JERUSALEM // As the setting sun casts a reverential red glow over Jerusalem's Old City, a small group of sheikhs and rabbis stand aloft on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the holy sites, joined in prayer. Their prayer is also joined up, an amalgam of recitations from Islam and Judaism, as if by fusing the powers of these two religions, the men can focus on their single cause: peace between the populations of the holy land.
These spiritual leaders have given their blessings to a new organisation, one that seeks to bring Jewish settlers and Palestinians together, so they might become good neighbours. The group, Yerushalom, was set up three months ago by Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank, who say they want to build bridges and better relations with the Palestinians living alongside them. Since then, there have been a few joint meetings and also joint prayers - on one occasion to summon rain for the crops grown separately by the two groups.
At a time when continued Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank is seen by Palestinians and by the wider international community as one of the main obstacles to peace, Yerushalom's founders say that they are trying to promote a paradigm shift. "The perceived logic is that peace will only be achieved if the settlements are evacuated," said Rabbi Menachem Froman, from the settlement of Tekoa, near Bethlehem, Yerushalom's spiritual leader and one of the rabbis praying on the Mount of Olives.
"But I think that, for there to be an equal peace between the two nations, there would be Jews in Palestinian territory just as there are Palestinians in Israel," he said, referring to the Palestinians who stayed in Israel after the 1948 war that created it and comprise around 20 per cent of the population. Rabbi Froman says opposition to the settlement movement is based on the belief that its purpose is to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"The opposition disappears the minute a settler comes and says the opposite, that we will help you build a Palestinian nation," said the rabbi, who has a history of dialogue with Palestinian spiritual leaders. "Given Islam's long traditions of hospitality, there is no reason why Jews could not live within the Arab world." For supporters of the Yerushalom endeavour, there is an essential caveat to this coexistence scenario. "We need to recognise settlements, but they will be a part of the Palestinian state, they will have Palestinian citizenship," said Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, who lives on the Mount of Olives and hosted the joint prayers there. "I hope to see them create a map of living together, as the sons of Abraham."
Support for this emerging movement - at the moment comprising just a few hundred people - is a difficult position to hold, the sheikh says. "We are working day and night to convince both sides," he said of his dialogue work with Rabbi Froman. "It is not easy and we face lots of challenges and dangers." Bassam, 41, a Palestinian who has just started to engage with the Yerushalom group, explains the problem. "Palestinians see settlers as the most criminal people on Earth, and have good reason to see them like this." There are countless examples of settlers attacking Palestinians and their property in the West Bank, while Palestinian water and lands are routinely siphoned off to create and sustain Jewish settlements, all of which are illegal according to international law.
Bassam's first encounter with Yerushalom was a meeting with Nachum, 36, one of the group's founders and a former student of Rabbi Froman. "Nachum himself told me he attacked settlers a lot," Bassam said. "You know, a settler who doesn't throw stones at Palestinian cars is not a settler. But Nachum came to me and said he wanted to talk, as human beings. It is a big step." Nachum, who lives in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank, says he started to change his thinking some years ago, while mourning Jewish neighbours shot dead by Palestinians who had ambushed their car. At that time, Nachum, whose family set up one of the most militant and hard-core of Jewish settlements, in Hebron, was living in Bet El, a settlement near Ramallah.
"I went out from the mourning house, looked around and saw a stretch of empty hills," he said. "And I thought, wait a minute, there is room here for everyone so why are we fighting and spilling each other's blood over the land? There is space on the land, but the question is whether there is room in our hearts." Nachum says that rather than attack, fear and view Palestinians as terrorists, he is working to "respect the other - to really respect the Palestinians and to help them, and to give them their rights".
Currently, the group is working with a Palestinian village near Gush Etzion, trying to get planning permission for a mosque minaret from the Israeli civil administration. There is a football match between Jewish and Palestinian children in the pipeline, along with a string of dialogue meetings between the two groups. Nachum believes that Yerushalom - an amalgam of the Hebrew words for Jerusalem and peace - can tap into a groundswell of support among the younger generation of Jewish settlers born and raised in the Palestinian West Bank.
"Well, we don't call it the West Bank," he said. "But a lot of the young generation do understand that the situation has changed. The media always focuses on the fanatics, the extreme, but we believe that the hidden majority want to live with dignity and mutual respect." "If I can accept this idea of meeting with settlers, I think the majority of Palestinians can accept it," said Bassam, who is also a member of Combatants for Peace, a group of Palestinian and Israeli former fighters, which now advocates a non-violent, two-state solution to the conflict.
Bassam spent seven years inside an Israeli prison, for an attack on an army Jeep. In 2007, his 10-year-old daughter was killed by a rubber bullet fired by Israeli soldiers, as she was on her way home from school. Meanwhile, back on the Mount of Olives, the small group of religious leaders are convinced that this should be the framework of a resolution to end the occupation and the conflict. "For Muslim and Jewish people here, faith is much stronger," says Rabbi Froman.
"We could make peace in five minutes, because we both know that the sovereign of the land is Allah, the Almighty." * The National