Enemy soldiers gather - to strive for peace
Shunned by their respective governments, former Israeli and Palestinian fighters have been meeting in secret, seeking common ground.
ARRAM, WEST BANK
The stark white room buzzes with Arabic and Hebrew conversation as a group of about 50 men jovially shake hands and arrange themselves in seats around its perimeter. The men range in age from 20 to 60. Some wear suits and polished shoes; others are dressed casually in sweat pants and T-shirts.Skip to next paragraph
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They have one thing in common: All are former combatants who struggled to defend their state - but half of them are former Israeli soldiers or pilots, while the other half are former Palestinian "freedom fighters," many of whom served time in Israeli jails.
These men once fought against each other. Together they form a new organization called Combatants for Peace, which - after being kept secret for a year - will make its public debut in Jerusalem on April 10. The date coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover and Palestinian Prisoners Day, which is devoted to those detained in Israeli prisons.
Combatants for Peace brings together these ex-fighters to encourage dialogue, peace, and an end to conflict in the region.
Former commander Zohar Shapira, an elite Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldier for 15 years, started the ball rolling when he left the army because he felt its actions and incursions in Palestinian territories were "immoral." He contacted a group of former Palestinian Fatah fighters from around Bethlehem. In their first meeting, Mr. Shapira says, all were stunned to find so much common ground, and they decided to formalize an alliance.
"Our members are fighters from all ranks of Israeli military and Palestinian militant factions," says Bassam Aramin, one of the Palestinian cocreators of the group. They "know the meaning of freedom, and the price of war."
The group's monthly meetings are charged with emotion, says Yonatan Shapira, Zohar's brother and another cofounder. For new Palestinian members, it may be the first time they have seen an unarmed Israeli soldier, Yonatan says. "For Israelis," he continues, "they're often at first afraid of talking in front of Palestinians about what they did during combat. For every new member, it's a frightening experience, but it's also exhilarating."
Mr. Aramin, who served seven years in an Israeli jail for "acts of defiance" against Israeli soldiers, agrees.
"It's a paradox," he says. "You hear a man talking about how he shot, killed, damaged your neighbor's house. But you feel empathy for him. You realize that we are all from the same background, but just from different sides. The soldier wanted to protect his people, and so did we. But we've all discovered we were wrong in how we did it."
On this particular night, eight new Israeli and Palestinian members attend, bringing the total membership to roughly 90, evenly divided between both sides. After a brief introduction from two chairmen, a new Israeli member stands up and nervously greets the group. The new member remains anonymous - there is no pressure for attendees to reveal their names.
The room becomes quiet. At first he is hesitant, but then he opens up, describing the turning point that made him decide to refuse army orders in Palestinian territories.
"I was a soldier in Nablus," he explains, "and was told to fire 'light bombs' [powerful exploding flares] to illuminate the sky one night during a military operation. I fired seven, but the eighth had a problem. I knew it would explode somewhere on the ground if I fired it."
His commanding officer, however, ordered him to fire the bomb regardless of possible civilian casualties.
"When I fired," he recalls, "I asked myself how I could be doing something that could kill innocent people."
This is not an uncommon experience in this group. Another member, a former Israeli Air Force pilot, was ordered to bomb a building in Gaza in order to assassinate an alleged terrorist. It was only when he returned home and turned on the television that he realized 15 innocent women and children had been killed in the attack.