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.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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