"We live in parallel universes"

Khaled Abu Awwad and Shaul David Judelman, co-directors, Roots Association  credit: Brett Kline
Khaled Abu Awwad and Shaul David Judelman, co-directors, Roots Association credit: Brett Kline

Shaul Judelman and Khaled Abu Awwad, co-directors of Roots, persist in their efforts to foster understanding between Israelis and Palestinians despite everything.

"My people belong here and your people belong here," Khaled Abu Awwad tells a group of Israeli teenagers gathered here at Roots headquarters next to the Gush Etzion roundabout in the West Bank. "The Palestinian and Arab worlds must change. And you know, this war is a gift to Netanyahu and his government. Instead of trying to eliminate Hamas by precise means, they have chosen to destroy Gaza."

These may be the last things this group from a Israeli pre-army academy, a mechina in Hebrew, expects to hear from a Palestinian man from nearby Bethlehem, a peace activist from a former fighting family.

But as the brutal war in Gaza continues, Khaled and Shaul Judelman, who is from the nearby Tekoa settlement, are leading a small group of Israeli and Palestinian activists here in the Bethlehem-Gush Etzion area, quietly reconstructing the Roots Association.

The two co-directors have turned the lights back on at this one-acre or half a hectare grassy piece of land on Route 60. In the wake of the barbarous October 7 attack by Hamas, and the ensuing devastating war that has driven fear and hate (and death) levels into high gear, the challenge of rebuilding trust and joint activity here is daunting. And to say they do not have the support of the majority of Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the area would be an understatement.

My last time here was some four years ago, before medical emergencies back home in Paris, but I had befriended these guys and some of their "family" on even earlier visits, when I wrote a couple of articles on Roots. The focus then was holding joint activities for local young people, building training programs for adults in the area, and hosting groups from all over the world and from Israeli pre-army groups, while doing Zoom presentations for local and international followers, all on a shoestring budget.

Today they cannot bring young people together while war is raging in Gaza, and there are few noticeable foreign groups or individuals anywhere in or near Bethlehem, the most international hub in the West Bank.

Coffee, goats, and pre-army teenagers

But Shaul and Khaled say they are happy to be hosting their first pre-army academy since the October 7 attack that crushed relations between Palestinians and Israelis. And as we sweep out the grounds and get strong coffee with cardamom going in the sparsely-furnished, white-walled kitchen, manager Nadia has let the goats out of their pen. They race around the simple, wooden structures and munch on the lush green grass within these old stone walls, I realize, yes, she or someone has been taking care of these animals.

Older goats smash into each other with classic loud head butts. Several woolly, white babies rub their noses on me, and on her smiling two-year-old grandson taking unsteady steps in muddy boots, perhaps the newest "family" member. They push up against co-directors Khaled and Shaul, partners for more than seven years in Roots, Shorashim in Hebrew, Jidthur in Arabic.

The Israeli teenagers all check out the goats running around before settling in and... hanging onto Khaled’s every word. "Here we live next to each other, and people react negatively with violence," he tells them. "In our daily interaction, trust has been damaged."

Shaul figures they receive some 35 such mechina groups in a "normal" year. "I could say that perhaps 90% of group teenagers have never talked with an educated West Banker or a Gazan about identity and the historical story," he tells me. "Some think all Palestinians want to kill them."

When I ask the group, how do you feel about what is happening in Gaza now, one young man, Eitan, answers, "We feel empathy for civilians getting killed in Gaza, but Hamas leaves us no choice. The terrorists merge with the civilians." Several others nod their approval.

"I know of no other group like Roots and I like it," says Dekel Goldfinger, from the Derech Eretz Academy, who brought the teenagers here.

Three of five academy groups come here. "It shows the students something very different," she tells me on the phone. "For many of them, this was the first time they met someone like Khaled. And even in Israel, Jews often have little contact with Arabs, yet we need to live together with them. All Israelis should do a program like this."

Make no mistake about it. At the risk of sounding repetitive, Roots may be the only group of its kind, that until Oct 7 brought together West Bank Jewish settlers and their Palestinian neighbors. In normal times, the group is mostly ignored and sometimes shunned by mainstream Israeli left-of-center activists for being settlers, and by many Palestinians for "normalizing" relations with settlers and with Israelis in general.

Yet on this piece of land, they have been busy for several years. Outside groups are curious to see how a core group of 30 or so activists (with perhaps 13,000 people on a mailing list, including a few thousand Israelis and Palestinians) functions so far out of the mainstream on both sides, but as West Bank neighbors.

Working to prevent violence

Several years ago, I attended a photography class here for pre- and early-teen kids from Gush Etzion area settlements such as Efrat, Alon Shvut and Tekoa, and from Bethlehem, Beit Ummar, Al Khader and other Palestinian locales. At first, they were nervous, but then, armed with little instamatic cameras and encouraged by adult translators working from the English into Hebrew and Arabic, they paired off and shot photos all around the grassy compound.

