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Combatants for Peace: When Ex-Enemies Break Bread Together

[Editor's note: A former Palestinian terrorist and a former Israeli soldier who served in the Occupied Territories, members of the intercultural peace group Combatants for Peace, toured the United States in the winter of 2007. I attended a public gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts on January 18 so well-attended that I couldn't sit down and thus couldn't take notes. These notes were taken at a private potluck for Jewish community leaders the following evening in Northampton, Massachusetts.]

E. We are coordinators of the Palestinian-Israeli group, created in 2005, from people who were active in the violence and decided they would not participate in the violence anymore, and try to find peace in nonviolent ways. Secret at first, openly now. We meet and talk and find ways to resist together the occupation. We speak to the Israeli and Palestinian society, telling what we know, what we saw. Passing the message that if we can talk, in spite of all we've experienced, anyone could talk and no one has the right not to. We try to involve as many people as possible in this struggle: government leaders, community organizations. Inspired by the S African model, we decided it doesn't matter what happens on the ground, we go on talking. We can't leave our fate in the hands of lunatics and cynics.

This commitment already knew several difficult trials. The most difficult has been in the last few days, when Abir, the daughter of our co-worker Bassam Aramin was apparently murdered by an Israeli police officer, and there won't be an investigation because she was just a Palestinian child.

The doctors in Hadassah Hospital would not give a conclusive cause of death. The family demanded an autopsy, and the Israelis demanded he renounce his demand or they will not give back the body. He struggled all day to get his 9-year-old daughter's body back. Luckily there were nearly 50 Israelis who got involved, we were able to contact journalists, to oblige the police to have an autopsy (with witnesses). Bassam is lucky. Many other Palestinians do not have those friends. S: I'm from Bethlehem City, West Bank. This is the first time in my life to talk to the Jewish communities. My Master's work was about American society, Jewish communities. And so I decided to meet those people and hear their views. I grew up in Bethlehem during the most complex period of my life. When I was 16 and 17, the resistance was an honor for any Palestinian, to confront the soldiers and settlers. I spent, because of that, 4-1/2 years in Israeli jails. I tried during that period to educate myself and to think deeply, what is the best solution for this conflict. But there was no choice but to continue fighting against the occupiers. At the beginning of this intifada, I took my decision to work for peace.

We spent a lot of time under curfew, and they used to visit me in my home. In Palestine, curfew means you cannot open your window or leave your home. They give you just 2 hours a week to buy your needs.

In 2003, a friend, a Jewish professor, told me about Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. At first I thought it was a trick of the Israeli intelligence. But after one week, I told him, we are ready to meet them. Three or four of my close friends joined me at that meeting. And we heard strange stories from those people who are joining Bassam now. About their service in the West Bank and Gaza. Some of them served in the elite units for more than 15 years, and some spent 1 or 2 years and decided to leave.

The people who spent long years—some of them faced small kids in the Palestinian camps, Some suffer from nightmares because they killed some people.

On the Palestinian side, we have members who stabbed soldiers when they were 14, 15.

After a few meetings, we decided to work together. We took an oath to be committed to Combatants for Peace, and we expect Bassam, our founder, to keep working for peace despite the great loss of his daughter. We will close our ears completely against the fundamentalists. As Palestinians, we believe in the right of Israel to exist in safety and peace—and 3.5 million Palestinains need their rights and their state. Because of that, we are pro-two-state solution, to establish the Palestinian state alongside Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital.

E. I grew up in a left-wing Zionist family in Jerusalem. I knew the reality but frankly, I didn't take an interest. I didn't see how the situation touches me. I don't have a conflict with me.

And this is the way I joined the army, gladly. I thought it was a civil duty and not only an obligation but a privilege, the only way to protect our nation. I was told that my serving was the only barrier between my family and the enemy. And growing up, as a witness to the violence, stabbing, Molotov cocktails.

During my service, I came to realize that this is not exactly the case. It's not to protect and defend but at best to promote the status quo, and at worst, to maintain an agenda that I disagree with.

I realized that each attack we carried out gave reason and justification to those who carried out the next attack, and for every person we arrested, a new one came who was often worse and more radical.

I realized that I was not protecting the citizens of Israel but putting them in danger.

