Local rabbi visits Arab village with a grassroots group of Palestinians and Israelis.
Last month on a rabbinical conference in Israel conducted by the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi Brent Gutmann of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, along with a delegation of rabbis from Israel and around the globe, visited the Arab village of Husan, located in the Gush Etziyon region of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).
There, they met with a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis who are taking up practical causes of co-existence such as protesting Israel’s continuing a section of the security barrier that would bisect the village and potentially harm the irrigating Wadi Fakhim, and learned about how Israelis and Palestinians can work together to expand medical facilities and services in the area.
A UNESCO world heritage site 10 kilometers west of Bethlehem, Husan contains ancient remains dating back to the Iron Age. Other remains date from the post-Babylonian Exile Period and the Middle Ages. The original inhabitants came from the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen in the third century. Ceramics from the Byzantine era have been found.
The Arab villagers there still use agricultural practices of tabled terracing for their farming that date back to ancient times, watered by an ancient wadi (seasonal riverbed).
On his trip, Gutmann learned the Arabs and Jews protesting there also fear that the growing Jewish communities around Husan are putting pressures on this wadi and other natural resources. They also fear a strain on existing infrastructure such as sewerage and drainage systems.
These grassroots organizations over the last 25 years have gone through several changes and names. But at the center has been Ziad Sabateen, a resident of Husan who as a teen was arrested and imprisoned for five years in Israel after his involvement in the first intifada in the mid-1980s. After his release following the Oslo Accords, Sabateen realized the path to a two-state solution cannot be won through violence but through conversation and peaceful work toward co-existence.
He founded the group Path of Hope and Peace with the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, who served as the chief rabbi in the Jewish community of Tekoa in the Judean Hills and believed in working toward peace with the Palestinians even when both sides faced violence, death and terror and extremism.
“It was an unlikely alliance — a settler rabbi — and a former Palestinian terrorist,” said Gutmann, who befriended Sabateen through Facebook before meeting in person this summer. “But the two were willing to talk and engage with anyone who were willing to work for a peaceful solution.”
From this trip, Guttmann saw firsthand how activities as ordinary as cleaning up trash from the side of a road or showing concern for the natural resources of the region are ways Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians can come together for a common good.
Another issue that this grassroots organization of Muslims and Jews in the region is taking up is the disparity of healthcare in the region. The life expectancy of Palestinians is on average 10 years shorter than Israelis.
To improve these statistics, Path to Hope and Peace has worked to bring in more healthcare facilities to improve the lives of the Palestinians. For example, Froman had worked to build a local health facility near Husan to increase availability of doctors and specialists. Because of his work with Israelis, Sabateen is able to work through some of the complexities that come with Israel’s tight security measures on Palestinians, such as attaining travel permits to leave the West Bank and enter Israel so that they can visit with sick loved ones who are being treated in Israeli hospitals or even have a visit to swim and play in the ocean.
“The notion of the two-state solution is becoming more and more challenging,” Gutmann said. “But this special trip out to this village made me come to the realization that people on both sides of the conflict can share and find commonalities in everyday interactions. It is possible to come together to talk and try to solve the most immediate and local problems. It is these real person-to-person interactions that bring out each other’s humanity and rarely make the news.”
In a written Facebook message, Sabateen said while the current situation can seem grim as Israeli and Palestinian politicians fight for political survival, it is the everyday people who get lost in the mix.
“The land is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and we must learn to live and share it together,” Sabateen wrote. “We hiked the land together, sat in joint prayers, and arranged many activities to bring all our families and friends to meet each other as neighbors and friends.
“The Path of Hope and Peace brings families together in our area of coexistence next to the Green Line, with a special focus on the young Israelis and Palestinians, who are our collective future.”