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Pechenik wants to become something of a Palestinian chalutz, or pioneer. Unlike Cohen, he doesn’t want an E.U.-style citizenship arrangement, but actually thinks that settlers who want to stay could become Palestinian citizens. Maybe he could become a Member of Parliament, he added, half-jokingly.
“I know that we are a small minority [of settlers] who would want to stay under a two-state solution, but if more people say they will, Palestinians will understand and accept us,” commented the 40-year-old teacher and head of the settler pro-peace group Land of Peace. “I don’t say, ‘I want to stay because I want to assert my ownership.’ I will hope to stay and build a sustainable peace.”
He thinks that Jews could help to develop a fledgling Palestinian state’s economy, culture and democracy. “It’s not that Palestinians will do us a favor by accepting Jewish people; it’s also for them,” he said, going on to discuss the need to develop the Palestinian economy. “If tomorrow we press a button and all the Israelis disappear, the Palestinian economy will go down and down.”
Like Cohen, he insists that Israeli-Palestinian separation is unattainable: “The left is talking about the ideal of [the nongovernmental organization] Peace Now, and the right is talking about the ideal of the whole Land of Israel. I’m trying to be practical.”
Practical, maybe. Outside his comfort zone, definitely. Pechenik grew up in the hard-line settlements of Hebron and Beit El and was, by his own admission, “extreme.” Then, in 1996, terrorists killed two of his friends in Beit El. He said his “natural response was revenge, but then I started thinking and asking why, and decided that it’s not a problem of there being enough space.”
Not only did the huge change in his political orientation lead him to his current opinions, it also presented him with a cultural challenge.
Neve Daniel, where he now lives, is a small village of about 2,000 people, almost all of them Orthodox Jews like him. Most, he concedes, would leave if it became part of a Palestinian state. He foresees the remaining Jews clustering into a neighborhood, with Palestinians inhabiting the rest of the homes. “It wouldn’t be easy for me,” he said. “All my life I have lived in a closed Jewish community.”
He thinks that cultural rights, like security, can be guaranteed, and he looks forward to a day when the Palestinian Ministry of Religion will assign a budget to maintain the eruv — a religious boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to push strollers on the Sabbath — in Neve Daniel.
Pechenik estimates that if Israel does pull out of the West Bank and gives settlers the option to stay, not more than 10,000 settlers will choose to do so. The currently-fringe nature of his idea has led some friends to shun him. “A few of them have stopped talking to me; a few understand me and think it is good,” he reported. His nine siblings, six of them settlers, vary in their opinions — and a brother and sister-in-law who were evacuated from Gaza in 2005 are among the most understanding. “They said that after their experience, they learned what it is to be refugees and now have more understanding of the other side,” Pechenik said.