"They are neighbors but live in two parallel universes with no contact," Shaul told me then. "It is surreal."

What about now? "We cannot bring the kids together now during this war," he says. "Maybe in six months, but not now. Currently we are working with the army to open more junctions for Palestinians, and to get them to return farmland that was confiscated. We try to prevent attacks by settlers against Palestinians, and have meetings to protect Palestinians we know and interact with. We talk to young Palestinians to encourage them to stay in school and not to go out on the street and commit violence acts.

"And we went to the army with a report that two soldiers were abusing students in a school in Hebron. The soldiers were removed. Then recently, a high school boy was shot and killed by soldiers during a stone- throwing incident in which he may or may not have been involved. We asked the army not to be present during the funeral ceremony to avoid further violence, and officers agreed."

Roots has also provided clothing and medical care to 18 families from Kiryat Shmona living in Alon Shvut, a settlement here. "We cannot and do not seek to change the big political picture, but we do things on the local level," Shaul concludes.

"Dealing with this conflict has been difficult for activists on both sides," comments Khaled. "Contact is much more limited now than before October 7, but it is growing. We are establishing red lines. You cannot be a partner if you support what Hamas did, nor if you support the killing of civilians in Gaza by the IDF. People here must learn not to act out of anger. On both sides."

Recent polls showed that up to 80% of West Bank Palestinians support Hamas activity in Gaza, but at the same time would not themselves want to live under their rule. By western logic, this sounds like hypocrisy.

"Here this is an example of black or white thinking," Shaul explains. "If they say they don’t support Hamas, for many it would mean they support Israel. This is voting with emotions, not rational thinking. In fact, many Israelis are doing the same thing, but we have alternatives."

"In the West Bank, people have been silent, but they know October 7 is unacceptable, that Hamas is no good," Khaled says, "but the Israeli reaction has been too much. So saying no to Hamas would be like saying yes to Israel. People here have no alternatives, no leaders expressing anything else, and they are not used to expressing individual opinions."

Explanations such as these and more by activists on Zoom presentations have not gone unnoticed. Contributions to Roots from the western world are in the fast lane.

"This crisis has put us back on radar screens," Shaul tells me, smiling through his thick, grey-streaked beard. "More money has come in in the past couple of months, often in $15 to $1,000 donations, but also in a few surprise checks of $10,000, than in any other similar period in our history. These are donations from Jews and non-Jews. People like it that we are moving forward together. But we do need more clarity here on the local level."

One major issue under discussion is that of Palestinians returning to work. There is fear on both sides.

"Palestinians are afraid of being attacked by settlers and even by other Palestinians, and Israelis are afraid that workers will carry out violent acts out of revenge for the death and destruction in Gaza," comments Khaled.

"About 180,000 West Bank Palestinians were working in Israel proper and in settlements before October 7, and now almost nobody is working," Shaul adds. "But if they can’t go back to work, what is left for them?"

A religious contract

The two Roots co-directors are working on something unusual. "Religion is very important in Palestinian society," Khaled notes. "Can we formulate a religious contract, speaking to their souls, an internal contract with feelings, that workers will sign, that will forbid them to commit violence?" he asks rhetorically. He says it would be a kind of "internal antibiotic against violence using religious texts." It is certainly a real tahadi, a challenge."

To be clear, all this took place several weeks ago on Route 60, before all the activity in and around Rafah in southern Gaza, including the daring rescue of two hostages, and the appearance of anti-Hamas Gazan demonstrators...and before several attacks in the West Bank, including one heavily covered in the Western press about a week ago at a crowded Highway 1 checkpoint near the large Maale Adumim settlement that left dead and injured Israelis. Two of three heavily armed terrorists, from Za’atara village, near Tekoa, 12 kilometers from Bethlehem, were "neutralized."

Has anything changed for Roots?

"Nothing has changed," Khaled tells me by phone. "People on both sides are afraid and will be for a long time."

"The level of personal contact is still low," Shaul adds. "We did another Zoom a couple of weeks ago, but we cannot bring local people together yet. Yet we had two international groups here at the Ard, the land, interfaith groups from New York and Atlanta. And contributions are still running high."

They also have two delegates on tour together in the United States right now, Jewish Israeli and Muslim Palestinian, speaking at universities, synagogues, churches and mosques.

For administrative-security reasons, Shaul and Khaled have never been, and cannot go, to each other’s homes in Tekoa and Bethlehem. (I have been graciously welcomed in both.) But by Zoom and over coffee with cardamom in kitchen headquarters on Route 60, the two Roots co-directors are in the discussion stage of this unusual religious work contract that may or may not exist anywhere.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 3, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Khaled Abu Awwad and Shaul David Judelman, co-directors, Roots Association  credit: Brett Kline
Khaled Abu Awwad and Shaul David Judelman, co-directors, Roots Association credit: Brett Kline
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