My third and final interview on Monday in Tel Aviv was with a friend of a friend who is involved in Combatants for Peace. This is an organization whose membership includes former and current Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank who have been involved in violence. Formed about five years ago, the group engages in dialogue and non-violent “direct action” aimed at “ending the occupation.” For the Israelis in the group, each have committed to refuse to serve in the territories while the Palestinians have renounced the use of violence.
In terms of dialogue, there are currently five groups of Israelis and Palestinians who meet regularly in several city couplings: Tel Aviv-Nablus, Tel Aviv-Tulkarm, Jerusalem-Ramallah, Jerusalem-Bethlehem, and Beersheva-Hebron, with a new group in the works for Haifa-Jenin. My host’s group meets in Palestinian areas once a month or so while the Israelis meet on their own every two weeks. The core of their meetings are people telling their stories and then the discussion often moves to political questions and plans for political activism. Each side speaks in its own language and translators relate their stories back and forth.
He made clear to me that these meetings are not about normalization. They are not meetings for their own sake so that Israelis and Palestinians get to know one another, although he believes this is valuable. Rather, the emphasis is on promoting direct action. These activities include house meetings organized for public attendance, participating in rallies, “activist theatre”, tree planting ceremonies, and guided tours. Among their most high-profile activities have been joint Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Remembrance Day) ceremonies with both Israelis and Palestinians. All activities, he emphasized, are strictly non-violent.
Israeli participants in their groups are typically in their late 20s to early 30s who have served in numerous capacities in the army, from elite units to desk jobs. Most are secular and readily identify as political left. The Palestinian participants in my host’s group are a generation older and most have served time in Israeli jails and participated in violence against Israelis. Religiously, they are traditional but not necessarily overtly observant. All, according to my host, believe in a two-state solution to the conflict.
My host sees their audience as really anyone who will listen. While he feels many who participate are already sympathetic to their project, they reach out to a diverse crowd. Although the activities of this group are not directly relevant to my specific dissertation research, it does speak to efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to engage one another in a civil and humane manner. It also, I imagine, offers a valuable insight into how those Israelis and Palestinians who do speak to one another understand and engage with each other’s claims and grievances.
I was invited to join a tour they will be conducting on Friday of several West Bank Jewish and Palestinian communities ending with a conversation with former Palestinian combatants. Unfortunately, this week has already been a bit too full for traveling (I really need more sleep), so I will have to defer until the next one. A word to the wise (or the obviously inclined): don’t spend a night at a youth hostel in Tel Aviv near the beach in the heart of summer and expect to get a good night’s sleep. Lesson learned.