TAYBEH, West Bank – This Palestinian village celebrates Oktoberfest each year even though it’s a tiny Christian enclave in a Muslim-majority area, under Israeli occupation.
But on Saturday, Israeli Jews were among those sipping the signature, honey-colored Palestinian beer, providing an unlikely sight after years of forced separation at the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Held in the tiny Christian village of Taybeh – the name of the village, and the beer, means “tasty” in Arabic – the two-day beer festival attracted thousands of Palestinians, as well as revelers from as far as the U.S. and Japan, and as close as Israel.
After the years of violence, the chance to mingle over a beer was a welcome change for some.
“Normally I go to demonstrations. It’s nice to drink beer instead,” said Natasha Dudinski, a 43-year-old Israeli from Jerusalem who as a pro-Palestinian peace activist has attended weekly protests for years.
Jewish families used to flock to Palestinian villages on weekends for cheap shopping and tasty food. Those trips disappeared a decade ago after the Palestinians launched a violent uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
But Israeli counterterrorism measures and a Palestinian crackdown on lawlessness have led to a dramatic drop in violence, making the West Bank safer and more prosperous than it has been in years.
Despite the improved security, Israelis have yet to return en masse. Organizers said their numbers were increasing, but there were still only a few dozen in a crowd expected to top 10,000 people.
Some Palestinians said they were offended by Israelis enjoying their beer festival after the Palestinians were forced to suffer from years of Israeli checkpoints and surrounding Jewish settlements.
Others, however, were cautiously welcoming.
“If they come as guests, carrying an olive branch in their hands, they are welcome,” said Omar Dahdal, a 40-year-old village resident.
But once the beer started flowing, it seemed to wash away any concerns.
“Cheers! Let’s toast to peace!” said Nadim Khoury, the town’s 52-year-old U.S.-educated mayor.
Patrons, most of them Christians, clutched their $3 half-liter beers under a hot, sunny sky as the smell of grilled meat wafted through the air and Arabic music blared. Khoury said he expected guests to guzzle some 10,000 liters of beer.
The Taybeh festivities are a world away from the Gaza Strip – the other area Palestinians want for their future state – where Islamic Hamas rulers ban booze, force women to dress conservatively and separate men and women in public.
Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank are also conservative and widely disapprove of alcohol. Seeking to mollify their neighbors, organizers billed the Oktoberfest in Arabic as a two-day sale of traditional produce like olive oil, colorful embroidery and honey – with a little beer sold on the side. Even the Muslim district governor Leila Ghanem, a 35-year-old woman who wears an Islamic headscarf, didn’t blink as she formally opened the festival, hailing it as a celebration of traditional Palestinian handicrafts.