Former Enemies Find New Way Forward

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St. Louis —
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 u2018what 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 brothers-in-arms 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."

August
23, 2007

Mike
Ferner [send him mail]
a former Navy Corpsman and author of Inside
the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq
, attended
the 22nd annual convention of VFP.

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