Twenty-four Palestinian and Israeli men and women sat outdoors in a circle on a sleepy street in al-Ram, Palestine. Spread about the garden and into the house-office are five other groups of similar size and make-up.
For many, it is the first time to a Combatants For Peace event. Most of them have never even met someone from the “other side” before except in the worst of circumstances in very different roles. You can tell who the new ones are right away by the way they hang back and observe.
“Are these people really enjoying themselves?”
Tonight was a special night. The meeting was to coincide with the Iftar during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Combatants had assembled everyone in the back yard to give an introduction and hear the testimonials of a Palestinian member and a new Israeli member. After this they grabbed their food and split into the groups. Everyone gathered in a circle, both Israelis and Palestinians, with nowhere to hide.
One of the Israeli founders of Combatants stands up, smiles at his old friend Ashraf sitting beside him, and begins to speak to the circle. He says, “My name is Ashraf Khader, I am 30 years old and I love music. I was born in Jordan and moved to Ramallah in 2000. Since then I have not been able to see my family due to the Israeli travel restrictions. When I was younger I began resisting the occupation in any way possible, first by throwing stones and then by throwing Molotov cocktails. I have been imprisoned five times and have had my house occupied by Israeli soldiers for 25 days while they laid siege to a nearby preventive security building.” Ashraf sits beside him looking on and listening to his life and “conversion” being recited by a former Israeli soldier in first-person.
When Itamar finished recounting Ashraf’s journey from a violent combatant to a Combatant for Peace, Ashraf stood before the confused audience and spoke. “My name is Itamar Shapira. I am 27 years [old] and I was born in Tel Aviv. Like all Israelis I spent three years in the military where I served in the Occupied Territories. While there I served in a particular village where on several occasions I was involved in violent conflicts resulting in the deaths of five Palestinians. It was upon coming back to this village time and again, meeting the families of the deceased and hearing about suicide bombings taking place in Israel, that I realized my role in the cycle of violence.” Now everyone around understands what is happening and listens intently to Itamar’s tale from Ashraf’s mouth.
When he finished he instructs the group to pair off, one Israeli and one Palestinian, for twenty-five minutes before returning and recounting their partner’s story in first person. Translators would be provided to any pair that needed one. Now there was nowhere to hide. They sat and talked. They nodded, some laughed and still others exchanged mobile numbers. Twenty-five minutes is a long time.
They made their way back to the circle and took their seats. Everyone, some more nervously than others, stood and told the story of their partner. They spoke from his perspective and expressed his joys and pains and hobbies as if they were his own. They were forced to empathize, while the “other” sat beside him staring off into space, listening and coming to terms with his own past. Others sat fixated and still others cried.
After the meeting, everyone paid lip service to the promise of returning. With big events like this, Combatants often don’t see many of the faces ever again, but they do make an impression and they do grab hold of a few new members. A few of which are dedicated enough to cast aside the fear and taboos of their societies and engage in peaceful dialogue and joint action with the other side. Slowly but surely their “army” is growing in members and public awareness and they are confident that this growth will continue. They will simply continue doing what they have been doing up to this point: searching for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict and mutually empathetic partners for peace.
They are going to continue to work towards this goal in the most ingenious way: they are going to talk to each other.
Joseph DeVoir is a full-time volunteer for the Combatants for Peace and a part-time consultant for the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy in Ramallah.