewish Kiryat Arba ends and Hebron picks up.

“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 spokesperson of the 600 or so settlers who live inside the city limits.

Sheik al-Jaberi said the settlers’ status in the city ultimately depends on the outcome of negotiations.

He said he used the meeting to issue requests for the Israeli army to take down checkpoints and open up Palestinian shops in the vacated old city. He also hopes to use his family’s power to quash militant attacks.

“I sensed they’re ready to turn a new page,” he said.

Analysts said they had difficulty naming a precedent for such a meeting. They were also skeptical about the potential of the 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,” said Gershon Baskin, the co-president 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 analyst said.

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

As she neared the blockade with an elderly mother-in-law and a 1-year-old son in tow, Dalal el-Muhtasib explained how visiting an aunt inside the restricted neighborhood once took five minutes by taxi, but the ban on Palestinian vehicles requires a 20-minute walk.

And yet, Mrs. el-Muhtasib supports the sheik’s talks with the settlers.

While the settlers are waiting to see whether the al-Jaberi clan improves security, the Palestinians say the Israeli army needs to ease up some of the movement restrictions.

An Israeli military spokesman said the Hebron army commander attended the meeting in a “private capacity” and declined comment.

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