A few weeks have passed since I received a phone call from an Arab Mukhtar who lives in the Bethlehem area. He asked to visit my Sukkah in Efrat together with dozens of dignitaries, including mukhtars and sheikhs from the Bethlehem and Hebron sectors. I gladly agreed to take him up on the offer. I have always believed and still do that it is only through face-to-face dialogue with the Palestinians that we can create a format for normalization, after which peace will follow.
During the Sukkot holiday, dozens of Arab dignitaries visited our sukkah in Efrat. They were treated as honored guests in our large sukkah, in the spirit of the holiday. Seated alongside them were the IDF Operations Branch Head, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the Judea and Samaria Police District, Commander Moshe Bareket, Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli and Col. Roman Gofman, commander of the Etzion Brigade, who is responsible for numerous pre-emptive detentions that have prevented terror attacks, even in the very villages from which the distinguished visitors came.
Unfortunately, the very next day, the smiles and conversation were replaced by concern: Four residents of Wadi Nis who had come to visit the residents of Efrat in honor of the Sukkot holiday were arrested by the Palestinian Authority and accused of conspiring with the enemy. During the five days that our guests were detained in Palestinian prisons, we left no stone unturned in our efforts to help them release them from detention.
Since when is having a cup of coffee in a sukkah in a neighboring community a crime? Sadly, according to certain senior officials of the Palestinian Authority, the answer to that question is apparently that it is.
In a few months’ time, we will mark 50 years since our return home to the land we inherited from our ancestors in the years before our exile. Even before that war, thanks to which we returned to the land of our ancestors, and certainly after it, subsequent Israeli governments met with representatives of the Palestinians at hundreds of meetings and conferences: from 1991 in Madrid until 1998, through the Wye Plantation, to Camp David and Oslo. Representative’s of the Israeli government and the Palestinian administration met repeatedly both secretly and publicly.
Time and again, these meetings between leaders broke down and came to nothing, and did little to bring greater security to Israeli citizens. On the contrary, in their wake, we saw buses filled with passengers going up in flames and terrorists detonating suicide bombs in crowded marketplaces and restaurants. Some called the thousands of Israelis murdered or maimed in these bombings “victims of peace.”
In recent months, things have been happening beneath the surface that have not been made public. Palestinians who are not employed by the Palestinian Authority are desperate to achieve a better reality, to live a normal life, receive permits to work in Israel and to find solutions to natural resources and environmental hazards. Many of the leaders of the villages around Efrat contact me on a weekly basis in their desire to cooperate in areas related to sanitation, the environment, education, transportation, employment, security, health and more. Despite minimal objections from my people, I am convinced the way to fulfill that dream of normalization goes through communicating, creating dialogue and cooperating with the Palestinians. That’s what we tried to do in the sukkah in my backyard. And we invited representatives of the army and police to participate in the conversation too. In a sukkah with flexible walls we tried to be flexible in our positions for the benefit of all sides. Gen. Nitzan Alon said, “The more dialogue there is among all the parties, the better the reality will be in all areas, including security.”
Even the family of the Palestinian girl who was accidentally killed in a road accident a few weeks ago by a car driven by a resident of Efrat came to visit in our sukkah. The terrorist organizations have already declared her a shahid, threatening that a second Duma was just around the corner. Thanks to the dialogue between the sides – my visit with the grieving family in its village, the installation of speed bumps at the site of the accident by the IDF and a reciprocal visit by the family in Efrat on Sukkot – things calmed down.
Due to pressure exerted by the extremists, direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis have become increasingly rare. Discussions attended by IDF generals, high-ranking police officers, Palestinian dignitaries from nearby villages held in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are even rarer. Visits by Palestinians to Jewish settlements are almost unheard of.
We must have many more direct talks. It is only through dialogue and understanding of the other that we will be able to calm the area and bring an end to the ongoing conflict between the sides.
We are here and so are they (and so are the army and the police). The solutions must be reached by means of a dialogue between the neighbors in the area. We need to find ways to create an infrastructure that will lead to cooperation between the two populations without creating a situation in which anyone who has coffee with their Jewish neighbors could become the next “victim of peace.”
Direct dialogue makes good neighbors, without victims on either side.