The Transformation of an Israeli Soldier

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This column is part of a series of narratives that offers insight into the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This story is drawn from the archives of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. In the past month I have posted several other narratives here, here, and here.

The narrative below is from Chen Alon who is a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Chen served for four years in the Israeli army and then for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Later, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and as a result served time in jail. The turning point for him was when he was ordered to participate in the demolition of a Palestinian home because it lacked a building permit. For background on this aspect of the occupation, click here to read a recent post.

 

My grandfather immigrated to Palestine before the Second World War because he was a Zionist.  He was the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers of Poland, and so I was brought up with the belief that Zionism literally saved my family. It was not a theoretical concept. I believed that our Jewish state was surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy us and that men like my father, who fought in the 1967 war, were there to protect us. However, when my father came back from the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he was deeply psychologically damaged and from a very young age I was exposed to his trauma. I went into the army wishing to fix things, but instead I got locked into the same cycle.

I was drafted in 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada. I call myself an “occupation scholar” because I was sent everywhere and did everything. The most difficult thing of all was the arrests.  One night I remember we had to meet an agent from the security forces to find a wanted terrorist.  My men surrounded a house and as we entered with our flash lights I saw people sleeping on mattresses all over the floor. Then I saw the agent wake someone up and take them to the jeep. It was a 10-year-old child. ‘Can this be the wanted terrorist?’ I asked myself.

Then, in 2001, came the Second Intifada, when Palestinians used arms, not stones. I knew as a reservist I would now be called to respond with tanks, not batons. The strategy was to siege and block everything. The Palestinian villages became like prisons, with one main exit in and out. On one occasion I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? My children were human, and yet we had dehumanized the Palestinian children. I began to realize that in the de-humanizing of the other, you begin to de-humanize yourself.

That night we got the order to demolish a Palestinian house. I presumed it must belong to a terrorist, but in fact we were demolishing it because the owner had built an illegal balcony. This is how a civil legal mission becomes a military operation. We came with two platoons, a bulldozer and three tanks, and not surprisingly the operation deteriorated into a fierce battle, with the local Mosque calling people to defend the house and to rise up against the Israeli invasion. It was a crazy situation. I knew from then on that this was the last time I could do such a thing. And when I heard about reservist officers and combatant soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, I signed their petition. Over the course of two years we became very active trying to convince Israeli society that the occupation was wrong. We wanted to initiate civil disobedience.

When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik, I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.

Then one day I was in Ramallah telling my story to Palestinians and a person in the audience asked me directly, ‘Are you asking us to forgive you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t forgive myself, nor do I ask for forgiveness.’ For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions – it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression. Israelis need to take responsibility for the Nakba of 1948, just as the Palestinians need to take responsibility for the crazy strategy of suicide attacks.

Remembrance and Healing

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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.

A Former Member of the Shin Bet: His Story

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From Roni Segoly, former member of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency):Controlling by force doesn’t just harm the occupied nation but the occupier as well. The violence penetrates back to us…and all the values that we were educated on are trampled over in the occupied territories. We need to free ourselves from the occupation maybe even more than the Palestinians need to free themselves. We cannot be the ‘only enlightened democracy in the Middle East’ when people of a village that is only 10 minutes from where I live are prevented minimal human rights by my own country, just because of their origin.”

This is the second in a series highlighting the personal stories of members of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. Two weeks ago I posted the story of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian who was one of the co-founders of the organization. His moving story exemplifies the experience of living under Israeli rule.

Today I am highlighting the story of Roni Segoly, an Israeli who spent much of his career with the police and the Shin Bet in the occupied territories. He describes how his worldview, the belief in the “absolute justice” of the Israeli occupation, began to crumble when he had the insight that the Palestinians were simply demonstrating for their freedom – and how their striving resembled his heroes in the Jewish underground who had fought the British during the mandate period. It was as if the scales fell from his eyes and he viewed the world through different glasses. Slowly Roni came to this conclusion: “You cannot rule another nation for a long period of time and there is no way to lead a humanitarian occupation. There is no way to be evil to others without letting this evil penetrate into our lives.

Here is his story.

