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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.

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"At first I asked him," says Aramin, "how he could live, how he could look at his wife and children. But this is his way of making amends."

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Raed, a Palestinian father of two from Hebron, stands up next. He relates how, after an Israeli soldier killed his best friend, he engaged in "activities against soldiers," including throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. He was a fugitive for a year before he was caught and put in jail. His time there, however, only made him more committed to his cause, and he began planning a "large attack" against Israel.

"But then, my cousin was killed, and something changed," he says. "I suddenly started thinking there must be another way. First I lost my friend, then my cousin. I didn't want to lose more. There had to be a way out of this violent circle. I hope," he says, adding, "this group will become an important part of both our societies, and an example to the world of how peace is possible, even among fighters."

The leaders of Combatants for Peace felt it was important to keep their group secret until they had established clear goals. Their aim: To press for an end to Israeli settlements and military incursions, and for the creation of clear frontiers between independent Israeli and Palestinian states.

So far, the group's low-key approach has confined it to speaking at smaller public events, to Jewish groups in the United States and young Palestinians and Israelis. Following their official public launch on Monday, though, they will start addressing larger international audiences, promoting their vision of a "road to peace."

That road is not without obstacles.

First, it's difficult for the group to find a meeting location. It is illegal for Israelis to enter most of the West Bank. For most Palestinians, procuring entry permits into Israel is time-consuming and often fruitless. But the group has been able to meet in Arram, an area just north of Jerusalem that is part of the Palestinian Territories, surrounded by security checkpoints and roadblocks administered by Israel.

Members say it will become even more difficult to meet as the "security wall" goes up. Half-finished sections of wall currently slice through a main road in the center of town.

Despite its efforts to promote peace and understanding, the group has opponents on both sides of the conflict. Group member Elazar Elchanan says they are "staunchly opposed by the Israeli government." Aramin says Hamas, too, sees the group as part of the opposition.

"We may be putting our lives in danger just by meeting," says Yonatan Shapira, "but we need to do this for the sake of everyone. Palestinians have tried for years to oppose the occupation, and everything they've done has just made the response more brutal. So we want to create an alternative to the military, so that young people on both sides can join us instead of army or militia groups."

Yonatan knows, though, that the group's decision to go public will have repercussions for its members. He was an instrumental figure in the creation of the September 2003 "Pilots' Letter" signed by 27 Israeli Air Force pilots that stated, "We, who were raised to love the state of Israel ... refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers."

"I was at the center of a storm," he says. "It was a real crisis in my life when that letter went public."

Nevertheless, he says, as the new members' introductions come to an end and the group divides up to discuss strategies for the upcoming launch, these former fighters are willing to face another storm in order to "truly serve their families, to finish the occupation and be able to live in peace together."

"It doesn't cease to be hard," says Aramin with a smile and sighing deeply. "You must listen to what each person has to say, even though he might be the one who once hit you, or killed a member of your family. But you must listen, and you must forgive, even for the most difficult things."