During the third year of my military service, I lost my sister to a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. She was 14 years old. She died with one of her closest friends, and a third friend was critically injured. It was clear that the answer could not be more violence. It would not bring back my sister and only give another reason to kill more Israelis. And yet I see her picture everywhere, [as justification to oppress Palestinians]. I decided not to take part in this game. I will not wear a uniform again, I will not carry a gun again, I will not cross the Green Line again. I kept this decision to myself, but it got a public expression in 2002, when Courage to Refuse was created (with about 50 reserve soldiers and officers). They said they will not serve in the Occupied Territories, that it puts people in harm's way.

We became larger and more influential. Three years after its creation, there were 600 people. In Israel terms, this was an earthquake. When Sharon needed to explain why he left Gaza, [he cited letters from our group].

We saw very clearly that we are not doing enough. You can't just say no, you have to say yes. If we want to live on that ground, we must work together with the enemy for co-existence.

We set out to find Palestinians who like us, participated in the violence and like us, understood that there's a better way to struggle.

Our first meeting: from my side, it was a very special night. We stood at an olive grove outside Bethlehem, and we had to go ten meters and hide, because Israelis were not allowed at night into the Palestinian Authority. The fear was very evident; we wondered if this was the dumbest thing we ever did. I later found out that Bassam's wife begged him not to go, that it was a trick. But we learned that our enemies have human faces. For many, it was the first time face-to-face with a Palestinian, not at a checkpoint but face to face. For us, they are the most terrifying people possible, they stabbed, they bombed. But when we meet, we can understand why they—and we—did what we did.

And when we talk together, people listen. And when they listen, there's an opening for dialog, and for change, and for hope. This is what we do for the last two years.

We came without expectations for this tour and the Jewish community. Regardless of your views about the conflict, of what you think about Arabs, of the integrity of Arafat, things are happening on the ground that are unacceptable. 170 children dead in Gaza, and not one police inquiry open. 4200 Palestinians killed in this intifida, and most had no gun. It had nothing to do with security, it's a rogue army out of control. And I think that human beings, regardless of their political positions, must stand up against this behavior.

Audience Questions:

Have your families been threatened?

S: In the first moment, we talked to our leadership in Fatah, we met the president [of the Palestinian Authority. The same day we had our launching event, April 10, 2006, I met a delegation of 14 members of Parliament. 500 people from Israel and Palestine attended, and they all believe in peace. We went to the public for the first time that day, and we went without fear. [The desire for peace] is the reality in the Palestinian community. Very few people can claim that we are on the wrong side. Most Palestinians believe in that, but their views are shaped by actions on the Israeli side.

E. My family have been part of this struggle for many years. My grandfather met with the PLO in the early 70s. My parents started being politically active several years before I did, right after the death of my sister. But for many other people in our group, this does constitute a big problem. Not so much talking to Palestinians as refusing to serve in the army. And they do suffer. Thankfully, I don't. When you speak of the society around us, from the Israeli side it has several facets. First, the normal attacks: 'left-wingers, cowards, gays'—they can't label us with that. I was a soldier, I did fight, and I speak as such, and nobody can attack me on those grounds. And we manage to say many things that other people can't.

On another level, despair and lack of faith in the ability to influence—many people find it objectionable that I'm in a group and doing it loudly and publicly. This is the hardest. I can deal with opposition. Bassam says, 'we used to be combatants; I used to lay ambushes. What can happen now that will be more dangerous or more scary?'

One problem we do face is because of the emotional burden of this conflict, we who are exposed to it find it difficult to talk about and deal with anything else. And the people who are not involved don't want to hear about it. I have only activist friends. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, but it's a price we pay.

Press coverage?

S: There's one Palestinian newspaper; they met some of our members and wrote some articles. But it's a very neutral newspaper. The owner decided to continue neither here nor there. That's it in the Palestinian press.

E. In the Israeli press, one reaction we did get from a journalist, 'again the same 20 losers.' At our launching event, we had over 50 journalists, but only one was Israeli and he was a friend. We do get press but it's usually negative and condescending. There was coverage in Yedidot Ahronot of our last event, and it was condescending, 'what makes miserable people do such silly things?' There is Ha'aretz, where we have better coverage, but it's read by only 7 percent of the public.

If Suleiman was wearing a [bombing] belt and I was carrying a gun, we'd get more coverage. But we're not going to grovel. We hope to generate a critical mass and that the journalists will come and cover it.

I used to work as a journalist, but I stopped because the power relationship is wrong. We shouldn't quote them, they should quote us. It will take us more time, but we should address the people.

