Adi Sofer (www.cfpeace.org) is an economist, working at an NGO, which does research on social and economic topics in Israel. As a member of combatants for peace for meanwhile about five years he reported about the work of the organization.
History, Aim and Structure of Combatants for Peace
Combatants for peace started 2005 during the second intifada with Israeli ex-combatants and Palestinian combatants who wanted to understand the other side. The process was mediated by Europeans, mainly Luisa Morgantini, an Italian peace activist and later member of the European parliament. It was a very intense start: The Palestinians feared to be sounded undercover; the Israelis were afraid of Palestininas who had no good intentions, because the meetings took place in the West bank. But with the time, trust had been born and the idea was to found an organization that mixes Israelis and Palestinians from the West bank in all affairs and levels – from the management to the basic groups – and which opposes the occupation from 1967.
Combatants for Peace started as an organization for ex-combatants, but is now open for all. It is a central organization with five local groups. Adi’s group is Tel Aviv/Nablus with about 15 Israeli and 15 Palestinian members, the others are Jerusalem/Al-Quds, Jerusalem/Bethlehem, Be’er Sheva/Hebron and Tel Aviv/Tulkarem. The monthly meetings of the local groups focus on learning to know about the others situation. On the tours through the West bank or visits in villages or houses they bring together Israelis and Palestinians and listen to each one’s story of life. The meetings take place in the West bank, usually in a B- or C-area, because Israelis can’t go to A-areas and Palestinians can’t easily come to Israel.
Activities of Combatants for Peace
Combatants for Peace also try to help Palestinians when they experience problems with settlers or soldiers. That might be the case when they are stopped from entering land to harvest their olive crop or when a wall is planned to be built right next to their houses. Or when they are not allowed to build houses because they live in area C, where the military and civil control both lies with the Israelis. This situation often leads to diminished Palestinian villages. Combatants for Peace don’t have lawyers, but they try to find the right organization for them and talk to the settlers or soldiers. In the last few years the Palestinians experienced more problems with the settlers than with the army, Adi explains. Those settlers who the Palestinians have problems with usually hit us strongly as well, even more than the Palestinians. Two years ago we were attacked severely by settlers. People got injured, an older man got to hospital, but the police didn’t do anything about it. But when the army comes we have an advantage. We are Israelis and face different laws than the Palestinians. We can go there with them and the army has to deal with us instead of the Palestinians, and they treat us in a very different way. We come to help them making their voice heard.
We have the idea of non-violent resistance. One way is by playing theatre. We go to checkpoints and perform plays related to the conflict. Near Bethlehem for example is a village, where the wall and the army block the way out to the fields. We are trying to do manifestations and attract attention by going there and do football-matches, circus-shows or similar things. We try to make the soldiers feel absurd. Another important protest is our alternative memorial day. Every year in Israel we have e memorial day for soldiers that were killed during the war and terrorism. Israeli society is very fixated on the idea of being a victim of wars, so we talk about Israelis and Palestinians being joint victims of the conflict. For society, this is very hard to accept. For them we are not only betraying, we are making a mess of a very holy day! Last time there were about 3.000 people here in Tel Aviv, but only 20 Palestinians could get a permit. The minister for defense was personally involved in the refusals, but other politicians helped us with some permits.
A new emphasis of combatants for peace is a media campaign. We try on the one hand to help Israel to realize that the Palestinians are not as presented in the media, which offers a very narrow view about them. On the other hand we show Palestinians that Israelis are not only settlers or soldiers, and that there is a ground for people who want peace. For this aim we are doing tours in the area of Nablus to show people the wall and settlements and especially to offer opportunities for Israelis to meet Palestinians, to get to know them and ask questions.
The disposition of the Palestinians
Asked about the political atmosphere in West bank and Gaza strip, Adi hesitated to make statements, but he gave some interesting insights into his personal experiences and impressions of the situation.
