By Rima Merhi
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were on a routine errand throwing hand grenades at three o’clock in the morning in one of the most populated areas in Gaza. Their faces were camouflaged in brown and green paint. They were wearing anti-bullet vests, special hats, and armed with M16’s.
IDF instructions were clear: “Let them know Golanis (known to be brutal) are here.” And this meant they could break into Palestinian homes through doors and windows at any time looking for terrorists and weapons.
In one of the homes Yaniv Reshef –an ex foot soldier in the sabotage unit of the IDF – had broken into, he had seen a suspicious door and assumed someone was in hiding.
A family of five Palestinians in Jebalya camp stood shivering at the sight of the armed strangers.
As he pointed his M16 towards the door, Reshef prepared himself to confront and overwhelm his prey, the terrorist.
To his complete surprise, he watched the father bring a huge rabbit out from the mysterious looking door, and place it gently between his arms and the weapon.
The “terrorist” turned out to be an eight kilo rabbit grown by the family for food.
“I stood there stroking the bunny,” said Reshev, “It is so sad it took me another 15 years to realize what I had been doing was wrong.”
Yaniv Reshev and Bassam Aramin –a Palestinian previously jailed in Israeli prisons- both belong to an organization called Combatants for Peace. This is a group of Israeli and Palestinian individuals who were actively involved in the cycle of violence.
“Combatants for Peace was created in 2005, but we let our weapons down before that. I lost my daughter two years later on 16-jan-2007. I think not because we have some sadness in our life, in fact all of it is sadness, so we started to believe in our way,” said Aramin.
Two years ago, Aramin’s ten year old daughter Abir was walking home from school in the West Bank with her sister and friend. She was shot in the head by Israeli Border Police.
Abir is one of over a thousand Palestinian children killed in the Occupied Territories since 2002. The perpetrators were not brought to justice.
“I will use my child’s blood to form a bridge between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Revenge is a way of the weak,” said Aramin.
Andrea LeBlanc, a member of September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows, had met Aramin in Italy at The Peoples’ UN Conference. “It wasn’t Aramin’s tragic story that was so important, but his wisdom and courage compelled me to want to bring the Combatants for Peace story to the US,” said Leblanc.
In collaboration with two other organizations promoting non violent means to end the conflict- known as The Peace Abbey and The Rebuilding Alliance- September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows sponsored Aramin and Reshev to come to America for a Courage of Conscience speaking tour in March 2009.
Their purpose was to invite a discussion amongst Americans about tangible ways to bring peace and justice to Israel and Palestine.
Speaking to a group of students at MIT, Aramin, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, said: "We know at the end of the day, we are going to have a two state solution, so why do we fight?” he asked.
“Israel can never feel safe because they are occupiers,” said Reshef. “We are like a child beaten in school who is now the bully of the class. We know violence. It worked for us in 1948, 1967 and still working. We see we can achieve things by force,” he said.
“But clearly not freedom and safety,” said Andrea Leblanc.
The response to their work is different among their own people. Reshef pointed out that in his own country he is seen as an extremist leftist. His own brother had gone far enough to tell him that he would not be on speaking terms with him had he not been a sibling.
On the other hand, Aramin’s call for peace fails to resonate loud enough amidst a frustrated Palestinian youth.
Thrown in Israeli prisons at a young age for being involved in Palestinian armed resistance, Aramin became “sorta friends” with no other than his jailer. He had engaged in dialogue with him, and learned Hebrew and enough about the history of the Jews to be able to understand their fears and feel compassion towards them.
For instance, one day, a Holocaust movie was shown in jail. “I was getting ready to revenge my enemy. But instead I found myself crying,” said Aramin.
In cooperation with the Rebuilding Alliance, a nonprofit that rebuilds war torn communities, Combatants for Peace have built a playground at Abir’s school and are now planning others.
“I’m not going to lose my common sense, my direction, only because I’ve lost my heart, my child. I will do all I can to protect her friends, both Palestinian and Israeli. They are all our children,” said Aramin. Reshef described Aramin as a Martin Luther King- a “hero” and example to others.
He pointed out that Aramin’s daughter was shot by a bullet made in the United States of America. The gun, jeep and perhaps even uniform of the Israeli soldier were also made in the United States of America. “You are making money of death. Even the settlements are built with US money,” Reshef said.
Reshef explained that the Israeli soldier is a victim of darkness and wrong education. “Palestinian children are not seen as children. They are seen as suspects and future terrorists,” he said.
He believed that the Israeli army is no worse than any army in the world. “We are not better or worse than the American soldiers in Iraq or soldiers of Iranians or Russians…”
He explained that when you are a soldier, you have the headline of "enemy" inscribed in your head with someone’s picture under it, and that enemy could be anyone portrayed as dangerous to your country and people. “We felt we were defending our country,” he said.
Reshef previously served in the south of Lebanon and Gaza. In the south of Lebanon, he watched an Israeli soldier shoot a man with his M16 just a few meters away from him, because he was thought to be an enemy – but was not.
“It’s not normal that in one family two people have seen people with their heads off, but in Israel it’s normal.” Reshef’s father had served in the Yom Kippur war. “For one year he would not hold me. He told me he was seeing me and other babies’ burn in flames.”
Aramin and Reshef- two men who seemingly come from different worlds consoled one another as they shared their tragic personal stories. Both received the Courage of Conscience Awards at the Peace Abbey in Cambridge Sherborn, Massachusetts in March 2009.
“There has been too much death and too much killing. If not as directly as it touches Bassam and Yaniv, it touches all of us. We too often become inured to violence,” wrote Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein in a letter to his congregation after hearing Aramin and Reshef speak in his synagogue.
Aramin and Reshef have now gone back to Israel and the Occupied Territories and will continue to promote peace through non violent means through Combatants for Peace.
“Good stories are a tool for young people. If the only choice presented by society is to either bomb or do nothing, we are not presenting them with much of a choice. There are other and better choices. We must find the middle ground,” said LeBlanc.
(For more information visit: http://www.combatantsforpeace.org)
– Rima Merhi contributed this article to Palestine Chronicle.