Thursday, April 27, 2006

Israeli-Palestinian Ex-Combatants For Peace

From VFP board member Ellen Barfield
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From: Ellen Barfield
Date: Wed, 26 Apr 2006 09:51:40 (PDT)
Subject: Report on Trip to Palestine and Israel


I was greatly honored to be able to represent Veterans
for Peace
at the first public event of the new peace
organization Combatants for Peace, Palestinian and
Israeli former fighters who have renounced violence and
now work together for peace and justice. They have met in
secret for a year, their membership growing to 120 brave
enough to meet former enemies and describe their previous
violence and what their turning points were. Now they
have come forward to speak out together about the
futility of trying to solve their conflict with more
bloodshed. Hundreds of members and supporters, a bigger
crowd than expected, gathered on 10 April in the
Palestinian village of Anata near Jerusalem, in the
shadow of the apartheid wall, to meet and congratulate
the brave former fighters and hear some of their personal

This trip happened because one of the CFP organizers,
Yonatan Shapira, a former elite Israeli Defense Forces
Black Hawk helicopter pilot, had met Veterans for Peace
President Dave Cline and told him VFP was invited to send
a representative to the launching gathering. When Dave
mentioned that to us on the VFP Board, I leapt at the
opportunity. I have visited Palestine and Israel several
times before, and was glad to return. But even more
compelling was my desire to support former fighters
speaking out. I am more and more convinced that those who
have most directly practiced violence must lead society
toward nonviolence. It is harder for civilians to
maintain intractible belligerence when those who have
previously "looked at one another only through weapon
sights" (from the CFP website) embrace nonviolence and

I was impressed that the Liberation Gathering ceremony
was graced by the presence of 6 or 8 European
Parliamentarians. These included Women in Black
co-founder and Italian Parliament member Luisa
Morgantini, who spoke to support the new organization,
noting that Italian elections were happening but she
chose to be in Palestine. Germany, Ireland, Spain,
Britain, and several other countries were represented. I
spoke to the German representative, praising him for his
presence. He noted he was of Jewish heritage, but said,
"I know the terrible situation of the Palestinians". I
told him I would have fainted in surprised delight if a
US legislator had attended.

During the gathering the Israeli Defense Forces set off
both a stun grenade, which fortunately exploded in the
air nearby, not in the schoolyard where we were gathered,
and later tear gas, of which I got a good whiff. The
route of the 25-foot tall separation, or apartheid, wall
Israel is building on Palestinian land ran right behind
the schoolyard which hosted the event, and of course the
presence of hundreds of people, especially foreign
witnesses, made the soldiers nervous, and they responded
predictably. Luisa Morgantini had mentioned that
internationals must say to the Israeli government that
enough is enough.

Because this trip formed up fairly late, and due to the
Passover season travel crunch, I had to stay longer than
I had initially intended, a full two weeks. Though I
couldn't really afford that much time away from my
too-busy schedule, it allowed me to spend time just
living with both Palestinians and Israelis, something
delegations dashing from appointment to appointment don't

My Israeli host, a member of CFP, was also a wonderful
musician. He took me to a gig at a reunion of an
oceanographic institute class. I had close to
fly-on-the-wall status as a woman the age of their
mothers. Of course I couldn't speak their language, but
watching the exuberance of those beautiful young people
as they met old friends and sang along to the music made
me feel what I know philosophically but needed to get
emotionally. Individual Israelis are just as likeable as
the lovely Palestinians I met. I of course sympathize
with the underdog in the struggle between the two
peoples. But I had been unconsciously condemning Israelis
for the sins of their government. It was good to be
reminded not to do that.

My host had suffered the impacts of his decision to leave
the Israeli Defense Forces. His former girlfriend was an
IDF soldier too, and she staunchly believed in the
military mission, so naturally their relationship ended.
He had cobbled together a livelihood of playing music at
family celebrations and community parties, and was also
training in medical clowning (clowning for hospital
patients), after quitting his respected position as a
tank commander in the IDF. His family was fairly
supportive, but not all his friends were of course.

My host had family music appointments he could not take
me to, so I got to wander around the Tel Aviv area by
myself a good bit. He lived on the outskirts of town so
I took buses in. I stood with the Tel Aviv Women in Black
in their silent Friday noon vigil calling for the end of
the occupation. I wore a black VFP shirt, and when we
ended the vigil when the hour was up, an elderly woman I
had been on the other end of the banner from asked me
what it meant. When I told her about VFP and my military
service, she said it reminded her of herself, as a
soldier in 1948, and a peace activist now.