During our visits in West bank villages we see a lot of people. We are always welcomed there, even by people who are not part of Combatants for Peace. But there are several reasons as to why the Palestinians don’t demonstrate for peace. Most of the Palestinians are not very political. They just try to live their lives. They want a better, easier life and fewer problems. They don’t have this idea of organizing themselves, so they don’t have groups like „Peace Now“. Germans and Israelis are more aware of the necessity of protesting and demonstrating and have a more democratic way of life. There have been riots in the West bank against the Palestinian Authority about a year or two ago, but they were not as big as in Egypt or other Arab countries. In addition, Palestinians face more organizations – the Palestinian authority, the Israeli authority, Hamas, Fatah. There isn’t one big address like in Egypt. Another reason is that people believe that their government, the Fatah side, is trying to get peace, so there has been some support for Fatah, even in Gaza. And the Palestinians are more naive towards the media – most of them believe the media. Israelis in contrast rather think that they have to apply pressure on the Israeli government and that they are more controlling the situation than the Palestinians.
Asked whether Palestinians run the risk of being treated as traitors when they cooperate with peace groups, Adi answered that the Palestinians in his group are proud of being part of the group and show that. When they visit the Palestinian members in their village, all people there see the cars and everybody knows who the guests are and what they want. It seems the Palestinians are very free to behave and secure in what they are doing. Some of them are related to the Fatah or to the government of Palestine. What they often fear is normalization. They don’t want the actual situation between Israel and the territories – the wall, the occupation, the restrictions – to be perceived as normal, because it means acceptance and stagnancy. That’s why combatants for peace don’t like just to make friends and instead join to focus on ending the occupation. Combatants for Peace got a permit from Fatah that their political work is not normalization and they can continue.
Adi estimates that about 60% in Israel and in the West bank want peace on the basis of the 1967 borders. From Palestinians he heard that in Gaza the vast majority of Palestinians doesn’t like Hamas and they demonstrated in favor or Fatah. But it is hard to judge about the situation there. You can’t even get a reliable view by interpreting the last elections. It is not the case that everyone who voted for the Hamas wanted war. The voters had different reasons to support Hamas. Some wanted to punish the meanwhile corrupted Fatah, others just saw the politicians trying to make peace for 15 years without succeeding, others had in mindthe social service which the Hamas offered in exchange for non-working governmental structures. So there were different reasons for people why they wanted a change.
People in Adis local group are confident that the Fatah would win if there were elections now. Secular as well as traditional Islamists have their own vision of their country – without Hamas. But there are a lot of Palestinians who accept anything which is better for their life. So they are politically very flexible and you can’t be sure what they are going to vote for. There are talks about holding elections next year, although both sides, Fatah and Hamas, feel more confident with keeping the status quo, Adi thinks. Hamas is afraid of losing the elections and Fatah is afraid Hamas will win again and they feel very much in control right now, even though they didn’t win the last election in Gaza. But both don’t want to make Israel succeed in splitting the Palestinians.
One or Two States? The Peace Process
Combatants for peace supports the idea of two countries for two people on the base of the 1967 borders. A lot of people, especially Palestinians, would be very happy about a joint state, where the Palestinians can vote and enjoy the same rights and where the resources are divided equally between all. A lot of Palestinians don’t care if half of the country is Jewish or whatever. But some Palestinians might radically demand that the state has to be under the rules of the Sharia or Hamas or similar . On the Israeli side people are not ready for it at all. A joint country is what people are afraid of. A lot of Israelis only agree to a two-state-proposal because they are afraid that otherwise they might be together with all the Palestinians in one state. And the extremist Israelis don’t care at all, they want apartheid. They don’t want Palestinians to vote, they want to be in control of everything. So a joint state would create a lot of instability and a lot of terror from both sides. Maybe it is a bit conservative in thinking, but for now the best thing seems to be just to try to separate, try to build up an economic and social system with time; let people do business and make contacts to each other the way especially the middle class already does and let the time make things different.
Israel needs some pressure to go on with the peace process! Not pressure of hatred from all around, no boycott, but pressure of saying this is something you cannot go on with. Rabin started in a very Zionist and traditional way of thinking. But with the time he began to understand that the territories are not empty and that a good way to deal with it is not only by being strong. So he changed. But since then we made no progress. The feeling in Israel is that democracy is going down, in parliament but also by the reactions of the people. So when you criticize the government or when you act like we do, people talk about you as a traitor.
Adi’s Personal Story
I was born in 1976 in Tel Aviv and grew up in Ramat Gan in a middle class family which was not very political. My parents came from Iraq in 1950 after the state of Israel was established. I was brought up in a very traditional secular Israeli way with a lot of attention to the state, the country, the soldiers, and the holocaust. I grew up in a sense of being right to be Jewish. I was very proud of my country, felt justice and solidarity. Important days in my life were the Memorial Day, the Holocaust Day and I loved movies like the Entebbe Operation, a film on Israelis who were taken hostage by Germans and Palestinians in a plane.
