Israeli head of interfaith centre says 'open borders' with Palestinians should follow war

Rabbi and author Yakov Nagen condemned settlers' violence amid heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank over Gaza

Rabbi Yakov Nagen with a Palestinian at the annual Jerusalem Hug, an event for reconciliation between the communities. He had called for promoting greater understanding that might one day lead to 'open borders' between the communities. Photo: Dida Mulder
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A leading rabbi and author who advocates for co-existence in the occupied West Bank said he hoped the devastating war in Gaza could lead to "open borders" between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Rabbi Yakov Nagen is considered by many Israelis as one of the foremost religious figures attempting to promote greater understanding between Muslims and Jews but has taken on an even greater focus following the recent conflict.

The preacher is also the director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Centre, which co-ordinates meetings between imams and rabbis in the West Bank.

Speaking at his home in Otniel, which is located in an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory, Rabbi Nagen told The National that he condemned vigilante violence by some settlers.

All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, and Otniel is south of the Palestinian city of Hebron.

“October 7 has challenged the openness of borders but we must find a way to return to a reality more open to borders and person-to-person interaction,” he said. “Peace is about building relationships and a future that is good for all of us.”

With the Palestinian West Bank population highly restricted in their movements by an 800km separation wall, the rabbi has called for the government to “empower and create” a Palestinian territory that would give “true freedom for the people living there”.

The two-state solution has gained momentum since the war in Gaza started, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is growing more tenacious in rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Mr Nagen suggested that the best way for peaceful coexistence was greater understanding and connection through "open borders".

“Hopefully after the traumas of October 7 are over, we will slowly find ways to have more and more open borders,” said the author of several books on Jewish philosophy.

About 490,000 settlers live among about three million Palestinians in the West Bank, in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.

The expansion of settlements has led to frequent clashes between settlers and Palestinians.

Otniel, the settlement of less than 1,000 residents, has seen 15 of its people killed in attacks in the last two decades.

“There isn't really a safe space anywhere in Israel,” the rabbi admitted.

Violence levels have risen since the Israeli war in Gaza following the October 7 attacks, especially from the settlers' side. UN figures show more than 450 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the Hamas attacks.

Earlier this month, France accused 28 extremist Israeli settlers of committing human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank and placed sanctions against them.

The announcement came after the UK said it was imposing sanctions on four Israeli settlers. The US had already announced punitive measures against one of them, as well as three others, on February 1 over what it called "intolerable" violence.

Mr Nagen condemned “vigilantism, vandalism and attacks against innocent Palestinians” that was “something I abhor, speak out against and condemn”.

He added however that those attacks should not “demonise the entire community”.

“Palestinians and the Israelis have so much in common in terms of our languages, and even right-wing Israelis will say Palestinians are our cousins because we have a shared religious story and a shared ethnicity,” he said.

But he warned there was a “disconnection” that “breeds fear, hatred and ultimately violence”.

He suggested that the Palestinian “Islamic identity is part of the hope of the future” and he had “profound respect” for Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List party, whom he said he regularly exchanges messages with.

“He's a true hero and has been outspoken against Hamas and certainly has empathy.”

Updated: February 22, 2024, 1:14 PM