Nachum Pachenik and Ziad Sabatin met three years ago at a demonstration. They both came to the Palestinian village of Walaja, southwest of Jerusalem, to protest the construction of a fence that would encircle the village from all sides. It was an unusual meeting: Pachenik is a settler from a small outpost near Neveh Daniel, in the Etzion Bloc; and Sabatin is a Palestinian from Hussan, just north of there.
Following numerous conversations, Pachenik, 40, and Sabatin, 41, partnered in establishing Land of Peace (Eretz Shalom) — a small and improbable bridge-building organization whose slogan is “The heart of the conflict is the heart of the solution.” They were inspired in part by Rabbi Menahem Froman, a settler leader and peace activist who died Monday after a long battle with cancer.
According to its website, Land of Peace “does not presume to offer conclusive solutions or to formulate peace agreements,” but rather seeks to foster “dialogue and joint projects in education, religion, culture and the environment in the hopes of creating change that will burgeon from the bottom up.”
In February 2011 the organization was officially launched, perhaps oddly, in Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater, one of the symbols of the secular intelligentsia. Figures from the heart of Israel’s Zionist left — including authors Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, and singers Berry Sakharof and Shlomo Gronich — were in attendance.
It was through baby steps that Pachenik and Sabatin attempted to introduce the two sides to each other: hikes in nature; a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer for rain during the drought of 2010; and conciliatory visits to Palestinian villages where mosques had been burned by Jewish extremists as part of the so-called “Price Tag” attacks. There were also more mundane activities, such as Arabic lessons for settlers. The organization’s events are normally attended by a few dozen participants.
Sabatin was no stranger to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He was arrested by the IDF during the first intifada, at age 15, and jailed for three-and-a-half years for throwing stones at IDF soldiers. During his incarceration, he said, he started realizing that armed struggle was futile and peacemaking should be the Palestinian goal.
As the founder of, and previously an active member in, Combatants for Peace — a grass-roots organization bringing together fighters from both sides of the conflict — Sabatin said he was shocked to meet settlers protesting against the security barrier. After the protest, he was invited to the home of Rabbi Froman in the settlement of Tekoa. Froman had been involved in religious dialogue with Muslim leaders, including the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.
Froman “told me about his goals and said they were ‘settlers for peace.’ These were new words to me and I started thinking; it was like a thirsty man finding water,” Sabatin told The Times of Israel from an office in downtown Jerusalem.
“When I met the settlers, I felt that this is what we really need. Combatants for Peace is fine, but it doesn’t touch on the core of the problem,” Sabatin said. “Only a road separates my village of Hussan from Beitar Illit. Their women go shopping in Hussan with baby strollers.”
When Sabatin’s fellows at Combatants for Peace got word of his meetings with the settlers, some of them asked him to leave the organization.
“I was completely surprised by the fact that it was the Jews, not the Arabs, who told me this. To this day, I am good friends with the Arab participants, while the Jews won’t even answer my phone calls.”
So Sabatin decided to abandon Combatants for Peace and engage in dialogue with the people he calls “my neighbors” — the settlers of the Etzion Bloc, near Bethlehem. As a Fatah member, he said the endorsement of leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas (who met with the group twice in recent months) and Bethlehem governor Abdul Fattah Hamayel allowed him to meet with settlers in good conscience. Even Yasser Arafat, he proudly said, once offered Froman to be a minister in the future Palestinian state.
Pachenik, a poet and father of three living in a small mobile home on a rocky hilltop, grew up in the settlement of Beit El; his father was a disciple of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook — the leading ideologue of the settlement movement in its early years. He said that while his wife was always very supportive of his peace activities, for his parents the idea took getting used to.
For Pachenik, the notion that solving the conflict would require one side to disappear from the land is “detached from reality.” The evacuation [of settlers] from the Gaza Strip never brought peace, he said.
“I am no colonialist,” Pachenik argued from the tiny living room of his caravan, sipping tea made of herbs growing outside. “I was born in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron. I did not enter this conflict from the outside, I was born into it.”
‘Why is it so obvious for Israel to have a Palestinian minority, but when we talk about a Jewish minority in Palestine people say “No way”?’ Pachenik wondered. ‘I want to pay my taxes to the Palestinian state!’
Pachenik said he does not care if the political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict entails a one-state or a two-state solution, as long as no one is evacuated from his home and full equality is guaranteed to all citizens.
“You cannot solve one wrong by creating another,” he said, referring to the prospect of forced settler evacuation. “This is our land too, both because we were born here and because it is the promised land in the Bible. The evacuation of 150,000 Israelis will not lead to peace; it will be a disaster, a tragedy for Israeli society.”
Sabatin agreed that “true peace” would not force people to leave their homes, but said the land should be divided into two heterogeneous nation states. Jews choosing to remain in the Palestinian state would get better treatment than Palestinians, he asserted.
“Peace takes care of everyone, allowing everyone to leave their home [in the morning] with an easy heart, feeling secure,” he said. “There should be two states along the ’67 lines, and settlement expansion should stop. The settlements that already exist, will remain.”
A poll conducted by Land of Peace member Tal Yaron two years ago found that an estimated 3.5-4.5% of the 350,000 settlers (not including Jerusalem residents) would opt to remain in a Palestinian state if such a state were founded, Pachenik said. He himself would be among them.
“Why is it so obvious for Israel to have a Palestinian minority?” he asked, referring to the slightly more than one-fifth of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. “But when we talk about a Jewish minority in Palestine people say ‘No way’? I want to pay my taxes to the Palestinian state!”
Fear that Jews would be butchered by Palestinians the moment the IDF left the West Bank is part of “the classic Zionist perception,” which Pachenik does not share.
“I’ve known them from birth, and that is simply not true,” he claimed. “When you don’t know the other, you’re certain he will kill you.”
Pachenik’s argument runs even deeper than that. There can never be true democracy without a national minority in both states, he asserted, and the Palestinians want to be a democracy.
There is unmistakable similarity in the two men’s rhetoric. They are both religious men, focused more on the daily lives of their people than on grand ideologies imposed from above, which, they say, have failed in bringing peace. Peace is one of God’s holiest names in both Jewish and Muslim traditions, they noted, and both cultures believe that the land belongs to God, not to the people that temporarily dwell on it.
Naturally, Land of Peace has witnessed its share of resistance, too.
Pachenik received threats from the residents of a nearby settlement and the organization had to freeze a project to jointly work a plot of land and distribute the produce to the needy, when the landowner — a Palestinian — feared being branded as a sellout, a felony punishable by death. Pachenik said he is engaged in an ideological debate with residents of his community, Sdeh Boaz, who exclusively use “Jewish labor” in constructing their homes.
Now, he is involved in a new initiative to grant Kosher certificates to Palestinian food factories in the West Bank — so that the products can be sold in Israel — and in a dialogue group involving young religious leaders, titled “the Tent of Abraham.”
Today, Land of Peace boasts 2,000 Facebook supporters but only 60-70 active members, Pachenik said, admitting that the numbers are also imbalanced: only 20% of the organization’s members are Palestinian.
For Pachenik, the Jewish resistance to Land of Peace reflects the death throes of two competing ideologies that used to dominate Israel’s political scene — “the entire land of Israel” versus “two states for two peoples.”
“People support Land of Peace in secret,” he said. “The notion of ‘justice’ will lead us to hell. If you want peace, you must forgo victory.”
As for Sabatin, God himself demands his children to reconcile, he said.
“To make peace you must be strong and brave. Tomorrow God will ask us: ‘You had the opportunity to make peace, why didn’t you seize it?’ “