My name is Roni and in August 2007 I joined the organization Combatants for Peace. Since then I have been an active member and this is My Personal Story.

I grew up in Jerusalem in the 70s, the years of the feeling of euphoria after the Six-Day War. I was a youngster and like most of the youth my age, I joined a youth movement. The movement I joined is called Beitar, the movement of the Herut party, which later became the Likud party. I was a right-wing teen and participated in rallies, which supported the building of settlements, which had just started popping up on the hills of the West Bank, while the government shut its eyes.

During that time, my belief was based on the fact that we had just freed holy lands. By chance there was a group of people living there who claimed that they were a nation. A different solution had to be found for them in the Middle East, there are 22 other Arab countries to where they can go, the absolute justice was with us.

In 1975 I joined the IDF and served in an outpost in the Gaza strip. During my service, the Likud party came into power for the first time, and the feeling of my friends and I was that if we were stubborn enough, the Palestinians would give up and leave or accept our authority. We believed that there was no other way.

After I finished my army service I started working for the police in the Department for Minorities in Jerusalem. For the first time I actually had to deal with Palestinians. I learned their language and customs and I remember how we used to play cat and mouse with the citizens of East Jerusalem. They would try and demonstrate their nationalism in any way possible. They would paint their cars with their flags’ colors and we would fight against any sign of nationalism with persistence and aggressiveness. Needless to say, raising of a Palestinian flag was a serious crime.

In 1983 I left the police forces, and joined the Israeli secret service (Shabak), where I served until 1994 in the occupied territories in different positions where their main aim was fighting terror.

If I look back on where I was then and where I am today, obviously it was a long process. I didn’t wake up one morning with a new political understanding. It was a process that started years ago, in its midst I found myself dealing with large cracks forming in the belief of the righteousness of my way, of my country, and the gap widened until I couldn’t carry on wavering on both side. I chose a way that seemed more natural to me, one that promotes peace and equality.

The best way to describe the way in which change happened in me is to refer to a few points of reference in my past.

During the end of the 80s’ the first uprising (‘Intifada’) broke out. This was truly a national uprising and it even took the Palestinian organizations time to figure out what was happening, to come to sense with it and to control the masses. During the first weeks the real heroes were the masses. In many places on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip the masses marched fearlessly towards the IDF. For the first time I encountered youngsters and adults that picked their heads up, their eyes were sparkling and they were filled with pride and persistence, they believed that they were creating their country, that nothing could stop them. And as for myself, I who was working in the secret service, met not with terrorists (for those people it was obvious who is good and who is bad) but with a nation that was rebelling. Suddenly I caught myself, I who in my childhood had dreamed of the Jewish underground heroes, dreamed of their fight against the British occupation, they were prepared to sacrifice themselves to be freed from being an occupied nation, and suddenly I was on the other side of this equation, and this was the first fracture that started crumbling my belief. My duty was not an easy one even if I still believed we were defending our country, and still there was a gap between the fact that you had to be evil to someone during your job, and then come home to peace and quiet, have a bath and hug your wife and kids. This gap is very difficult to deal with, but when you start doubting what you are actually doing, it becomes completely unbearable.

The second point I would like to address is the house where I grew up. I was born in Baqa neighborhood in Jerusalem (this is the Arab name of the neighborhood that is used until today). I grew up in an Arab house, which to me meant a house with high ceilings, nice tiled floors and thick walls. The fact that in the past Arabs lived there didn’t occur to me at all. In 1967 right after the Six-Day War, when I was 10, a few Arabs knocked on our door, and they told us in broken English that they used to live in the house once, and they asked to see it. That was an embarrassing and strange situation, what do we do? And what do they want? I mean this house is obviously ours. Anyways we let them in, they looked around and left, and we haven’t heard from them since. I presume we weren’t very kind to them. This moment has been engraved in my memory ever since.

In 2006 I went with my mother to Romania to see where my roots were. In other words, where she ran away from after the Second World War. We went to the tiny remote village where she was born. It was a deserted village in the northern part of the country and we looked for the house she used to live in. Today, obviously Romanians inhabit it since there are almost no Jews left in the area. We didn’t find the house, so we knocked on the door of a neighboring house. Someone opened and asked what we wanted? We explained and they were very unfriendly. Then I suddenly realized, this is an identical story to the one that happened in my childhood, with the original residents of the house I grew up in.

