The sun just set. It is Thursday. I am sitting in one of the most enchanting places I have been to, at Rotman’s veranda restaurant in the village of Lotem in lower Galilee. When my husband and I arrived in the village on Wednesday, we were waiting for its electric yellow gate to open, as we did today. On both days we drove in easily; no one was at the gate to ask us questions. This was entirely different from what we saw a few days earlier at the agricultural yellow gates of two adjacent West Bank villages that could be any of several under Israeli control. There, residents waited for the Israeli military to open the gates, so they could pass with their goods through the Israeli check point and security separation barrier system. Sometimes they wait for hours for the gates to open and then they wait some more to pass through the gates if they are allowed.
The securty barrier system, made up of a separation wall and roads fenced on both sides with wires, was built by Israel to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating the country. There is disagreement whether it is the separation system that sharply reduced the number of suicide attacks, or whether it was the realization by the Palestinians that such attacks were counterproductive. Most likely it’s both.
Fortunately for innocent Palestinians who must pass through Israeli checkpoints – even within the West Bank - there is Machsomwatch, with whom we visited parts of the West Bank to witness what occurs in some of the checkpoints. Admired by segments of the Israeli society and scorned by others, the organization describes itself as a movement of Israeli peace activists, women mostly, who oppose the Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinians' rights to move freely in their land. Through its activities it hopes to bring to an end the Israeli occupation, which causes damage to the Israeli and Palestinian societies alike. The organization also hosts Palestinian families for a beach day in Israel; many of the visitors see a sea for the first time.
The reasons for the reduced number of suicide attacks in Israeli notwithstanding, the atmosphere Wednesday night on the veranda restaurant in Lotem was entirely different from the mood we saw in the West Bank, where Arabs and Israelis live a separate lives. At Rotman’s, Israeli Arabs and Jews were dining side by side, in what seemed to be a harmonious environment. There were no radical Jewish settlers tormenting Arab villagers, young boys were not sought by the military and residents were not woken up at two in the morning, their home searched and ransacked. Here, Arab villagers and their Jewish neighbors could not be nicer to each other.
On the personal level, on Thursday, when we lunched in the Arab village of Pekiin, Nadia, the Muslim restaurant owner, told me her innermost personal problem thinking I was an Israeli living in Israel, not in New York. It is not necessary to retell her story.
“I swear to you, I never told this to anyone. I don’t know why I told you all of this,” she apologized tearfully. We hugged as friends do when I left .
The friendliness I witnessed may not symbolize Arab-Jewish relations in all of Israel, particularly not in the northern Galilee. Additionally, this apparent harmony may not last. It is certainly possible that relations between the two communities would explode one day. But for now it seems as if common interest and mutual respect take precedent over an ethnic divide.
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