From prisoner to peacemaker

By Michael Klausner, October 31, 2011
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In June 1966, at Cape Town University, Robert Kennedy uttered his now famous words: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Exactly 26 years later, soon after Israel's invasion of Lebanon, my cousin, Captain Aharon Achiaz was shot down while piloting his A4 Skyhawk. Whether he knew it or not, he'd begun a ripple of his own.

Hit by an anti-aircraft missile, he managed to parachute into a field in a small Lebanese village. He was immediately surrounded by an angry mob of farmers who kicked and beat him. Some had prepared a noose and were ready to lynch him on the spot. Aharon maintained composure and impressed upon them that he was a pilot, a valuable prize. As the farmers grew more restless, a jeep carrying PLO officers raced to the field. Aharon was whisked away, safe for the moment, but now in the direct hands of the enemy.

Captured Israelis were not treated well, as demonstrated by images of Palestinian guerillas parading the body of a dead Israeli helicopter pilot through the streets. The dead soldier was pinned in the car boot, his legs dragging on the ground, while a young Palestinian sat happily on top holding the soldier's helmet and giving the V-for-victory sign.

Athough a prisoner, he became the one running the jail

Aharon was put on local TV, his image beamed to a proud Arab contingency and the world. With gun-toting captors crowding him, Aharon said calmly: "I am not afraid. I've been treated well." He then smiled and shouted: "Regards to my family… I hope to see them again," before he was hustled out. He was determined to show no fear.

Although a prisoner, Aharon soon became the one running the jail. He persuaded the PLO commanders to let him communicate with his family and arrange for the Red Cross to deliver packages from home, sharing the contents with his captors.

Aharon became a curiosity for his handlers. He spent his days engaging those around him and debating politics and religion. He requested and was granted a meeting with Yasir Arafat. He learnt about his enemy, got to know their names, their family histories. And they learnt more about him.

By early August, Israel had surrounded West Beirut and the PLO had had enough. They negotiated safe passage out of the country and, on August 20, the war was declared over. Aharon's release was part of the bargain.

Despite being labelled enemies, the distance between the two sides became smaller through Aharon's daily discourse with his PLO handlers. Soon after his return, Aharon was contacted by them. They wanted to continue the discussion. Aharon welcomed the invitation and a relationship that began with uncertainty grew to be more cordial. Over time, it turned familial and even included dinners at Aharon's Herzliya home. Aharon even testified in an Israeli court on behalf of one of the former PLO members when he was detained on a minor charge.

One of Aharon's best friends said that his philosophy towards the Arabs changed 180 degrees while he was in Lebanon. Aharon went from the warrior out to defeat his enemy to a neighbour who sought to understand and be understood.

He recognised that not all Arabs were terrorists and that it was not only Israelis who hated war. And he impressed upon them that a nation not only has the right to defend itself but has a right to exist as well.

Aharon passed away from cancer in 1998. His wife, Yael, says that even to this day she is contacted by advocates who claim they knew Aharon and want her to say something good for the PLO prisoners in Israel.

To many Israelis, ultimate peace is impossible, and hatred will always exist. They believe that, so long as there is no war, this balance is tolerable. I hope it can be better than that. The means exist today to more readily communicate with each other. There are social networks at our fingertips unbound by borders that enable us to "talk". And there is proof of how the "walls of oppression and resistance" Robert Kennedy spoke about have dissipated through these new relationships.

If individuals who once threatened each other with weapons could build a friendship, indeed nations can send forth a ripple.

Michael Klausner is a marketing executive

    Last updated: 11:39am, October 31 2011