"Don't Be So Holy": A Conversation with Two Combatants for Peace
Combatants for Peace (www.combatantsforpeace.org) is a group of Israeli and Palestinian individuals who were actively involved in the cycle of violence between their peoples. The Israelis served as combat soldiers and the Palestinians were involved in acts of violence in the name of Palestinian liberation. Yaniv Reshef is a former infantry soldier in Israel's elite Golani unit; he now lives within range of rockets launched from Gaza. Bassam Aramin served seven years in jail for planning an attack against Israeli soldiers. Two years ago, his seven-year-old daughter was killed when an IDF soldier shot her with a (US-made) rubber-coated steel bullet. Together with the 600 other members of Combatants for Peace, they have pledged to abandon violence and work together using creative nonviolent tools to build justice and peace -- and playgrounds in memory of Abir Aramin. Peacework Co-Editor Sara Burke spoke with them on March 17, 2009, during their speaking tour of the Northeastern US.
What do you draw on for your commitment to nonviolent solutions? Is it part of a wider commitment to pacifism?
Yaniv: No, I am not a pacifist. It's just that I am learning how to use a new way. In Israel, we've gotten too used to the use of force -- especially our leaders, who are not evil but can't let go of the old ways. With one hand they give a handshake, while they are thinking about what hill to grab, or what settlement to build, with the other hand. I was told in my unit, "If you can't get something by force, use more force."
Having made this commitment to find another way, I feel great. I heard a lecture by two members of Combatants for Peace, doing what Bassam and I are doing now, and I knew it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And it's still a beginning -- I don't want to burn out. I want this to be a long-term relationship.
I am not a full-time activist -- this is only one part
of my life. When I said this recently at a speaking event, one
audience member was upset. She said, "You are only doing
this part-time, but Bassam doesn't have that luxury."
But Bassam is doing this so that he can have a life -- so
how is it going to help him if I don't live mine? I'm
trying to tell my new peace friends to be gentler, more welcoming.
Sometimes on both sides, right and left, some kind of "holy
justice" is invoked. If I have one piece of advice for peace
activists, it is "Don't be so holy."
Bassam: Yes, I am committed to nonviolence in all situations. This comes from my experience, my life, my sufferings and the sufferings of my people. We live in hell. I wish I could bring Palestine with me on my shoulders to show people how we live. I want even my enemy to see my humanity. My power comes from seeing my enemy change, when she or he begins to recognize that in fact we have a common enemy, the Occupation.
What are you learning on your US tour? Have there been surprises?
Bassam: This is my third tour with Combatants for Peace, including
visits both to the US and to Europe. Europeans tend to be better
educated, and more open to learning about what is happening. Here
in the US, sometimes people don't even know who occupies
whom -- even though the US is so heavily involved. They
need to know that the soldier who shot and killed my daughter
was firing an American M-16, from an American Jeep. But when US
Americans do learn the facts, sometimes it brings more action,
as they are moved to say "Not in our name."
Yaniv: Sometimes I am surprised, when we speak in synagogues, by how the liberal Jewish community here doesn't know the facts. They don't grasp that the settlements are built in a certain way specifically to prevent the building of a Palestinian state, and to prevent peace. But I shouldn't be surprised, since they are simply believing their leaders, just as Israelis do. Even in Israel, people don't understand -- they think that the hand of peace has been extended to the Palestinians and that the Palestinians did not accept it. I myself am not against the Separation Wall, if it was on the legal line, but instead it is being used to create facts on the ground that make peace impossible.
At one synagogue where we spoke, they welcomed Bassam as their first-ever Palestinian guest. I said, "How can this be? We've been occupying them for forty years and you haven't had a single Palestinian in your synagogue? As you've been celebrating Passover, year after year?"
What do you see as the greatest challenges, internal and external, to the peacemaking work that you and others are doing?
Yaniv: The challenge is not to hate, but instead to forgive your
enemy, because then you don't fear them any more. If you
try to understand your enemy's humanity, you become very
strong and it helps both of you. It's the most powerful
thing you can do for yourself.
Bassam: In each of our societies, we need to face the deep fear, and to bring people awareness of what is really going on. Especially the Israelis, who know so little about the Occupied Territories. That is what we do with our talks, and it works. Once they understand, many of the Israelis we speak to change their minds, and become active in peacemaking. But the separation and the war make it more difficult. Combatants for Peace is often unable to get the permits that allow us to meet, and the group is financially very poor.
The last battle, in Gaza, made it more difficult for people to hear us. In Tel Aviv, one of our members was attacked in the street after a demonstration, but the police were helpful. In the Occupied Territories, of course, it is different -- the Israeli army is more brutal.
We are at our best when we are trying to be as peaceful as we can get. People notice this -- even the army notices it. One of our group leaders says, when we are demonstrating at the Wall, that we should not even remove a brick or a stone from the wall, so that we will not be seen as provoking hostility. When we act entirely peacefully, whether we are demonstrating, speaking, or helping with the olive harvest, we can educate some of the soldiers this way.
I don't ask other Palestinians to join me in this work.
Most of my friends are ex-prisoners, and are not ready to join
-- but they do agree that there is no solution to the problem
through violence. I tell Hamas about our meetings, and they are
amazed and incredulous. I tell them they are welcome to come to
our meetings and see for themselves. None have come -- so