The first political arguments I had with a friend at class had been during the Iraq war. I tried to convince her that it was wrong to give back the territories. It was the beginning of the first Intifada and I argued that if you have a boat with a hole you don’t abandon the boat but you try to fix the hole – that was my opinion about the West bank and Gaza. I saw them as territories and didn’t really think about the people who live there. The first map I saw in my life was the All-Israel map, which looked very complete. I knew Palestinians. My father had a colleague at work who visited us sometimes and I really liked him. But when I heard that he was also throwing stones – it was the time of the first intifada – I was shocked.
I was kind of right wing. I thought that we don’t have a lot of territory, so we should strongly defend what we have and not give it up. I didn’t hate Arabs, but I didn’t see their faces, didn’t really recognize them. As a child, I was afraid of Arabs, not Arabs in the streets, but I was afraid of the Arab idea, of coming and conquering us. I know I am an Arab myself, but I didn’t perceive myself as an Arab. I saw myself as an Israeli, as a Jew – being called „Arab“ was a very insulting thing to me at that time. Nowadays I can say I’m an Arab. I am half Arab half Jew. But at those days when I was about 12 years old I was ashamed in front of my friends talking Arabic with my grandmother. This is something very interesting here in Israel. Although about half the people here are speaking Arabic because they are immigrants from Arab countries, society can’t cope with it very well.
So in my ideas I thought if Arabs will come and conquer our house, what will I do? Will I run away? Will I go to the basement to hide? Or will I fight them back and die? I remember an exercise in my childhood when I was a boy, about five years old, in kindergarten. There was this siren and we had to hide in the shelter and heard the noise of bombs and shootings outside which were played to let us learn about these noises. I was very afraid and kept asking whether this really was not real. They don’t do it nowadays, but that was the situation I grew up in.
For me, it was obvious to go to the army, to do the best I can. I had a big motivation. Also I wanted to prove myself as a man. I volunteered as an officer in the navy and was glad doing that. Ironically, during my military service in the navy I started to open my mind and to change my point of view. I was an officer on a boat in the Gaza strip, controlled the fishermen,so that they only do what they were allowed to, and blocked the South border of Israel. During that time I was to the sea of Gaza, watching the Fishermen of Gaza all the time and I began to see the face of the people for the first time. I saw it is not just territories but a lot of people.
Dealing with the Palestinians meant a lot of shooting. They don’t do what you want them to do? You shoot above them. You shoot nearby them. You shoot – they understand. This is the way we talked to each other. And it is a very violent way of communication. Once, before I was a captain myself, there was a captain on my boat and I was the deputy. There were fishermen going somewhere near Egypt, where they were not allowed to go. Instead of just shooting and shouting at them the captain said he wanted to talk to them. We were well equipped, so nothing could happen. We approached them and he began to speak with them in Arabic. And you could see in the way he talked to them that he was not speaking down to them. He was asking friendly what they were doing there, that they know what his duty was, talking to them eye to eye. So they just went away from there after saying they don’t want to bring us into hassle and they only wanted to fish. That was something which looked to me so elegant that it made me want to be like that.
Another incident during my military service was the murder of Itzak Rabin. I was one of those who escorted the funeral. When I was there, I was embarrassed. I was still right wing at that time and I was annoyed. I didn’t want Rabin to succeed, but I didn’t know how to feel about his death. I felt bad about something but politically it wasn’t a disaster to me at that time. I think this was another thing which made me questioning myself. The funeral was very hard for me and only after a few months I understood how bad it was what had happened.
When I finished the military service after about six years I wanted peace to come. I was ready to give back land and to reach an Israel within the borders of 1967. I thought very much from an Israeli point of view, but I thought the best for my country, to make us better, is to give them their country. I became a left wing, as Israelis say. I voted for Barak and travelled to South America for a year. And during my travels I learned to see people how they are, without looking at them just as an Israeli who grew up in Israeli society. When I came back I was less thinking in an Israeli mainstream way. I went to university, started to study philosophy and started thinking about the media as my source of information. I started to understand how media work. And I wanted very much to meet and talk to Palestinians, learn to know what they think. I was very angry about my country for the way it behaved. I grew up with values of humanity, of being small but right and strong, and suddenly I felt that this was taken from me. I didn’t feel right, we were just strong. And all these values came up against me. And I was very angry that my country doesn’t really try to make peace.
