Last Friday I found myself sitting in a large room with 30 former IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants. As I looked around the room, I could imagine many of them holding guns and trying to kill each other in the past. Some just looked the part; they had the bearing, the aura, of former fighters. Yet there they were, sitting next to each other, talking, laughing, bridging cultures and ideology and hatred – and all the killing and suffering – to try to find a way to stop the fighting.
This was a gathering of Combatants for Peace, an organization composed of former fighters from both sides, who have committed to laying down their arms and working towards peace. We were sitting in the local Council Building in the Palestinian village of Shufa near Tulkarm in the West Bank. The village’s access road to Tulkarm, the nearest commercial center, had been blocked by the army since 2002 and Combatants for Peace was there to help the villagers demonstrate against the barrier. The army unexpectedly had cleared the road the previous day, probably to avoid an embarrassing incident, so the gathering turned into a celebratory occasion.
Perhaps the best way to convey the atmosphere in that room is to tell some of the stories of these former fighters. The Combatants for Peace website has a series of individual narratives that I hope to publish as stand alone posts in the future. More than anything I write, these narratives illustrate how hatred is engendered in both cultures, but they also show a path to overcome even our deepest animosities.
The narrative posted below is from Bassam Aramin, who became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in Hebron. At 17, he was caught attacking Israeli troops and spent seven years in prison. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon, even after his 10-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier while on her way home from school after having just purchased a candy bar. Neither the soldier nor his officers were brought to justice.
His story is especially relevant for the Passover season, when Jews celebrate their freedom from oppression. Bassam describes how and why he chose to fight for his people’s freedom when he was younger, a perspective that too few Jewish people understand. The chasm between how Palestinians view their fight, and how Jews view it, is huge. Hopefully, Bassam’s narrative, and how he evolved to a non-violent struggle for his people’s freedom, can help bridge this gap.
As a child I fought the occupation by raising the Palestinian flag in our playground. We never felt safe. We were always running from jeeps to avoid the soldiers beating us. Our homes were invaded and children were killed. At the age of 12 I joined a demonstration where a boy was shot by a soldier. I watched him die in front of me.
From that moment I developed a deep need for revenge. I became part of a group whose mission was to get rid of the catastrophe that had come to our town. We called ourselves freedom fighters, but the outside world called us terrorists. At first we just threw stones and empty bottles, but when we came across some discarded hand-grenades in a cave, we decided to hurl them at the Israeli jeeps. Two of them exploded. No one was injured but we were caught, and in 1985, at the age of 17, I received a seven-year prison sentence.
In prison we were treated like heroes by other prisoners, but our jailers taught us how to continue hating and resisting. On 1st October 1987, all 120 of us – all teenage boys – were waiting to go into the dining room when the alarms suddenly went off. Over a hundred armed soldiers appeared and ordered us to strip naked. They beat us until we could hardly stand. I was held the longest and beaten the hardest. What struck me was that all the soldiers wore smiles on their face. They were beating us without hatred, because for them this was just a training exercise and they saw us as objects.
As I was being beaten, I remembered a movie I’d seen the year before about the Holocaust. At the time I’d been happy that Hitler had killed six million Jews. I remember wishing that he’d killed them all, because then I would never have been sent to prison. But some minutes into the movie, I found myself crying, and feeling angry that the Jews were being herded into gas chambers without fighting back. If they knew they were going to die, why didn’t they scream out? I tried to hide my tears from the other prisoners: they wouldn’t have understood why I was crying about the pain of my oppressors. It was the first time I felt empathy.
So now, walking between the soldiers who were beating me, I remembered the movie and I started screaming at them: ‘Murderers! Nazis! Oppressors!’ And as a consequence, I felt no pain.
The incident with the soldiers made me realize that we had to preserve our humanity – our right to laugh and our right to cry – in order to save ourselves. I also slowly realized that the Israeli oppression was because of the Holocaust, and I decided to try and understand who the Jews were. This led to a conversation with a prison guard. The guards all thought of us as terrorists and we hated them, but this guard asked me, ‘how can someone quiet like you become a terrorist?’ I replied, ‘no, you’re the terrorist. I’m a freedom fighter’. He really believed that we, the Palestinians, were the settlers, not the Israelis. I said, ‘if you can convince me that we are the settlers, then I’ll declare this in front of all the prisoners.’
It was the start of a dialogue and a friendship. We discovered many similarities and some months later the guard said he understood now that we were not the settlers. He even became a supporter of the Palestinian struggle. From then on he always treated us with respect, and once even smuggled in two big bottles of Coca Cola, which I shared with all the other prisoners. Seeing how this transformation happened through dialogue and without force made me realize that the only way to peace was through non-violence. Our dialogue enabled us both to see each other’s purity of heart and good intent.
When I was released it was the time of the Oslo Accords, and there was a great feeling of hope for a two-state solution. But it never happened because the politicians said we weren’t ready for it. I think if I hadn’t had such strong beliefs and principles, anger would have taken over. It wasn’t until 2005 that some of us who believed in non-violence started meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers. We were meeting as true enemies who wanted to speak. The Israelis were refusing to fight, not for the sake of the Palestinian people, but for the sake of the morals of their society. We too were not acting to save Israeli lives, but to prevent our society from suffering more. It was only later that we both came to feel a responsibility for each other’s people.
There is a much darker side to my story. On 16th January 2007, my 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in cold blood by an Israeli soldier while standing outside her school with some classmates. The children hadn’t even been throwing stones. I have been appalled by the details of what happened, not least that she had just bought a candy at the store and hadn’t had time to eat it.
The case is not yet closed, but it is unlikely that justice will be done. The position of the state is shameful, and in court no humanity was shown. The soldier responsible has not even been identified. For there to be reconciliation, and for me to consider forgiveness, Israel has to recognize such crimes.
Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.