I was hospitalized in Jerusalem for a minor procedure and was placed in a small room with one other occupant, a young settler from the West Bank who was all banged up from a bicycle accident. A long-time peace activist, my “already listening” instantly roared from within….He’s surely ultra-right-wing, a gobbler of others’ land, an uncaring, and likely hard-hearted young man…..
What was clear that this guy represented the people with whom I had nothing in common, and who comprised the barrier to the future I sought. Clearly, settlers like Yossi would forever remain our adversary. I grimly kept to myself as my roommate’s settler friends came in to visit with him, joking and generally having a good time while I quietly seethed. On the second afternoon, waiting for the nurses to change our bandages, no one was around and, both of us bored, we got to talking. He told me about his preparations for army service, a couple of months down the road. He spoke of life in his settlement, and soon revealed that his parents had been ambushed in their car, shot and killed by terrorists along with his young brother, in 2002. The nine surviving siblings were raised by family and friends. Here was Yossi, 19, beside me in the next bed, calmly relating a personal history that I could not begin to fathom.
Yossi asked about me, and eventually I told him about Sulha, the project where I am active, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for people-to-people contact. Yossi cautiously asked whether he could come along some time. To my shame, it had not occurred to me to invite him to our coming event. A settler? This guy, whose home sits on stolen Palestinian land, is going to come to a Sulha evening? “Of course,” I said, and pulled an invitation out of my bag. “We’d love to have you there,” not believing for a moment that he would show up.
Two weeks later, as we gathered at Neve Shalom, the Jewish-Arab village near Latrun, I was amazed to see Yossi getting out of the ride he had hitched to the site. I greeted him happily, and some minutes later the bus bearing some thirty Palestinian participants pulled up. I approached Ahmed, an 18-year-old from the Hebron hills who had been to previous Sulha events. Ahmed walks with a limp and his arm is scarred, the result of beatings and arrests he has endured during demonstrations in his village against the occupation. Ahmed learned some Hebrew in jail. I asked if I could introduce him to Yossi, and Ahmed was not thrilled. But he agreed, and the two of them hesitantly sat off to one side and began to speak.
As the evening’s collective activities proceeded, the two young men refused to participate. They were deep into a dialogue that they did not want to interrupt. Part of the time they argued, but from the side I could see them rolling cigarettes for each other. Something warm and magical was happening between them. When we broke for supper, they continued talking over their soup. Finally the evening was winding down, and we needed the Palestinians to get back on the bus so they could return to the Bethlehem border crossing in time. I approached them and Ahmed reluctantly agreed to head for the bus. Then he turned to Yossi and the two of them hugged. Holding on to Yossi’s shoulder, Ahmed stepped back and said, “In a couple of months, Yossi, you’re going to be in uniform and armed, out at the roadblocks, and I will still be across the road, throwing stones at you soldiers. Please, man, be careful out there!”
Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project