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 illegal and an obstacle to peace.
The Efrat mayor, Oded Revivi, who is also a 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 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 stone mason. 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.”
Everyone talked about peace. Nobody really talked about one state or two states. They didn’t mention Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
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.”
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