I had to stop military reserve in the Palestinian territories to join combatants for peace, and that was also very hard. Because part of my definition was being Israeli, high ranked in the army, being something society really appreciates. But slowly I came to the conviction that we cannot go on like this anymore. Every year I had to do some twenty-four or thirty days reserve as a captain on a patrol ship in Gaza. The last time I felt very bad about going and felt not being right there. It is dangerous to be there because some people really want to bomb you, so at least you need to feel very right. I remember the first time I was on the boat again I heard shootings towards Palestinians which made me feel terrible; but two days later I commanded such communication based on violence on my own again, doing the same – but with a lot of difficulties. When you are there you have to do that. If you want to bring back the boat you can’t only be nice.
After this time I decided to quit and totally join combatants for peace. The idea was that I’m not an Israeli against the Palestinians; I’m with the Israelis and the Palestinians who want to have peace. And it was more important for my country that we promote peace than just continue doing what we were doing. It was important for me to understand the Palestinians, to work with them, to have a partner with them. When I was stationed in Gaza I felt like doing the right thing. And maybe it is. I wouldn’t like everybody in the military service to abandon their duty. It is the right thing when you really feel that your country is trying to make peace and you are there because you have to do that until there is peace. A lot of people really believe that but I don’t any more. So if my country is really trying to make peace I would even go back to the army, to do what is needed.
Arabs in Israel and the National Holocaust Narration in Yad Vashem
Due to Adi’s origin from Iraq there arose some questions concerning Arab Jews in Israel. The first was about their involvement in the peace movement. Adi explained that there are much more European Jews active than Eastern Jews. The reason might be that the Mizrachi Jews who came to Israel had first to show that they are part of Israeli society in order to be accepted. Due to that, most of them want to distinguish themselves from the non-Jewish Arabs as much as possible. They are more concerned about that than about justice for others. So a lot of Eastern people are rather right wing than „Arab lovers“. They listen to Eastern and Arabic music, but they still see themselves as very different from them. And another point is that Western European Jews are in general more educated. They go to universities, have a better economic situation and are more open up to different things. But you should be careful with generalizations.
Another question referred to the visit of Yad Vashem and asked how applicable the national narration about the elimination of the „European Jews“ – as it is generally called – is for Arab Jews or whether it is more an Ashkenazim thinking. Adi explained that the formal education system makes the holocaust something of all. I grew up feeling that the holocaust almost happened to me. It happened to my people, so it happened to me because I am a Jew. I couldn’t see a difference between the importance of the holocaust for me and other Ashkenazim in my class. When I was two years old my mother got married with my second father who was Greek and his family was in the holocaust. I was very interested to learn about that. I saw someone in my family with an Auschwitz number on his skin. It is not my blood family, but maybe that is why I felt more related to it. In those days at school they really made you feel as a part of history. I think nowadays Ashkenazi kids look at it a bit different, but there is an awareness of a destiny of all the Jews in the world.
Extremists? Media and General Perception of Combatants for Peace in Israel
At the moment mostly left-wing-people listen to Combatants for Peace. Most people are occupied with their own life and therefore are not very interested in the situation of the settlements. There are just some journalists who join Combatants for Peace tours – we do some especially for journalists – or listen to our news. The mainstream media looks at us as lunatics, as extremists. The Israeli group „Breaking the Silence“, whose members are mainly soldiers, are more known than we are and are often seen as traitors. They try to convince Israeli society about how bad Israel behaves, whereas we are talking to the enemy, collaborating with the enemy.
I don’t see myself as an extremist, but society does. I am not humiliating soldiers, I don’t want something bad to happen to anyone. But in the mainstream point of view I am an extremist, because I talk to the enemy, to the Palestinians. In doing something against my government. I weaken it in their point of view because I say that they are not good enough, that they are not trying hard enough. But the main point is meeting Palestinians. After a peace you can do this, people say, but don’t meet them now. This is the point of view of the mainstream. I think maybe 10% of the Israelis think it is good what I am doing, and eight of them would say we will never do that, but if you want, feel good with it. Together with the indifferent ones it might be 15%.