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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Hope and Reconciliation

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This past weekend there were two things I encountered that gave me hope – hope for the future of a peaceful Middle East.

Hope #1 – Friday’s Haaretz Magazine had a story about teaching the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel in Israel. See http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/change-of-heart-1.410878

The reporter interviewed Dror Bondi, a teacher at a Hesder Yeshiva in the West Bank (students at a Hesder Yeshiva combine army service with Torah study). Surprisingly, Heschel is not well-known in Israel and is seldom studied. Bondi’s mission is to change that.

Bondi grew up in a West Bank settlement, a child in a right-wing religious Zionist family. He attended demonstrations in the 1990’s protesting Yitzhak Rabin’s peace initiatives. After Rabin’s assassination in 1995 Bondi entered a multi-year crisis during which he challenged his previous beliefs about the land, God, and politics. I am not a philosopher so I will let Bondi’s words speak for themselves in the article but I will say he reminded me of the essence of the religious calling – which ironically can so easily be forgotten here in Israel – and he filled me with hope. (Note: for those readers not familiar with Heschel’s life, the middle of the article offers a brief biography but the beginning and especially the latter half of the article deals with his religious thought and its relevance to Israel.)

Bondi also reminded me of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, another beacon of hope in the Orthodox landscape here (see my December 23, 2011 post). Although both are in the distinct minority, perhaps a time will come when they will change the conversation in the Orthodox Jewish community.

For those who are Jewish educators interested in re-framing the conversation about Israel within a religious context, Rabbis for Human Rights, with branches in both Israel and North America, also has material to assist with this.

Hope #2 – This weekend I traveled to Susya in the barren looking hills near Hebron on the West Bank. This is an area with active Jewish settlements and local Palestinians who are clinging to their land, living in tents that get demolished over and over by the Israeli army. The government’s goal is to remove all the Palestinian farmers from the district. As in other areas of the West Bank, this is bare-faced ethnic cleansing with the Army repeatedly loading the residents onto trucks to transport them away. But the farmers keep coming back to their land, setting up new tents to replace those demolished, never surrendering no matter how bad conditions get. I hope to write more about Susya in future posts but the following article by David Shulman, a professor at Hebrew University, will give you a visceral experience of the local Palestinians’ encounter with their Jewish neighbors. It is one of the best descriptions of what it is like to confront the occupation face-to-face. See http://www.palestinemonitor.org/spip/spip.php?article1799

Palestinian farmer's home in Susya. The families live in tents because their dwellings are slated for demolition by the government.

But that is not why I am writing this post – although the courage and tenacity of those farmers is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Rather, I am writing to tell you about Combatants for Peace (see http://cfpeace.org/), an organization composed of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, individuals who had fought but now work for peace, non-violence, and an end to the occupation. They have about 200 active members who belong to five regional groups, each one pairing an Israeli city with a Palestinian city, for example, Tel Aviv and Nablus. Each group meets monthly in the Palestinian cities (the Palestinian members cannot enter Israel) to plan activities, tours for the public, and events.

To give you an idea of how and why these former fighters became involved in this organization, the following links are brief life stories of two members of the group, one Palestinian and one Israeli. They illustrate how this conflict has deep and long roots on both sides but how reconciliation can emerge. Both accounts are very moving and provide the kind of insight into the occupation that only personal testimony can do.

1 – http://cfpeace.org/?cat=6&story_id=667

2 – http://cfpeace.org/?cat=6&story_id=970

(Others accounts are available on the website and are worth reading.)

Combatants for Peace organized the bus from Tel Aviv that took me to Susya. All 50 seats were taken, many by former Israeli soldiers who were devoting the day to show solidarity with the farmers in the Hebron Hills.  We were all instructed to remain non-violent and passive if the nearby settlers come to harass and attack.

We spent the afternoon at a newly built school that serves 35 children, grades one through four. For much of the last decade, children did not attend school because road closures made it impossible. A few years ago the community set up tents for a school. When a powerful storm blew the tents away they built the new concrete structure. Since there is no electric power or water hookups provided to Palestinians, the school uses solar power and water is trucked in. Until recently there were no bathrooms at the school.

Of course, since Palestinians in this area cannot obtain building permits, the school already has been served with a demolition order from the government – just like all the Palestinian dwellings in the area. One day a bulldozer will show up unannounced, accompanied by soldiers. It will quickly reduce the school to a pile of rubble, perhaps along with some Palestinian tents in the area. (The farmers live in tents which are easier to reconstruct than buildings after they are demolished.) Such is life for the residents of Susya.

The new school in Susya. Note the solar panel on the roof that provides electricity. The building will be demolished by the army at some point.

But on this weekend Israelis and Palestinians celebrated the school by planting sabra cacti on the hillside in front of the school building. It was a fitting symbol. The school’s principal mentioned in his welcoming remarks that the sabra is historically emblematic for both Israelis and Palestinians – another thing we could fight over if we chose to. But the truth is, just as we are all visitors on this earth, so too with the sabra in Israel and Palestine. It turns out it is a native plant of Mexico and was introduced to the Middle East only during the Ottoman Empire. So much for historical myths!

Local Palestinians and Combatants for Peace planting sabra cacti on the hill overlooking the new school.

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