Combatants for Peace is a cross-border peace movement of Israelis and Palestinians who have, in the past, participated in the Israeli military or taken part in the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom—but who have renounced violence and are now working in partnership for peace.
Our driver transported my colleagues and me from Amman to Aqaba in Jordan, en route to a 4-day workshop for 24 members of Combatants for Peace (CFP). Salam, the driver, is Palestinian in origin, as are 60% of the residents of Jordan. Living in Lebanon as a young adult, his wife and infant son were killed in the 1982 attack by Israel. Now in midlife with 4 children, Salam devotes his time and scarce funds to support Syrian children in refugee camps. He knows that babies are dying daily in the camps from lack of medicine, sanitation, shelter, and nourishing food; as a father who lost his first-born, he feels compelled to offer his full self to save their lives.
We were reminded of the fragility and ancient history of this part of the world as we drove south from Amman to Aqaba, seeing Bedouins with their flocks of goats and sheep, endless desert, and frequent groupings of camels. Amman is a large metropolis with traffic jams and shopping malls, but Aqaba, just across the gulf from Israel, is a small resort city and Jordan’s only lifeline to the sea. Despite a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, both our Israeli and Palestinian participants had some trouble with border crossings.
CFP members use storytelling to explore their transformation from warriors to peacemakers and to renew their bonds. At the workshop, Nour and Yaniv offer their testimonies to the assembled group. Nour, raised in an IDP camp in the Nablus area of Palestine, understood from childhood that the land held by his family and village since time immemorial had been taken away by the newly arriving Jewish émigrés, and thus he became part of the aggrieved and enraged adolescent stone-throwers. Several arrests, injuries, and escalated struggle against the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) landed him in jail for 5 years in his early 20s while a college student at Birzeit University. His subsequent wedding took place under extensive security threats, and his life was in constant danger. A beloved 14 year-old younger brother was killed by the IDF, and by 2003 Nour was losing best friends and had seen “too much death.”
This constant face of death became a turning point for Nour, who found his way to a nonviolence teacher who helped point him in a new direction. Nour discovered CFP in its formative years and has helped guide the organization since 2007, especially in its development of using Theatre of the Oppressed at demonstrations. He said he “never believed he would work with Israelis,” who are now his partners in seeking peace.
Yaniv is an Israeli CFP member from a Moroccan Jewish family who was raised hearing Arabic and was surrounded by Palestinians who frequented his home as neighborhood friends. He was first exposed to the prejudices and dehumanization of Palestinians when he moved from home to boarding school. Although Yaniv entered the IDF as required after high school, he “knew that he could never lift a gun against Palestinians.” He feels at home with the Palestinians in CFP, which he discovered after completing his PhD, and now combines his activities within the organization with his role as a professor in Israel. Yaniv believes that “activism against the occupation is essential for Israelis.”
Our workshop agenda included increasing facilitation, organizing, and conflict management skills as well as focusing on the political situation and CFP’s always-challenging binational relationships. Much to our amazement, we covered all 4 of those areas, of course investigating some topics more thoroughly than others. We were careful to follow the flow of the groups’ needs and emerging issues, as this is their organization and they are the experts on what is most imperative. Beginning with group building and reflections on individual and team learning, we reviewed recent CFP goals and activities with an eye toward strengthening strategic planning as well as recruiting and retaining members.
There are currently few functioning binational NGOs so that CFP provides a rare opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to work and struggle together for a just solution to the endless occupation. However, to join CFP is to go against the grain of both societies and perhaps to be seen as a traitor by those who see the “other” as enemies rather than as potential partners for peace. For this reason, both recruitment and retention are challenges to CFP growth. It would be naïve to imagine relations between members are in any way easy. I think our role as outsiders enabled us to help them explore the current tensions between members and “sides,” and to reaffirm their common ground and commitments. As a training team, we hold CFP in high regard and applaud their courageous efforts to move forward binationally despite the slings and arrows of such an undertaking. We feel bonded in their struggle and honored to be of support to this hard task.
We did find time to discuss the current political impasse. Nobody holds out much hope for the current round of peace talks and in fact, during a spectrum line exercise, we saw that none of the participants believe that Israel really wants peace. New settlements are underway in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem and the settlement project seems impossible to stop. Water is scarce and climate change will exacerbate the problems of attempting to make the desert bloom, let alone share water equitably. Tel Aviv, our participants report, offers a “protective bubble” of economic wellbeing and high quality life along the sunny coast. The entire Mid East region is currently unstable and many Israelis, we are told, are afraid of a Palestinian state on their border. And so the occupation continues its tenacious hold over the Palestinian population and the way forward remains stalled. CFP contributes to exposing the issues and challenging the status quo, which is all to their credit. Anything we can do to advance their goals seems worthwhile.
In the closing evaluation, participants reported that they “got freedom from inside themselves” and learned to work together “not as blind people but in the reality of their struggle.” They said the workshop strengthened their belongingness and determination, offered new and inventive facilitation, enlarged their organizational and nonviolent action skills, safely surfaced feelings that included expressions of anger and frustration, and affirmed the importance of their binational vision.
We were delighted to hear that Bread and Puppet staff traveled to Israel to share their creative ingenuity and political acumen with CFP. Combatants’ members are currently making puppets, which we hope will gain media attention and give their future demonstrations a powerfully inspired boost. CFP would like us to return, which we will certainly explore when they are ready. We are glad to be part of their team and hope we all live to see the time when all Israelis and Palestinians are free from the ravages of occupation and oppression.