At eight o’clock last night, shortly before my wife and I left our apartment, the sirens sounded for a full minute, marking the start of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), the day when Israelis remember those who have died in their many wars. As we headed down Geula Street toward the beach, passing by the low apartment houses lining the road and then went north on the seaside promenade, the moon was just a sliver seen through a hazy night. We walked into the slight breeze, a touch of cool in the damp air, the sea invisible except for the small white caps of the Mediterranean waves.

In about thirty minutes we reached the old Tel Aviv port area, now renovated into a tourist mecca of shops and cafes, but tonight all was closed, deserted, locked up tight like the rest of the city. A few lone souls and couples strolled the boardwalk, trying to avoid the spray right along the seawall. But as we approached Hanger 11, I heard faint noises at first, the echoes of people shouting. Then I saw the flags as we got closer, draping the small crowd ahead. There were about 30 demonstrators standing behind police barricades, waving clusters of large blue and white Israeli flags while yelling amplified slogans through loudspeakers. The line of armed police in front of them provided a zone of safety to walk by.  One older man, sitting on the side holding a folded flag, asked me as we walked by “Are you a leftist?” using the term as an insult.

A hundred feet ahead a steady stream of people were walking through rows of crowd control metal barriers before being stopped by darkly dressed security personnel with tiny badges pinned to their chests. Unsure where to go, or even if this was the right place, we followed the others to the hangar’s entrance and through the doors.

And then I stood there astonished. Before me in the cavernous space were over a thousand people, filling the long rows of chairs, listening to the speakers who were small figures up on the distant stage and projected onto two large screens.

This Yom Hazikaron gathering was organized by Combatants for Peace, an association of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who have laid down their weapons and pledged to work non-violently together to end the occupation. They gather in small groups every month, to talk and plan protests, rejecting the desire for revenge, just working for freedom and to stop the bloodshed.

I have now gone many times to the West Bank with various human rights NGOs, including with Combatants. I am used to the half-empty buses, the small numbers. I had expected last night to see a hundred people, maybe a few hundred at most. But before me were throngs, young and old, listening silently to the stories and songs and prayers and hopes for peace on this day of memory.

By the hugs and knowing looks between those standing with us in the back, I could sense that everyone knew someone who had died in the wars and the violence. This was personal remembrance. I could go on describing how there were both Palestinian and Israeli speakers, how the music was moving, and how the stories of loss told from the stage made one want to cry. But I think what I can do that is most appropriate on this Yom Hazikaron is to reprint the story of one of the members of Combatants for Peace. (You can read two previous narrative I posted here and here.) Although the story below is not of a former fighter, it reflects the attitudes of the former soldiers and militants in the organization – recognizing that hatred and violence will just lead to more of the same and that people on both sides of this conflict share a common humanity. Perhaps these are the most important lessons that can be taken from this day of remembering.

My name is Yunes Asfoor. I don’t know how to begin my story because it is somewhat different from those of my friends [in Combatants for Peace]. After I got married, god blessed me with children. I had a son called Habib-Allah who suffered from a serious disease (leukemia). I took him for treatment in many hospitals – in the West Bank, in Jordan and in Israel — where I saw people in the same situation as Habib.

While Habib was being treated in Israeli hospitals I noticed that in times of difficulty and crisis people join together against the disease. There were religious Jews there and other Israelis who would say, “May God cure your son.” What they said was heart-felt because they felt the same thing I did, their children were in similar situations. I used to say to them “May god cure your children and their disease” because I too felt what they felt, as I was dealing with Habib’s situation.

I also noticed that the kids used to play with each other, nobody felt the difference of religion because they were little kids. The doctors and nurses didn’t discriminate between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish children, there was the same treatment for everyone.

Today we are working together with “Combatants for Peace” to prove that everybody deserves to live in peace and justice in this country. We work together so that our children can have a better future. I say, instead of spending so much on weapons and wars, we should take care of people: spend on medicine, hospitals, education, combating illiteracy, protecting the environment. There are enough natural dangers, we don’t need to create man made ones.

Whenever I see a sick child suffering pain, I feel as if it is my own child, Habib Allah, whether the child is Christian, Jewish or whatever. Based on this feeling, I work to find a better future for all the people of the world so that they can live in peace. That is why I am active in Combatants for Peace.