By Jessica Burke
Jessica Burke is the development coordinator for Combatants for Peace. Originally from Boston, Massachussetts, she is researching Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As the world watched Israeli, Palestinian, and American leadership attempt to renew direct peace talks this September1members of Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian organisation working to end the occupation and promote the success of a two state solution, went about their work as usual. This is not to say they did not pay attention to the negotiations; only that they recognise that before tangible change can come, there is much work to be done that lies far from the negotiating table. A political framework for peace must be built – of course – but just as important, if not more so, is the construction of a real social infrastructure capable of supporting and maintaining a just and lasting peace. This is precisely what the Israeli and Palestinian members of Combatants for Peace hope to build.
Combatants for Peace2 is a movement started jointly by Palestinians and Israelis who have taken an active part in the cycle of violence in the past; Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli army (IDF) and Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. After brandishing weapons for so many years and having seen one another only through weapon sights, they have decided to put down their guns and to fight for peace.3
Palestinian and Israeli members of Combatants for Peace share the common belief that only by joining forces will they be able to end the bloodshed, the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people, the moral stagnation of the government of the Jewish state, and the cycle of violence that all of these factors cause. They no longer believe that it is possible to resolve the conflict between their two peoples through violent means, and as such, they refuse to take any part in the continuing mutual bloodletting. Choosing non-violence is not a passive decision: they are still actively struggling for peace, but have replaced violence as the primary tool of their struggle with dialogue and reconciliation.
Five years of slow and steady progress towards peace
The work of this organisation began at the end of the Second Intifada with one fateful meeting between disillusioned Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters and ex-prisoners in the West Bank. They were brought together by their mutual conclusion that using violence had brought them nothing but more violence and that they must begin to try something radically different to achieve the peace that both of their peoples deserved. For the first time in these individual’s lives, they put down their weapons to shake each other’s hands.
Since that first meeting in 2005, the group that they created, Combatants for Peace, has been organising meetings between Israeli and Palestinian veterans during which the two peoples dialogue with one another about the violent actions that they have been a part of in the past and about the turning point which led them to understand the limits of violence. When they first began, these meetings were fraught with fear and distrust of the other, but as time passed and ex-combatants began to see each other as friends, they soon learned that despite years of fear and hatred, there is more that unites them than divides. Born as the idea of less than a dozen Israeli and Palestinian men, Combatants for Peace has grown to become an organisation with over 600 active members and an international network of thousands of supporters.
As the organisation has matured, its activities have increased, diversified, and reached more and more people on both sides of the political divide. The core activity is regular bi-national dialogue meetings whose aim is to build a constantly growing network of Israelis and Palestinians working together non-violently for peace. The strategy is simple: since Israelis and Palestinians rarely meet each other in a social arena on equal terms, Combatants for Peace provides that arena, and it is a space both for dialogue and reconciliation. As the Israeli and Palestinian cohorts of the five (geographically-based) bi-national groups get to know one another, they share their personal stories, together thinking of ways out of the hate-and-fear trap in which they find themselves. Building on these relationships, each group becomes a regional base for activities that nurtures partnership among their core Israeli and Palestinian members, while expanding outwards with activities for the general public.
Souliman al-Khatib, a Palestinian member of Combatants for Peace, details his introduction to the organisation:
“We created a student group to struggle, to throw stones and Molotov cocktails, to take weapons from the Israeli soldiers. I went to jail at age 14, and spent 10 years and 5 months. I participated in a hunger strike for 10 days when I was 15 years old … After I was released from jail, I went on a trip to Antarctica to live with Israelis and other Palestinians in a small ship for 35 days. The organization that sponsored the trip wanted to know ‘Can they live together without fighting?’ It was not fun, but a political excursion, and it was good to talk about all the issues with an open mind.”
Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli member of Combatants for Peace said how he was born on an air force base, “[M]y father was a squadron commander in the Yom Kippur war, and I became a pilot. But I didn’t know the whole story. If you learn about the Israeli Independence Day but not about the Naqba … When I wasn’t in uniform I protested the occupation. But eventually I realized that we are part of the occupation … Nonviolent actions achieve nothing without the participation of the public and the international community.”4
Of course, these activities are not given warm reception by all – or even, by most – audiences. Like many bi-national organisations, many of Combatants for Peace’s Israeli critics accuse the organisation of being ‘anti-Israeli’ for being critical of Israel’s policy of occupation in the territories, while Palestinian critics accuse Palestinian members of normalisation for working with Israelis. On the contrary, CFP members in general believe that in fighting against the occupation and the almost Pavlovian use of force that has sustained it for so long, they are serving the best interests of both their peoples. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has become, in their eyes, a form of institutionalised violence, and as combatants who put down their weapons, they can not take part in it. As Israelis, they work to create a government whose actions reflect their Jewish values – in being ‘anti-occupation’, they consider themselves working in service of their state by working to hold it to higher standards of behaviour.
As Palestinians, our members believe that any work that fights the occupation is inherently against the nature of normalisation, even if it involves working with Israelis. The myth of a zero-sum game – of that kill-or-be-killed mentality that has maintained the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza – is exactly that: a myth. Friendships that have formed between Palestinian and Israeli members of Combatants for Peace are living proof of this. Israeli members and guests of CFP regularly enter the West Bank – not as settlers, but as guests of their Arab counterparts. A real partnership exists between the two sides, and it is one in which members on each side of the Green Line respect the national aspirations of their partners on the other.
Bloody wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009 stirred the local atmosphere, pushing many to cynicism and extremism – sentiments recently magnified by the collapse of the Washington process.5 Analysts list many reasons for the most recent failure: the fact that the general objectives of the current Israeli government are completely incompatible with the basic requirements of the peace process terms of reference; the lack of clear positions on the process and its substance on the part of the Americans; the weak position of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who yielded his decision-making responsibilities regarding negotiations to the Arab League, and so forth.
Valid as these points may be, they gloss over the basic dilemma that the populations of Israel and Palestine simply do not believe in the success of political talks. Before negotiations even began, only 6 per cent of the Palestinians and 5 per cent of the Israelis thought that there were high chances for the negotiations to yield an agreement,6 and the majority of analysts predicted the collapse. Organisations like Combatants for Peace engage in grassroots work that is meant to circumvent all of this issue. It is grounded on the basic presumption that Israelis and Palestinians on both sides must – at the very least – believe in achieving peace with each other. Otherwise, no official agreement or settlement will put an end to the mistrust and hatred, and no political framework for peace can succeed if the social infrastructure is not there first.
To be sure, there are already movements for peace in Israel and other movements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.7 But if the peace movements remain on their own sides of the fence, then one must wonder what will happen when the peace arrives. By building a genuinely bi-national peace movement, the work of Combatants for Peace lays the social infrastructure for concrete forms of coexistence. The success of the work they have done together as two peoples with one shared vision for peace serves as proof that peace will come – not because they want it, but because they are building it. This way, when an official peace comes, their peoples will be ready to live in it.
1. BBC, “Israeli-Palestinian talks ‘progress’ on settlements,” September 15, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11308678
2. Combatants for Peace homepage, http://cfpeace.org/
3. Anja Marie Tranovich, “Laying down arms to fight for peace,” In The Fray, November 4, 2007, http://inthefray.org/content/view/2462/36/
4. University of California, Berkeley, “Combatants for Peace: The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict,” October 31, 2006, http://webcast.berkeley.edu/event_details.php?webcastid=17402
5. “No peace talks unless settlements stop: Abbas,” Al-Arabiya, October 2, 2010, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/10/02/120972.html
6. “Joint Israeli Palestinian Poll, October 2010,” Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, http://truman.huji.ac.il/poll-view.asp?id=353
7. Yahia Said, “Israel/Palestine: The New Peace Movement,” Centre for the Study of Global Governance, Discussion Paper 21, 2003, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591=0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233&lng=en&v33=106326&id=18350
Combatants for Peace: Building a Social Infrastructure for Peace by Near East Quarterly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at neareastquarterly.com.