Dispatch: Inside the only place in Israel where Jews and Arabs choose to live together

Eti Edlund founded the bilingual joint school at Neve Shalom
Eti Edlund founded the bilingual joint school in Neve Shalom - Quique Kierszenbaum

Perched on a hill overlooking the Ayalon Valley sits a cluster of homes framed by pink bougainvillea and fragrant fig trees.

‌This idyllic spot between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is the only village in Israel where Palestinians and Jews purposefully choose to live together.

‌A sign at the entrance displays the community’s name in Arabic and Hebrew – Wahat al-Salam and Neve Shalom – meaning “Oasis of Peace.”

‌“When you come in here, you feel like you’re in this peaceful bubble,” said Adam Tali, 21, a Palestinian who lives here with his family. “When you step outside, you obviously get hit by reality.`’

The Oct 7 Hamas attack in Israel – killing 1,200 people and taking 240 as hostages – shook the village of 300 residents to its core, as it did the entire nation.

The foundational tenets of the community – peace, mutual respect, equality – were suddenly under threat.

“The first few days, it wasn’t just the horror of what happened,” said Eldad Joffe, 68, a Jewish Israeli elected as chairman of the municipal council, who took up the post just as war erupted.

“It was also the sense that the state is not functioning and that things are falling apart.”

Naema Abodalu, the bilingual joint school's principal, in the village which is home to about 300 residents
Naema Abodalu, the bilingual joint school's principal, in the village which is home to about 300 residents - Quique Kierszenbaum

‌The community immediately shut its front gates and organised a night patrol – in calmer times, the village had been vandalised, under threat from extremist Jews who opposed the idea of peaceful co-existence.

‌But behind the gates there was also tension.

‌One week after the initial Hamas attack, residents began to gather in the evenings at the White Dove Hall, near the village entrance.

‌However, the village’s 40 Palestinian and 40 Jewish families met separately to speak – and often to vent.

‌“Only from the third meeting onwards, we said we felt safe enough to sit together,” said Mr Joffe.‌ It was not easy.

‌“As someone who lives in the middle, Oct 7 was hard for me as well,” said Nadim Tali, 23, a Palestinian. “I felt the blow as someone who has Jewish friends… and also friends in the south, where the attacks were.”

It got tougher still when his best friend, Adam Ben-Shabbat, 23, became one of the 360,000 reservists called to serve in the war.

‌A few years ago, Mr Ben-Shabbat joined the military – as mandated by the Israeli government for Jewish citizens, with 32 months of service for men and 24 for women.

Conscription has long been a sensitive, complicated issue for the village.

“You can’t create an ‘oasis of peace’ and then have people join the military. It contradicts the whole shtick of it,” said Adam Tali, Nadim’s brother.

For many Palestinians, the Israeli military is the most visible symbol of occupation and oppression.

But for many Jews it’s a way to serve their country and, depending on the role they take up, a potential launching pad for various careers.

‘Army is the biggest villain’

“The army is like the biggest villain in our life,” said Nadim. “For Adam, he sees it as security.”

When Mr Ben-Shabbat first enlisted, some of his friends boycotted a farewell party.

Adam Tali, 21, a Palestinian who lives in Neve Shalom with his family
Adam Tali, 21, a Palestinian who lives in Neve Shalom with his family

His family, staunch nationalists, saw it as “an honourable thing to do.”

“For me, as a Jew who grew up here, this is the law,” he said.

“One cannot choose to refuse the law when it suits, and also the belief that we need protection as a country.”

During his first stint in the army some friends from the village wouldn’t hang out with him when he was in uniform; one friend stopped talking to him entirely for six months.

“After I finished, I really wanted to let go, and just be Adam from Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, and to have this identity only,” he said, vowing never to put on a uniform ever again.

In October Mr Ben-Shabbat was ordered back to the army, along with his brother.

The school welcomes Arab and Jewish children and has reopened since the start of the Israel-Hamas war
The school welcomes Arab and Jewish children and has reopened since the start of the Israel-Hamas war - Quique Kierszenbaum

‌This time it brought the group of friends closer, as it pushed them into deep discussions in an attempt to work out their differences – the football games of their youth now replaced by political debates in their 20s.

‌“We don’t have another option; we don’t have other friends!” Mr Ben-Shabbat said. “They understand me fully…more than anyone in the world.”

‌As the war continues, Nadim and two other friends gather weekly in hopes of finding common ground, and to organise collective thoughts on paper – a statement they can all agree on.

‌“I still say [to Adam], ‘I understand your decision [to join], but I disagree with it,’” said Nadim.

‌The Oasis of Peace was founded by the late Rev Bruno Hussar – a Jew born in 1911 in Egypt, ordained as a Dominican priest, and later naturalised as an Israeli citizen.

‌In the 1970s, in between two Arab-Israeli wars, he convinced a nearby Trappist monastery, Latrun, to lease 100 barren acres to him for 100 years – at just 25 cents a year.

‌From a passage in the book of Isaiah came the name: “My people shall dwell in an oasis of peace.”

‌His vision was for an interfaith community for Muslims, Christians and Jews, aimed at fostering mutual understanding and respect.

Rayek Rizek, 68, and his wife began visiting the village before settling there in 1984, joining 22 adults and a handful of children.

There were no paved roads, and spotty access to water and electricity.

More than three months into war, things are starting to settle into a new normal at the village. The primary school has re-opened, kids are gathering for play dates, and group meditations are being held.

‌Everyone agrees that compassion needs to go both ways – but it’s a work in progress.

First time Israel suffered ‘huge blow’

Adam Tali added: “Something I feel is getting worked on in this village right now more than ever, because it’s one of the first times that the Israelis suffered a huge blow.”

‌Mr Rizek said “we did not come here as professionals in conflict resolution and conflict management.”

He added: “We are normal people like everybody else, who wanted to take this chance…take this challenge.”

‌“We are the first ones, and the only ones, who are going through it,” he said.

“There is no book that you can go buy and read and teach you how to live together.”

‌Additional reporting by Quique Kierszenbaum

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