By Khaled Diab
Jerusalem is the most potent symbol of the chasm dividing the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Just outside the holy city with its unholy politics, a group of dedicated Israel Jews and Palestinians decided they did not need to wait for their leaders to deliver peace for them to live side by side peacefully in a three-decade-old joint community.
When I learnt about the village before I came, through a friend, Tom, I decided it was a 'must see' on my tour. Debby, an American Jew living here who was also part of the METalks forum, has also been meaning to go there, so she tagged along (I should say, gave me a lift). En route, the topic drifted towards co-existence and the separation wall.
Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (Peace Oasis) is perched on a beautiful hilltop overlooking lush green valleys. It was set up by a colourful Dominican monk called Bruno. This monk started life as an Egyptian Jew in Cairo. In Europe, he not only decided to convert to Christianity but also took a vow of chastity and poverty. He moved to the Holy Land and joined the Latruin monastery. Today, it is home to 50 families, half Jewish and half Palestinian, most of whom are successful professionals working outside the community. The oasis has its own school, hotel, conference facilities, and even a meditation dome overlooking a stunning valley.
Convinced that one of the biggest obstacles to peace was the lack of contact between the two peoples, he persuaded his brethren to give over some land for a village where Israelis and Palestinians could live together as an experiment in co-existence and a model for the future.
Avoid Utopian visions
Rita Bolos, the village's visits director, talks me through the oasis's reality and mission, as well as the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, in between the chirping phone and the traffic of staff passing through her office as they finalise preparations for a big conference.
"The residents of the oasis came here believing that we are all humans and need to live side by side. We, Arabs and Jews, know it isn't going to be easy living here with this conflict blazing around us," she told me. "We live in equality and respect. We didn't come here to change Jews or for Jews to change Arabs, but to show we can live co-habit and empathise."
The community is not without its tensions, but all issues are debated and resolved democratically. At first, the oasis was under a lot of pressure from sceptics to deliver some sort of harmonious, ideal republic. "Because we were under a lot of pressure from outside, we were in a hurry to create a utopia - to show the outside world that life could be harmonious. But today we are more realistic and taking it one step at a time," said Rayeq (whose manner is as tranquil as his name suggests, despite the suggestion of inner turmoil), the village's ex-mayor, as he painted on the terrace of the only cafe in town.
"Most of us came here convinced that our narratives were the right ones. Now we've learnt to empathise with the other side," he added. "All the difficulties we, the founding generation, had are not visible among the new generation. They get along very well."
State of pragmatism v states of mind
For Rita, their community is living proof that a confederated binational state is not only feasible but desirable. "I think a single state would be richer and more attractive for all its citizens," she explains. "Because I believe in a single state, I see the oasis as a model for this. Other residents who believe in a two-state solution live here to build the bridges necessary to reach peace."
"For it to work, it has to be a completely secular state in which religion is an issue in the private domain," she noted.
Rayeq, who also supports the idea of a bi-national state, explains his vision. "Israel confronts the same multi-ethnic challenge facing a number of other countries," he says, giving Lebanon and Iraq as examples. "We need a system in which all the ethnicities are represented proportionally and justly. Minorities should also have their rights protected by law. The constitution should protect all groups and provide them with fair political representation."
He advocates the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian parliaments where each group will be able to vote regardless of where they actually live in Israel-Palestine, rather like in Belgium. The Israeli government would run affairs in the Jewish majority areas and the Palestinian government would run things in the Palestinian majority areas and they would manage Jerusalem jointly.
Put down your weapons now
Rita is a dedicated advocate of non-violent Palestinian resistance. "The only losers in violent resistance are the Palestinians themselves. My resistance is to raise my family and give them the best education I can," she said. "If I were a Palestinian leader, I would collect all the weapons and melt them into a massive statue dedicated to peace."
Rayeq agrees. "The Palestinians have been calling for armed struggle for 60 years. This has got them nowhere. This attitude needs to be changed."
Rita also talked at some length about the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their Palestinian brethren in the Occupied Territories, the refugee camps there and in other Arab countries. She told me that Israeli Arabs definitely have a better life than the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and they have more freedom than the citizens of many Arab countries. Nevertheless, they are not full citizens and the system piles many subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles in their path, particularly when it comes to education, employment and buying land.
She had harsh words for Israels treatment of Palestinians in the refugee camps and cities of the West Bank and Gaza, but she had equally tough words for the Arab worlds treatment of Palestinians. "Palestinians are oppressed generally throughout the Arab world and not just in Israel," she described, although she acknowledged that other Arabs had also shown generosity - but not enough considering the close emotional ties every Arab feels for the Palestinian cause.
She criticised the refusal of some Arab countries to integrate their Palestinian population with the excuse that this was keeping the Palestinian cause alive. "If they want to keep the Palestinian cause alive, then the Arab League could've created a special status Palestinian passport or write 'of Palestinian origin' on their new local passports," she suggested. "Even if you keep them in refugee camps, keep them there humanely."
She expressed frustration that Lebanon, for instance, often refuses even to let Palestinian refugees out of their camps which have turned into towns in their own rights. She also found it unacceptable that most Palestinian Christians had, she said, received Lebanese citizenship, but not the Muslims.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.