The air was cool and verging on cold as dozens of Israelis streamed into the sandy parking lot in the West Bank, gathering for afternoon and evening prayers after a long day of fasting.
At the other end of the lot, down a wide, unpaved road, Ali Abu Awwad presided over the Palestinian contingent, a small group of locals joined by members of Operation Groundswell, social activist backpackers from Canada who were spending the summer in the region. Sitting in a square of brown velvet couches, they listened to Hanan Schlesinger, a local settler who has become part of this intimate group of activists.
The two groups were present for Choose Life, the joint fast project initiated by activist Palestinians and Israelis who live in this area. Marking the 17th of Tammuz and 18th day of Ramadan, Jewish and Muslim fast days that coincided on Tuesday, they gathered, as did dozens of other groups around the world, in Evanston and Eilat, Jerusalem, Ottowa and Philadelphia.
Situated next to the Etzion bloc intersection in the West Bank, the location couldn’t have been more mundane. The Israelis spent their first hour in the lot, sandwiched between Route 60 and the massive traffic circle that marks the intersection, with a flourishing vineyard on their other side. Shaul David Judelman, a rabbi and organizer of the event, read Psalms in between the afternoon and evening prayers, with the sound of traffic in the background.
“This is so complicated,” said Hadassah Froman, the widow of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the settler activist who was a mentor to many of the people in the crowd. “It’s so complicated for people to come and be a part of this.”
Down the road, the Palestinians were seated in Abu Awwad’s former farmhouse, which he plans to turn into a center for nonviolent activism. It’s not a legal structure, which is why there is no electricity or running water. But he was still planning on feeding the more than one hundred people present for Iftar, the Ramadan end-of-day meal that would also serve as the break-fast for the Israelis refraining from food on the 17th of Tammuz.
He pointed out the mound of dirt covering the tandoor of kosher chicken and mejadra, a rice dish topped with lentils and onions.
“That’s for those who keep kosher,” he said. Judelman, one of his activist partners, made sure the observant attendees knew that there was a table of kosher food.
It wasn’t a big crowd of Palestinians, said Abu Awwad. There were around 50 at their last event. Some of the Palestinian women who would have come were nervous to be around settlers right now, he said. There were also many celebrations going on in the Palestinian community, as high school students marked the completion of their matriculation exams.
But there were some newcomers as well, he said.
He pointed to a young man in a pink T-shirt, sitting and listening to the others.
“He called me this afternoon and said he wanted to come,” said Abu Awwad. “I have to be careful with new people, make sure they’re here for the right reasons.”
At 8:15 pm, as night fell and the fast ended, the Israelis walked over to the farm, accompanied by a guitarist playing songs of peace and hope. Everyone mixed and mingled in the yard, filling plates with chicken, rice and salad, sitting and talking.
As the crowd thinned out, and families left, heading home to put their kids to bed, some people took out their guitars again, alternating between Hebrew and Arabic songs.
Eliaz Cohen, one of the organizers, wrote on the Choose Life Facebook page:
“Returned from the Choose Life gathering in the Etzion bloc. More than a hundred settlers and Palestinians discovered one another. Sacred moments. The moon wrapped us at our plot of land, where we found roots. And from what I’m starting to hear from other gatherings that were held tonight around the country and world, I understand that we succeeded, with God’s help and Inshallah and in the image of God, for thousands of good women and men, who are starting something new at this difficult time.”