Former Foes Fight for Peace
Suleiman al-Himri spent a year and a half in an Israeli prison for organizing a stone throwing action against the occupation, and then another three years in administrative detention for terrorist activities. A native of Bethlehem, and a member of Fatah, he was dedicated to violence on behalf of Palestinian national resistance. While he was in detention, the camp in the Negev where he was held was visited by Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister who believed in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Not long afterwards, al-Himri watched on television as Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic. He concluded that violence would not bring peace.
Shimon Katz served four years as an officer in an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. When his enlistment was up, he went to India where he studied meditation and learned about non-violence. (It is not unusual for Israeli soldiers to vacation in India or Nepal, in a climate and environment as different from home as possible.) He returned feeling conflicted about the occupation. As a reservist, he is called to duty each year. One year his unit was fired on from somewhere in a small Palestinian town. A colleague was killed. The unit returned fire, shooting blindly into the town. Katz felt torn between patriotism and conscience, so his commanding officer transferred him to a logistical unit.
Al-Himri and Katz are members of Combatants for Peace. (Al-Himri is a founding member.) They were in Seattle recently at the end of a grueling five week, twenty-two city tour in which they spoke to both predominantly Jewish and predominantly Muslim groups. The Seattle meeting was sponsored by several organizations, including Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and the Arab-American Community Coalition.
Combatants for Peace, established in 2005, consists of about 150 Israelis and Palestinians all of whom "have taken an active part in the cycle of violence." In the words of their brochure:
We no longer believe that it is possible to resolve the conflict between the two peoples through violent means; therefore we declare that we refuse to take part any more in mutual bloodletting. We will act only by non-violent means so that each side will come to understand the national aspirations of the other side.
"It was not easy for me to accept the idea," al-Himri said. "We used to be enemies."
It is not easy for many people to accept the idea. "The problem is Israelis and Palestinians don't trust each other," Katz told the Seattle audience. "People cling to one side and blame the other side for everything."
Some people will probably never accept the idea of a two-state solution, especially fundamentalists on both sides. Katz said we must make peace in spite of them. The problem, at least one problem, is that it is so simple to increase the ranks of extremists on both sides. "It's easy to change the minds of Israelis (who want peace)," al-Himri said. "Just send a suicide bomber." But every failure in peace talks, he pointed out, increases extremist feeling among the Palestinians. They punished Israel by voting for Hamas.
The key, according to Katz, is to listen to each other. One of the groups' goals, as stated in their brochure, is "To raise the consciousness in both publics regarding the hopes and suffering of the other side, and to create partners in dialogue."
It should be inspiring that these former combatants, like the Bereaved Families for Peace and Reconciliation (see Grief Encounter in HSC 1/15/07), with such active and personal stakes in the conflict can see past their own feelings and tragedies to empathize with the other side and dedicate their lives to promoting peace rather than furthering hostility. If Combatants for Peace and Bereaved Families for Peace do not inspire you, perhaps a group that might be called (but isn't) Comedians for Peace will. Read about them here.
Asked what Americans can do to promote peace, both Katz and al-Himri agreed that it was to pressure the administration to actively promote the peace process and further the dialog between both peoples. Perhaps that should be among all people.
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