Both people, Palestinian and Israeli, are connected to each other through history, and our stories are so similar that it’s nearly impossible to understand. We, children of refugees from Europe, fulfilled our dream of a Jewish state by making another nation into refugees. We, who have been a driven minority for our entire history, are ruling another nation today. The fact that our only way of ruling them is oppressing them, on the one hand and preventing them any ability for nationalism or equality on the other. How come we have changed our skin and in what manner are we managing to justify it to ourselves?

This story doesn’t have good guys or bad ones, just stories that intertwine with each other.

The third point of my story concerns the time I lived abroad. During the years 2000-2007 when I lived abroad, it enabled me to get a different perspective on the life in the Middle East. I found out that there are more nations that have fought one another in this world but have found peaceful ways to live together and look forward to a better future. In 2007, at a time close to my return, I saw a video clip of an opening of a sewage pipe near the settlement Efrat. In order to do so they had to uproot an olive grove of a neighboring Arab village. The inhabitants of the village appealed to the supreme court of justice but lost the case. The video showed the picture of the exact moment that the trucks entered the grove. I saw in this video two scenarios that in my opinion closed the picture of the transformation I had been going through during the last few years. The first was a picture of the Palestinian farmers standing helpless and crying, but what caught my heart was the fact that on their side were young Israelis that were hugging them and crying together with them. I didn’t know this type of solidarity. A second picture that was engraved in my head was of the soldiers that were guarding the bulldozers, walking beside them with clubs in their hands, feeling like kings. My son was supposed to go into the army the following year and the thought of it shocked me.

It took me a while until I was able to tell this story. It took me time until I was able to explain to myself what was happening here. I am sure in the justice of our way, I know that I belong to a minority here in Israel, but we are determined. You cannot rule another nation for a long period of time and there is no way to lead a humanitarian occupation. There is no way to be evil to others without letting this evil penetrate into our lives.

I feel that we are the true bearers of the spirit of Judaism, which means that one needs to acknowledge the right of another even if they aren’t Jewish. The Israeli policy in the occupied territories has been established and based on controlling, stealing and politically oppressing another nation. The magic word for it is “security” but all these aren’t phrases of Judaism and what my country signifies at the moment towards the Palestinian people and to a big part of the world is the ugliest side of humanity.

I am not sure how most of the citizens in this country ignore the situation, and this includes some of my friends and family. How could they be more worried about the starving animals in the zoo in Gaza during the war, than the hundreds of children that were killed by us during the war? We are carrying with us the slogans of laws and security for nothing and on the West Bank, we signify the exact opposite to Judaism and Zionism.

As I understand this reality, neither side (Israeli or Palestinian) will give up; we won’t go back to Europe and they won’t leave the area. We don’t have the ability to control another nation which is half of our size, it is just not possible. Not by force, not by financial repression, and not in any other manner. And there is no way that one can hold a democratic government when under its occupation you have millions of people that don’t have equal rights. The same way that in South Africa you couldn’t have a democratic government while there was apartheid.

Controlling by force doesn’t just harm the occupied nation but the occupier as well. The violence penetrates back to us as our economy can’t strive forever, and all the values that we were educated on are trampled over in the occupied territories. We need to free ourselves from the occupation maybe even more than the Palestinians need to free themselves. We cannot be the “only enlightened democracy in the Middle East”, when people of a village that is only 10 minutes from where I live are prevented minimal human rights by my own country, just because of their origin.

Assessments of different struggles in the world always show that it ends in negotiation and some compromise.

Dezmand Tutu said “ A man is a man when he approves of others as human beings” and old Hillel said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” .

Sometimes people say that I have a gentle soul (we call it ‘Yefe Nefesh’ in Hebrew), even though this statement has become a derogatory statement to say that leftists are ‘Arab lovers’. I am actually proud of this term, exactly in the same manner that I see myself as an Israeli patriot.

Hope: Former IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants

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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.

Click this link to read Bassam’s story (scroll down on the page): http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hope-former-idf-soldiers-and-palestinian-militants/

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