S. In the international press, we're received in a different manner. A huge number of stories written about us, the personal stories. They would come specially to meet us, an unbelievable number. Go to the Internet and enter a name of one of our group, or Combatants for Peace; you will find many articles in different languages. (Note: A Google search on January 20, 2007 brought 37,900 hits for "Combatants for Peace"—starting with the group's own website, http://www.combatantsforpeace.org, and then to the Christian Science Monitor, Democracy Now and other media organizations.)

Academic freedom

E. Between us, we've been to five different universities. Professors with tenure express themselves very freely. My mother, who doesn’t have tenure, was threatened. They demanded a letter with a commitment not to discuss political issues in class or her contract would not be renewed. But like any bully behavior, at the slightest resistance it went away. And there are some professors who promote views that are unbearable. You have those two opposite sides, which are marginal, and the big center that doesn't give a damn.

S. On the Palestinian side, there is a difference. My university—the president has a relationship with Ami Ayalon, retired Israeli intelligence. He is completely engaged in the peace process. Bethlehem University, the former head is now Palestinian ambassador in London. He participated in the Geneva accord.

E. In Tel Aviv University there is no question of political silencing. You don't silence people for political reasons. We work according to a free-market economy logic. Other teachers that get good notes [reviews] from their students will never be criticized for these thoughts. The indifference reaches such levels that it's not even a political question.

What was it like to internally change? How do people go through the stages to shift their way of seeing the world?

S-There are differences among the people. Some become more and more radical, and some take a rest in their middle age and take part, to think about the issues. My family inherited the resistance, since more than 80 years ago when my grandfather fought against the British mandate. My father spent nine years in Israeli jails, and my brother spent years. So I considered myself a pioneer in my family and community because I started the resistance at a very early age. But I'm not crazy, and I think deeply about what I'm doing and what's going on around me. Because of that I decided to contact the Israeli ex-soldiers who decided not to serve anymore.

E. It wasn't one moment, it was a long succession of things that I saw during my military service. First of all, the missions we were given that were described as the most important thing in the world were basically not. The most important thing was to come back alive, and if that was the most important thing I could just stay home. When I joined, I really believed we were to protect the country. And then I became aware of the lie of the security belt in Lebanon. They were ambushing us because we were there and we were there because they were ambushing. When civilians were hurt it was by mistake or by reprisal.

What was I defending? At the checkpoints, you can see that it stops only the person that comes to the checkpoint. They can go around. At Bethlehem [for the first meeting], we were not more than 40 meters. They saw us and we saw them, and we could go out.

The big event, when my unit participated in an operation in Lebanon, and for administrative reasons I didn't go, but they came back with the skulls of three children and two old men—and not terrorists. And Katyushas fell on Kiryat Shmona [a settlement in the far north of Israel] because of what they did. 7 or 8 Israelis were injured because of what they did. And when my sister died one month later, I saw how I am dragged into the banality of this stupid idiotic game. It was very personal, and to take political action was quite another step.

I used to work in New York and happened to be present in a demonstration protesting the murder of Amadou Diallo. I said, if only something like this could exist in Israel. And when Courage to Refuse came about, I saw something like this could exist in Israel.

E. Like Suleiman's grandfather, my two grandfathers fought against the British and then against the Palestinians. That overwhelming feeling of power that Israelis had during the 6 Day War, I can understand—how come the army and fighting have such importance. A Prussian state of mind that said, 'in Israel, it's not like the US. The top, the elite go to combat units, not the poorest and most miserable.' There really is this feeling that if you're worth anything, you'll be there. And the farther you are from the front line, the less valuable you are. This is supported by a cult of security. The importance people give to this kind of service is immense. And I am glad that this is rapidly changing. There is a revolution: 50 percent of those who are supposed to join the army are not doing that. 40 percent leave in the middle of combat service. 80 percent of those supposed to serve in the reserves do not do it. This myth is diminishing.

I am not against commitment and engagement. I am disappointed that it is replaced by empty hedonism. It's the last days of Pompeii. I would be happy if we can supply meaningful social engagement in its place, but there is no alternative.

What about the depersonification of the "other"?

S This will extend the age of the violence and bloodshed. Some Palestinians believe we should extend from the river to the sea. But God created us as equals. If we believe otherwise, we will continue the conflict, continue the blood.

E. The dehumanization of the other is the major problem in our conflict today. The first intifada was very different. It was largely unarmed, at close contact, and people saw each other. And the level of atrocities on both sides was much lower than it is today. And I believe it was because we saw each other. There were relations, I knew there were people on the other side. Today, it's technological, sophisticated, at long range, people don't see each other, and it's very easy to hate and not to care for the others. This is why Israelis don't stand and cry when 160 civilians die in Gaza in one month. And this is why Palestinians dance when a bus blows up. If they're not terrorists yet, they will be.

