Combatants turn different way toward Middle East peace
AMHERST — Together, the four visitors to this country might seem like an odd group: two Israelis and two Palestinians, who have, in their own ways, taken part in the decades-old struggle between the two Mideast cultures, sometimes taking part in the fighting that’s gone on despite repeated attempts to negotiate peace.
But these four members of Combatants for Peace, who will speak Tuesday at the Jewish Community Center of Amherst, are part of their own nonviolent effort to end the Palestinian occupation and work toward a two-state solution.
“We were once part of the cycle of violence. We fought against each other,” says Erez Krispin, who began questioning the Israeli occupation of former Palestinian lands while performing his military service as a captain in the Israeli Army and later while serving a judicial role in a military court in the occupied territories. “But we decided to lay down our weapons and work together towards an end of the occupation, seeking peace and cooperation.”
When Combatants for Peace, which describes itself as the only bi-national activist peace organization working on the Israel-Palestine conflict, was formed in 2005, there was suspicion even among early members, Krispin says: “Israelis suspected that Palestinians were going to kidnap them and Palestinians were suspecting the Israelis were Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agents. Only when they get to know each other was the suspicion dissolved. That transformation is symbolic to what we’re trying to do, to humanize the other side, to work together with the other side — the ‘enemy,’ in that way, to get rid of stereotypes and prejudice.”
Tuesday’s 7 p.m. presentation at the Amherst synagogue is co-sponsored by its Social Action Committee, the Amherst-based Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and Physicians for Social Responsibility’s western Massachusetts chapter.
Members of the Combatants for Peace group “have turned their backs on violence and turned their faces toward each other, which is remarkable,” said Karuna Center founder Paula Green, who is involved in planning the event. “In all the places in the world where I’ve traveled, I’ve never met a group like that … (with) people still in armed conflict. That they do this is very inspiring, given the history. In some cases, they’ve lost their own family members (to violence), yet still they’re able to work together.”
In Palestinian villages where Israeli authorities have set up roadblocks restricting movement or at protests over land confiscated to build separation walls, the group’s members use different nonviolent approaches, from street theater “to hold a mirror up” to reflect relationships between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, to arranging mixed-group soccer games to actively demonstrate cooperation in the face of soldiers’ rubber bullets or stone-throwing from the crowd, says member Adi Greenfield.
“We’re taking control of what the actions look like, to make sure the language of the demonstrations is nonviolent from beginning to end. From the get-go, we put something else in motion,” she says.
The peace activists have been arrested and jailed, although member Mohammed Owedah makes clear, “Israelis can be arrested for one or two hours and then be released. For Palestinians, it can be six or seven months or a year. It’s different for the both of us.”
In addition to leading nonviolent demonstrations, Combatants for Peace, does trainings and educational programs in communities and leads tours of the Palestinian territories for Israeli and international visitors.
“Most Israelis, unless they live in a settlement or have relatives who live there, have no business going there,” Greenfield says. “There is a big wall partially erected between the West Bank and Israel, and people don’t go there. They don’t know what’s going on on the other side. It’s very easy, especially in times where we’ve had quiet in the past year, that there’s an occupation still going on and it has results on the other side.”
Combatants holds an Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony each April, on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day, that is attended by families from both sides of the conflict to “share the sadness over their loved ones who were victims of violence,” says Krispin. Attendance, which was a couple of dozen people when the ceremonies began eight years ago, was at 2,400 this year.
“I think it’s a significant sign that we’ve been able to do some significant transformation of people. We have a long way to go. The mainstream in Israel is still living pretty much on myths and what the media tells them, but there is a chance.”
The four Combatants for Peace were in this country to attend the annual J Street Conference in Washington, D.C., where they spoke with members of Congress, and other politicians, to convey that there is a way to work past hard-line approaches to achieve Mideast Peace. The four are also here for the annual “I Wage Peace” walk in New Haven, Conn., on Sunday.
Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility says he met Krispin while speaking before the Israeli Knesset in June about nuclear disarmament and was excited about the prospect of bringing them to speak in this area.
“I was really taken by the passion he and others in his group bring to trying to bring about a reconciliation,” says Helfand of Northampton. “The idea of people who actually have been doing the fighting spearheading this effort to stop fighting, to bring about a peaceful resolution, in itself is really powerful. And these people seem to be really eloquent, committed and passionate about trying to do this.”
As for why they do this work, Owedah explains, “I don’t want my children to live the life me and my brothers have lived. I know it’s more long, it’s more hard. But the way of nonviolence is the way to get our freedom, and the respect of ourselves and the world.
Krispin adds that in addition to the moral responsibility he feels, his involvement is also rooted in a belief that ending the occupation and resolving the conflict will serve Israel’s long-term interests.
“I’m a patriot. I love my country, “ he says. “I do it also for the survival of my country, Israel.”
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