Page last updated at 06:12 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 07:12 UK

Holy Land hopes for dogged peacemakers

By Dina Newman
BBC News, Jerusalem

Rabbi Menachem Froman
Rabbi Froman believes settlers should be prepared to live under Palestinian rule

"We are now in the Holy Land, the Land of the Lord", says Rabbi Menachem Froman welcoming us to his modest house in the tiny settlement of Tekoa in the West Bank.

With his long beard and a black suit, the rabbi looks like a typical religious settler. In fact he is more than a settler, he is one of the founders of the settler movement. Moreover, he believes that settlements like his can be a vehicle for peace.

The rabbi is part of Jerusalem Peacemakers, an interfaith project with an aim to facilitate dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim community.

And the dialogue which Rabbi Froman is engaged in would shock most Israelis: he was close friends with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, and used to visit Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the late founder and spiritual leader of the militant Hamas group, at home in Gaza and later in his Israeli jail cell.

"From the very beginning it was very clear to me that you cannot love the country, love the rocks, the trees, the valleys, and hate the people living here," says Rabbi Froman.

"Two thousand years ago one of our sages, Rabbi Hilel, was asked to explain the essence of Judaism while standing on one leg - in other words, in a very short time. And his answer was: Love your neighbour. Every Jewish child learns this story at school. And this is what I am doing here today."

Rabbi Froman says that those settlers who love the Holy Land should be prepared to live under Palestinian rule - not as occupiers under the heavy protection of the Israeli army.

More than 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to about 200,000 in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, and the vast majority are opposed to a Palestinian state.

They dismiss the rabbi's views as irrelevant. But other Israelis often admit there is logic to this unorthodox solution to the question of Jewish settlements.

Celebrated scholar

Rabbi Froman's views are shared by another unorthodox peacemaker: a Palestinian Muslim sheikh who lives in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem right next to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount.

"No one can live here as an occupier," says Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Bukhari, an exponent of the mystical Islamic Sufi movement. "We are in the 21st century, we do not live in a jungle any more."

Sheikh Bukhari has modern views, though his family roots go back to the ninth century. He is a descendant of the celebrated Islamic scholar Imam Bukhari.

Sheikh Abdulaziz al Bukhari
When I was in South Africa and I spoke to Nelson Mandela, he told me he thought he would never see the end of apartheid. But he did
Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Bukhari

Centuries-old books on Islamic theology written by his ancestors are proudly displayed in the sheikh's living room.

His family left Bukhara, in modern Uzbekistan, about 400 years ago, and has been living in the same house in the Old City ever since.

Sheikh Bukhari admits that he often finds opposition within his own community.

"When someone is angry, you don't shut them up, you let them speak, let them open their heart", he says.

"And then I say, OK, what other choice do you have? To fight? We have been doing this for 50 or 60 years, and we haven't achieved anything".

Sheikh Bukhari's commitment to peace was tested in this December and January during Israel's three-week military campaign against Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

His wife's family lives in Gaza, so does his sister and one of his daughters. "No-one knows what I was going through. There was a real drama in my heart", he says.

Peace a possibility

Middle East peacemaking projects are at low ebb right now. With mainstream Israeli politics shifting to the right and far right, and Palestinian public opinion still enraged by the Gaza campaign, most analysts admit there is little scope for peace work.

"Rabbi Froman is well known, and he is serious", says Kitty Cohen of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Communities in Israel.

"I wish more people inside political establishment listened to him."

As for Sheikh Bukhari, he is careful to maintain relations with the Israeli authorities, which in turn alienates many potential Palestinian supporters who see his work as legitimising the Israeli occupation.

Sheik Bukhari's books
Bukhari draws on Islamic texts to support his views

Despite the recent shock of the Gaza campaign, Sheikh Bukhari firmly believes peace is a real possibility.

"I believe it can happen next week and definitely within my lifetime. Believe me, life brings surprises. When I was in South Africa and I spoke to Nelson Mandela, he told me he thought he would never see the end of apartheid. But he did."

Rabbi Froman is equally optimistic. He says his conversations with Sheikh Ahmad Yassin convinced him that Hamas may turn to peace.

"I see a real possibility that Ismail Haniya and Khalid Meshaal may return to their Islamic roots", he says. "Islam is a religion of peace."

Most peace activists here are hoping that President Barack Obama's new policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his recent speech in Cairo will initiate a meaningful dialogue.

If it happens, voices like that of Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Abdulaziz may become more prominent.

"In the meantime", says Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom of Rabbis for Human Rights, "the warm presence of these people is a great encouragement to the rest of us."

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