COMBATANTS FOR Peace began its U.S. speaking tour in New York City on Jan. 16-the one-year anniversary of the death of Bassam Aramin's 10-year-old daughter, Abir, who was shot by an Israeli border policeman as she was walking home from the Anata School for Girls. After three days in an Israeli hospital, Abir died. During those days all the Israeli members of Combatants for Peace sat with Aramin. In the presence of his wife, Salwa, and daughter Areen, he assured the audience at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery that for the sake of all the children of Combatants for Peace, he would not be deterred from his path and would never seek revenge in the name of Abir.
Aramin, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, spent a total of seven years in Israeli prisons, the first time for raising a Palestinian flag when he was 13 years old. While in prison, Aramin gradually came to realize that the conflict would never be solved through violence. The process began when he saw a film in prison on the Holocaust. He tried to understand how this related not only to Israeli cohesion as a people, but also to Israeli aggression and violence. He came to realize that, as victims of victims, Palestinians are paying the price of others' sins. Aramin began to talk with an Israeli prison guard who believed that Palestinians were violent settler-terrorists who kill Jews. After a seven-month conversation, the guard became convinced there should be a Palestinian state. Both he and the guard, Aramin explained, were changed by discussion rather than by force.
Aramin's conviction that violence is not the path, that "after 60 years Israelis are not safe and Palestinians are not free," is the underlying principle of Combatants for Peace. It began late in 2004, when four Palestinian and seven Israeli former fighters met secretly. The Israelis thought they would be kidnapped, Yonatan Shapira recalled, while the Palestinians thought the Israelis were from Shin Bet. However, they kept meeting far from the media and their numbers grew. As they heard each others' stories, Shapira related, they came to understand that their common enemy is the occupation, not each other.
Shapira has moved a long way from when he was a proud Israeli air force captain and Black Hawk helicopter pilot who felt he was doing his part to protect his country. It took him far too long, he acknowledged, to realize that what he was part of is a machine of occupation. "Thanks to a brutal commander and brutal operations," he said, Shapira decided to refuse to be part of the machine. On Rosh Hashana 2003, he was one of 30 pilots who published a letter refusing to continue taking part in war crimes. All the "refusnik" organizations are significant, but Shapiro said it is even more important for Israelis to go to the Palestinian side to see what the occupation has created.
Elik Elhanan spent three years in the Israeli army's special services, where he saw much he did not want to be part of. His "wake-up call" came on Sept. 4, 1987, when suicide bombers in Jerusalem killed his 14-year-old sister, Smadal. Elhanan described how he needed to find a way to channel his anger and pain, but found only revenge and violence in Israeli society. He then decided, "It's over. I'm not going to die for them; I'm not going to kill for them."
Out of spite, Elhanan admitted, he became a conscientious objector, which at that time was the greatest sin in Israel. The greater challenge, however, was to meet the enemy. Elhanan is proud that the day in 2005 when he first met in Bethlehem with Palestinian ex-fighters changed his life.
In spite of "every day being the worst day," Elhanan finds a spark of hope because every day Palestinians, Israelis and internationals resist the occupation, the separation wall, and the confiscation of land. He remembered an Israeli general saying at the beginning of the intifada that the worst-case scenario was a large-scale, popular, nonviolent Palestinian struggle. …