This is why we bring Israelis to Palestine and Palestinians to Israel, why we have demonstrations, protests, humanitarian work, helping with the olive harvest, with demolished houses. This is the only way to show people there is something else. We started a project and talked in ten high schools, and the reaction was always, we never saw a person like you. And they never knew that they can be like that, talk like that, feel like that. We went to build a house in a village that was demolished 3 times. The father is crippled and unemployed, he has 20, or 21 unemployed children, they don't go to school, they have no hope. These are the people that can be convinced to take a belt or a gun and kill themselves. For them to see Israeli soldiers rebuilding a house—the only Jews they usually see are soldiers, settlers, interrogators. This is the great importance of another Jewish voice, other than the one that justifies the crimes perpetuated on the ground. Our capacity to prevent and to assure security is even greater than that of the security services. I'm sure that if we had the means, we [could do so much more]

Where do you turn for inspiration and strength?

E. It's not an easy question. There were many struggles before us, and some succeeded. All were courageous and inspiring. I have in my house the example of my grandfather and Issam Sartawi, who paid with his life. Gandhi, Martin Luther King…a major source of inspiration is the ANC and South Africa, which is another place where people managed to stand above barriers of race and religion. The 'Christian roots' of the Truth and Reconciliation committee is nonsense. It was planned by two Muslims and a Jew.

I did my studies in France. A real eye-opener. We Israelis view Jews from the Diaspora in not the best way. And over there, I met Jewish people who didn't feel they had to apologize for not being Zionists, and who didn't need to apologize for the Second WW because they were always antifascists. People who had the courage and integrity to hold an ideological line. People who struggle until today. Today it's considered anti-Semitic, but RAP, the movement against racism and for friendship between people, was founded by Jews from the World War II resistance.

S. If you do not believe in peace, you do not pay the price. We paid the price already, and because of that we believe in peace. Those who do not believe in peace do not care who pays the price. My inspiration is the misery of the Palestinians, the bad situation. On the other hand, the innocent people on the Israeli side killed by suicide bombers. We have to take part in this state and work together for peace.

Have you talked to the right-wing Jews?

S. We hope to find them, to organize another tour to talk to them.

E. We did have the opportunity twice on this trip to find ourselves in communities that were less welcoming, in Philadelphia and Bridgeport. We encountered a lot of fear, mistrust, and misinformation. But the experience was very good. Even though the questions were very difficult and very aggressive, you could see where it came from, from fear, from lack of knowledge. They really wanted to challenge us, but they were willing to listen. In Bridgeport, a very loud crowd attacked us constantly. But we're not afraid of these attacks. At worst, what, we get insulted? If we can influence one person…there was a rabbi who attacked us on every point, very eloquent, very precise. Leaving, he told the organizers if he were younger he'd probably join our group. We appreciate every opportunity to talk to everyone.

How can we help break down the barriers?

E. Bring more delegations. Give people the opportunity to talk on neutral ground. This is the best way. And demand, harass, bother in Israel or your newspaper or your representative to explain the travel limitations imposed on Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. We saw just today that when these things are opposed, they cave. I don't know except one or two cases of Israelis giving transport to suicide bombers. The obvious purpose of this order (no Israeli cars in the West Bank) is to keep Israelis and Palestinians from talking to each other. There was going to be a demonstration of Israelis driving around the West Bank with Palestinians in their cars. This didn't take place because the order was rescinded. Challenge the rule that you can't gather in the centers of the cities.

S. As American citizens, you have a lot to do. America rules the world and nobody can deny that. They can interfere everywhere, and the Jewish communities are a very important part. They can influence policy makers to influence Israel and Palestine.

Carolyn Oppenheim, event organizer: Brit Tzedek [the Jewish peace group in the U.S. that organized the tour] has a project called Let's Talk. If these guys can talk, so can leaders. To stimulate a demand that the leaders sit down and talk and look at the various peace plans. Their group wants to push the leaders to sit down and solve the project. Get people to sign a letter to Bush that as an American Jew you want to push the parties to come together. Get everybody to talk. Once they talk, there's a better chance of resolving the conflict. When Israel and Egypt made a peace treaty, there were all sorts of assurances, international guarantees. George H. W. Bush dragged Shamir to London kicking and screaming. It can happen again if we have a Congress that's aggressive. And they need to hear from American Jews.

Rep. John Olver said he had no idea there were so many Jewish groups working for peace.


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