In West Bank Christian Village, Jews Pay a Rare Shabbat Visit

Never before, in the 15-month-long Palestinian uprising, had there been such a sight: a group of religious Jews, gathering for Friday prayers, surrounded by curious Palestinians, in the midst of “intifada-land.”

They were not settlers, nor had they lost their way. They came to Beit Sahur, a Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem, in a carefully planned venture to bring Palestinians and Israelis together on a common basis.

“We came as guests, not as occupiers,” said Dr. Yaron Ezrahi, a Peace Now activist. “Germans tried to occupy Europe by force, because they had claimed they had no living space.

“Now, they are moving freely across Europe, as a result of peace,” he said.

Altogether 70 Israelis, members of 25 families — men, women and children — spent a peaceful weekend in one of the hottest trouble spots of the West Bank.

In a clear signal to the authorities that this is the kind of dialogue that interests local residents, not a single public disorder was recorded in Beit Sahur over the weekend.

Beit Sahur is a picturesque town, nestled between the slopes of the Judean Hills and the Judean Desert. Had it not been for the intifada, as Palestinians call their uprising, it could have been a lovely resort town for Jerusalemites seeking a bit of countryside, 20 minutes from home.

SUCCESS AFTER MANY FAILURES

Beit Sahur is one of three Christian towns located to the south of Jerusalem. Until the intifada broke out, the area was the quietest and the safest in the territories, frequently visited by Israelis for shopping, restaurants and leisure.

But for the past 15 months, this has not been the case. This visit was the first attempt to return to the status quo ante.

Both Israelis and Palestinians participating in the venture expressed their desire to change the status quo permanently by creating a Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel in peace.

The venture was organized by Hillel Baradin, a Jerusalemite of American origin who in recent months has made several attempts to reach a dialogue with Palestinians.

Last year, he captured headlines during his reserve service in Ramallah, when he engaged in a self-appointed peace mission. He almost reached an agreement then with local intifada leaders for a truce during the term of his unit’s service in Ramallah.

But local Israeli commanders following his initiative stopped it immediately, and Baradin was sent to a military jail for a few days.

Despite this unpleasant experience, Baradin, 55, continues to seek channels to the local population. After several abortive attempts, this weekend he scored total success: Under the cover of complete secrecy, he reached an agreement with local leaders in Beit Sahur, and 25 homes opened their doors to Israelis.

Paradoxically, just as the Beit Sahur experience was proving a success, leaders of the intifada were taking steps to block a dialogue between Palestinians and the authorities.

“Nationalist figures and institutions” signed a leaflet distributed in the territories during the weekend that calls for a halt to meetings between Palestinians and israeli officials.

The call was seen by observers as a sign of concern among the local leadership of the intifada, which supports the Palestine Liberation Organization, that the Israelis might succeed in their attempt to create a political dialogue with local leaders as a substitute for the PLO.

CONTACTS ORDERED SUSPENDED

This has been the declared purpose of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s plan for free elections in the territories, which would lead to the election of a new local leadership.

The call in the leaflet reflects a debate going on inside the Palestinian political community since some of its senior leaders, such as Faisal al-Husseini, began engaging in talks with Israelis a few months ago.

Husseini, who spent most of last year in administrative detention for his connections with the PLO, met with Shmuel Goren, coordinator of government affairs in the territories, shortly before his release from prison.

This was followed by a series of encounters between Brig. Gen. Shaike Erez, head of the West Bank civil administration, and local Palestinians.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin also reportedly have engaged in such meetings.

The Palestinian leaflet warns that such meetings were being “exploited by Israeli officials to promote plans to exclude the PLO, under the guise of an alternate leadership.”

The leaflet called for the suspension of all “political Israeli-Palestinian meetings, conferences and dialogues,” in order to deny Shamir the opportunity to claim there is a substitute leadership to the PLO.

However, the statement did condone public appearances by Palestinians as part of an information campaign and to continue the dialogue with Israeli peace groups.

THE ARMY INTERVENES

Such was the dialogue over the weekend in Beit Sahur. The people who came here represent several Israeli peace groups, predominantly those of “Peace Now.”

On Saturday morning, Palestinians and Jews met at the Christian site of the Shepherd’s Field on the outskirts of the town. They sat in the local garden and talked politics, with the outlawed Palestinian flag waving over their heads.

“The Palestinian flag does not bother me at all,” said Knesset member Ran Cohen of the dovish Citizens Rights Movement. “As far as I am concerned, this is the flag that should be raised here, as long as my flag, the Israeli flag, can be raised on the Israeli side of the border.”

Cohen, born in Iraq, recalled how his family had been saved from pogroms in Baghdad in the 1940s by their Arab neighbors.

“It is now up to us Israelis to come help save you Palestinians from the pains of the occupation,” he said.

As the visitors were about to meet with Mayor Hanna el-Atrash in the center of town, the army realized that something was going on. Military jeeps appeared, and an army major ordered the region a closed military area, demanding the Jews leave.

But after negotiations between Cohen and the army commander, the visitors were allowed to stay in Beit Sahur until Shabbat had ended.

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