A young man from Palestine and another from Israel riveted 400 U.S. military veterans to their seats last week in this city on the Mississippi River. What captivated the audience was their recent decision to put down the guns they’d pointed at each other for years.
The two members of Combatants For Peace addressed the mid-August national convention of Veterans For Peace, a 7,000–member organization dedicated to abolishing war.
Yonaton Gur, a 28 year-old Israeli journalist and Tel Aviv University student spoke first.
"My grandfather commanded the Israeli Navy during the 1967 war, my father was an officer in Israeli Army Intelligence, and I grew up on a kibbutz." But, he explained, "I also grew up in the 90’s, with a more peaceful perspective following the (1993) Oslo Accords."
Gur served as a Lieutenant in the Israeli Army’s armored corps and as a reservist in the occupied territories. "Many small stories make up the everyday life of an occupation," he said, and something as mundane as a shirt pocket first caught his attention. "I never realized how important shirt pockets were, but when you’re an Arab in the occupied territories you have to reach into that pocket many times a day, at any moment, to produce your ID for Israeli authorities at checkpoints."
His duty in the occupied territories eventually convinced the former reservist that the occupation was wrong. "We would be on patrol and stop simple farmers, making them wait a half hour or more while we called back to the base to check on them. I tried to be as human as possible, with my best attitude. That felt good at first but the fact that I was doing it at all was the main issue. It didn’t matter if I was being nice about it."
The moral dilemma he found himself in eventually forced him to quit the reserves. "You can’t on the one hand be against the occupation and yet still be part of the military." Gur’s decision placed him "against most of my people and my family tradition. But once I resigned, I knew I had to do more, so I joined Combatants for Peace."
That group was formed in early 2005 by Palestinian and Israeli fighters tired of violence, who decided to try a different way. Their web site succinctly states this revolutionary idea: "After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon sights, we have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace."
Raed Al-Haddar, who holds a Bachelor’s in Sociology from Bir Zeit University in Ramalla, is Gur’s Palestinian partner in CFP. Today he shares a stage instead of the killing grounds with his former enemy. Married, with two daughters, the 28 year-old calls his own story "part of the whole Palestinian story."
Not even ten years old at the start of the first intifada in 1987, he "faced the occupier on the way to school every day" and saw people gunned down by Israeli forces. It became the norm for boys to try and provoke an incident with troops "sometimes to prove our manhood, and sometimes just for shits and giggles," Al-Haddar said through a bemused interpreter.
On one occasion he and a young friend were throwing rocks at an Israeli Army jeep. "The soldiers fired at us and my friend was killed on the spot. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. It made me angry so that only black revenge stayed in my mind. I revolted any way I could. I even joined the radical group, Fatah. I used guns and threw Molotov cocktails. I was arrested before finishing high school."
Israeli security forces put Al-Haddar in a small, dark cell under solitary confinement for 45 days of interrogation. "I was petrified of death. During that time I learned about other revolutions, like the ones in Algeria, Cuba and Vietnam. That knowledge gave me the push to continue."
Released at the age of 17, he "kept the same attitude–to fight and use violence." When the second intifada began in 2000, Israelis placed a curfew on his village as the killings and bloodshed resumed. When his cousin was killed it changed his life, Al-Haddar recalled.
"A sniper killed him with one head shot. The killing of my friend during the first intifada made me violent, but for some reason the killing of my cousin made me think. I retraced my thoughts about the struggles between Palestinians and Israelis and thought of how to end it."
He met an Israeli family and learned to his surprise that "they supported the existence of Palestine, even though I thought no one in Israel supported having two states."
His thinking continued to change until eventually he was ready to attend a meeting of Combatants For Peace. "I was hesitant. Psychologically I wasn’t ready to accept that I would actually meet one of the Israeli soldiers who had caused the struggle of the Palestinian people. Our first meeting was in secret with lookouts posted. I was so afraid. I asked myself ‘what the hell am I doing meeting with an Israeli soldier? Just yesterday we were fighting!’"
Both parties to the meeting suspected an ambush and only after a while did the suspicion between Al-Haddar and his Israeli brothersinarms begin to lift. "Eventually I realized the Israeli was intelligent. We began by taking it a step at a time. Trust started. Now we have a very strong relationship."
"I know many people have lost hope in this life," the former fighter said, citing Palestinian unemployment of 70 percent and 12,000 Palestinians imprisoned. "But me and Combatants For Peace have not lost hope. I will never lose hope."
To a prolonged standing ovation the former fighter pleaded, "Do not leave me alone. We need your help. Stand by our side so the struggle will be against war and we will have security, peace and justice."
MIKE FERNER is a former Navy corpsman and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq", available on his website www.mikeferner.org