November 2014: This is the third workshop I am facilitating with Combatants for Peace (CfP) on behalf of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. My co-facilitators this time are Ben Yeger, an Israeli CfP member living in the UK, plus Ali Nassal from Ramallah in the West Bank. Both are new colleagues to me before we begin this workshop.
We are at a particularly critical moment in the escalating violence and increasing dehumanization between Israelis and Palestinians. Especially in Jerusalem, where I stayed before the workshop, tensions are high and both populations feel their wellbeing and sense of security threatened.
Approximately 50 Israeli and Palestinian members of CfP gathered for a 3-day retreat in Beit Sahour, a small village near Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Israeli members of CfP served in the Israeli Defense Force and generally also in reserve duty following their service. Palestine members found their own ways to battle against the occupation, many landing in Israeli jails for long or short durations as a result of their protests. For all the members, some event, incident, or insight served as a wake-up call to relinquish their guns or stones. Somehow, they found their way to Combatants for Peace, where they discovered a new way to engage, this time with words and actions focused on ending the occupation rather than through weapons that cause harm and continue the cycle of violence.
"For all the members, some event, incident, or insight served as a wake-up call to relinquish their guns or stones."
CfP is unique in the commitment of its Palestinian and Israeli members to cooperate with each other as partners despite the radically different circumstances that bring them together. Their personal relationships, while never easy, are the foundation stone of their movement. Members’ life experiences, historical narratives, and cultural references are diametrically opposed. Opportunities given or withheld for education, travel, economic advancement, political freedom, dignity, and personal autonomy lead to asymmetrical development. In daily reality, they are part of national communities of the oppressed and oppressor. Within CfP, however, they struggle to define, practice, and embody equality, which I view as an enormous and admirable challenge.
Here is what they share as members of CfP: A commitment to end the occupation through nonviolent means. An understanding that violence and hatred feed on each other, trapping everyone in an endless morass. Acknowledgement of their asymmetry and recognition of their common humanity. Awareness that changes requires engagement. Courage. Persistence. Frustration.
The Combatants face an uphill struggle. There is pressure from family and friends not to cooperate with the identified “other” across the wall. There is chaos in the region beyond Israel and Palestine and the shadow of the recent war in Gaza. Settlement building continues apace, with Palestinian land increasingly narrowed. Many despair of a two-state solution. But, as the Combatants see it, there is no choice but to continue to engage with each other, to know each other as comrades in the struggle, to retain and grow their membership, and to hold fast to a vision that something better than the current reality is obtainable. Right now they are one of the few functioning bi-national movements composed of Palestinians and Israelis. We walk in solidarity with them, hopeful that their vision and voices will find resonance in larger circles so that the chokehold of violence permeating the region might shift to a genuine exploration of an equitably shared future for all. None of us will live in peace and security with anything less.