The Palestinian CFP contact arranged for me to stay with
the family of a young Palestinian woman with whom he
works on a community development project. Traveling to
their home in Jericho I saw many small Israeli
settlements scattered among Bedouin communities, and the
roadsides had been graded for the planned superhighway
connecting Jerusalem with the Dead Sea and Amman, Jordan,
and further dividing the West Bank. My host family had
lived and their parents worked in Saudi Arabia for nearly
ten years, but the Gulf War caused their expulsion back
to Palestine in 1991. This kind of further displacement
is common in Palestinian lives. I saw busloads of
Palestinians flowing into southern Iraq from Kuwait when
I traveled there with Brian Willson and other VFPers in
the fall of 1991.

I stayed long enough with this family that most of them
used me as sounding board for their frustrations at some
point. The middle sister apologized that she and her
husband were fighting about staying in her parents'
relatively safe and quiet home in Jericho, where Israeli
harassment is comparatively seldom, or moving back to
their own home outside Bethlehem where jobs and
opportunities are better but Israeli-imposed curfews and
military patrols, and the attendant danger, are common.
The youngest sibling and only brother referred to his
generous dinnerplate (this was a well-off family) but
still feeling no energy, the malaise of few opportunities
and restricted movement. The mother expressed exhaustion
caring for her young and rowdy grandchildren, and missing
the job she had in Saudi.

I was quite honored that the siblings felt I could handle
their grilling me on my last day there about US support
for Israeli violence, and why the US public goes along
with that. They also appreciatively mentioned Rachel
Corrie, the young US woman bulldozed to death by an
Israeli soldier. The son-in-law joked afterward as if he
were an Al-Jazeera reporter signing off after a tough
interview. Both he and Ministry of Health and Sport
personnel I met were unable to work due to the funding
cutoff of Palestine by almost all previous donor
governments after the recent election victory by Hamas.
Many Palestinians, already on the edge financially, face
real hardship and hunger if the funding does not resume.
The rate of malnutrition among Palestinian children was
high even before the election. It was a tense time for

My last night I stayed with another Palestinian CFP
member and his family in a village outside Ramallah. This
was a smaller, quieter household, where only he spoke
English. The two daughters, 5 and 3, were quite shy at
first, but the next morning they got rambunctious and
showed off for the visitor. The little one began chanting
a poem, and my host grinned and said it was a teasing
rhyme about Sharon in a diaper. None too considerate of
a sick old man, but entirely understandable given
Sharon's criminal history toward the Palestinians.

Leaving Palestine that afternoon, I crossed into west
Jerusalem at the Qalandiya checkpoint, now a modern and
intimidating series of offices and gates and corridors.
On my previous trips it was just a stopping point in the
road, where you got out of the Palestinian taxi, passed
the soldiers behind concrete barricades, and got an
Israeli taxi. I had all my luggage with me, which did not
fit through the turnstyles, so I had to ask the soldiers
to open the 4 or 5 wheel chair gates for me. I was
reminded how harmless white middle-aged women are assumed
to be. Sometimes they were slow to push the gate buttons,
but the soldiers never even came out of their offices to
talk to me or check my luggage.

It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck to get
home and realize I had been within 18 hours and a few
hundred yards of the recent suicide bombing at the
falafel stand near the bus station in Tel Aviv. I had
thought occasionally on the buses about such a
possibility, but to actually be so close felt weird. I
fear the increased pressure on Palestine will increase
these terrible incidents. The slow work by CFPers who now
intend to speak with school classes and other groups in
pairs of one each, seems far too little in the face of
such urgent need. But face-to-face, one-on-one, is how
real changes of heart occur. CFP is a small grain of hope
in a sea of risk. I am very glad they exist.

I want to thank VFP chapters and individuals who donated
to make my trip possible. I will send pictures soon. And
I invite you to have me speak and do a slide show. On the
eastern seaboard I am happy to just get myself there.
Farther away I need travel assistance. Call or e-mail me
to set up a showing.

And check out the Combatants for Peace website
"Combatants for Peace" Israeli-Palestinian Liberation, for the media their event
generated, some personal stories, and other info.
Here is a Video of the First gathering in Beit Jala, 16.06.2005

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