EFRAT, West Bank — The gathering wasn’t exactly unprecedented. Jewish settlers and their Palestinian neighbors have met quietly before, many times. But not like this. This meeting, this was rare.
The settlement of Efrat is a bedroom community of 10,000 affluent Jews, including many Americans, a few miles south of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The residents of Efrat live the good life in a growing hilltop community that the United States considers illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.
Efrat’s mayor, Oded Revivi, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army reserve, invited Palestinians from surrounding villages to come to his house and celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, when the faithful gather in palm-roofed huts, a remembrance of the 40 years of wandering landless in the desert back in the time of Moses.
A couple of dozen Palestinians accepted the mayor’s invitation this week to share brownies, grapes, cookies, apples and coffee, alongside 30 Israeli settlers. This was a first.
The idea? The sides were here to talk, perhaps even to bond — no matter if the dynamic was a little awkward and asymmetrical.
For the Palestinians, maybe it was like having Christmas dinner with your boss. The settlers were very welcoming, but they were armed.
Among the attendees were an Israeli army general and the top commander of the Israeli national police in the West Bank. The Israeli forces, and some of the civilian settler guests, arrived with rifles slung over their shoulders or pistols jammed into holsters on their belts.
The Palestinians, of course, were not armed. Many of them worked or had worked as laborers in the settlement.
Everyone was very polite. A Palestinian farmer sat next to an Israeli diplomat. They live a mile and a world apart. A rabbi from the settlement broke bread
with a Palestinian stonemason. Guests shook hands, took selfies, patted one another on the back. Both sides seemed a little stunned to be together celebrating a Jewish holiday.
The Palestinians spoke decent to fluent Hebrew. The settlers didn’t speak much Arabic.
One Palestinian stood and told the guests that he didn’t want to see the West Bank “turn into Syria.”
Another said he didn’t like “being lumped together with the terrorists.”
Some Palestinian guests felt comfortable enough to complain out loud about how they are treated. Some Israelis mentioned the wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks against them.
There were some remarkable moments.
Ahmad Mousa, 58, a contractor from the neighboring Palestinian village of Wadi Al Nis, said, “We consider ourselves part of the family, part of the people of Efrat.”
You do not hear that much in the West Bank, at least not in public, with smartphone cameras rolling.
He said, “Seventy percent of our village works in Efrat. They treat us very well and we are very good to them, too.”
Noman Othman, 41, a construction worker from Wadi Al Nis, said this was his first time as a guest in a home in the settlement, although he had worked here for years, building houses.
“This is good,” he said. “Our relationship is evolving.”
Asked whether he bore any grudge against the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, now home to 400,000 settlers, which the Obama administration has condemned as “an obstacle to peace,” Othman said nope. He didn’t have any problem with Efrat.
If there was a Palestinian state someday, a dream Palestinians say is growing more distant, Othman said the Jews in Efrat “should stay on their land.”
He saw it this way: “These are their houses. They bought them with their own money. We should have no problem living together — if there is peace.”
Ali Musa, 49, came from the village of Al Khader. He told the gathering: “I came for a reason. I came to talk about our relationship, between you and us.”
He reminded his hosts that there is a locked yellow gate that blocks the entrance to his village, a closure enforced by Israeli security forces. “That gate should be removed,” Musa said.
He added: “And that racist sign? That should also be removed. It’s outrageous. It prevents our Jewish friends from visiting us.”
Musa was referring to the large red signs posted across the West Bank warning Israelis in capital letters that it is against the law and “dangerous to your lives” to enter “Area A,” cities and villages under full control of the Palestinian Authority.
The mayor gave a short speech. “Some people say there will be one state, some say two states,” Revivi said. “As neighbors, we are already living together.”
The mayor is also a leader of the Yesha Council, the administrative body that represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a group whose members are ascendent in Israeli politics and oppose a two-state solution.
Revivi hailed the men who came to his home as “true men, courageous men.”
“I know there were men I invited and they did not come,” he said, “because this takes initiative and courage.”
Revivi did not have to explain this. Palestinians may work in Jewish settlements without social censure, but Palestinian society discourages its people from mingling with police officers and soldiers, ever wary of collaboration and a process that Palestinians call “normalization.” They see that as a way for Israel, little by little, to use people’s natural inclination to seek accord to legitimize the almost 50-year military occupation and surrender their struggle for their own state.
Efrat’s mayor said that in the past few years he has traveled to neighboring Palestinian villages to celebrate Muslim holidays. His neighbors slaughter a
lamb. He has photos on his smartphone. There is a feast.
It is important to keep the
lines of communication open, he said.
Here “keeping the peace” is not just words. The mayor said more than 1,000 Palestinians work daily in the Efrat settlement: at the shops, sweeping the streets, maintaining the infrastructure, fixing the solar panels, building the new houses, remodeling the older ones.
Efrat is just a few miles down the road from the notorious Gush Etzion Junction, scene of more than a dozen Palestinian attacks in the past year. It is also on land the Palestinians want for their future state.
The mayor said relations became closer with neighboring Palestinians after a recent tragedy.
A driver from Efrat struck and killed a Palestinian girl on the road leading from the settlement. Her twin sister was a few feet away. She saw the whole thing.
Revivi went to the wake and expressed his sorrow to the family. He promised there would be a full investigation. The mayor confessed that he was worried that the Palestinian reaction could unspool in retributive violence.
The Palestinian family agreed it was an accident.
“The mayor came and paid his condolences. That is why I am here,” said Mohammed Mahmoud Musa, 62, a farmer and the girl’s grandfather.
Revivi got the Israeli military to erect speed bumps. Palestinian guests said that it should not have taken a death — and that their own appeals for speed bumps would have been ignored.
Toward the end of the gathering, a Palestinian named Said Abu Hamad and an Israeli security officer at Efrat, Chaim Citon, posed for a photograph together.
Citon came to the gathering with two radios and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
“See? We’re like brothers,” Hamad said, grinning at the camera lens.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the U.S. government considers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal. The Obama administration refers to them as “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.” The international community calls them illegal. Israel disputes this.