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Michal Levertov talks to members of Combatants for Peace — a group bringing together former fighters on both sides — about their experiences as Palestinians and Israelis
Wael Salamah, 51, was born in Anata, near Jerusalem, where he now lives. Married with 10 children, he works as an insurance agent
“When the First intifada started, I was living and working in Jordan. I followed it closely on television. I was angry, full of rage and hate. I thought that the actions by the Palestinians were doomed to fail. Throwing stones at soldiers armed with M16 rifles, I believed, might send a political message but would never end the occupation.
“In May 1990, an Israeli named Ami Popper murdered seven Palestinians working in Israel. Popper was arrested and put on trial, but the Israeli government did not apologise for his actions.
“Shortly after that, I met my Fatah commander. We felt that Popper’s act and the Israeli government’s dismissal of it had crossed all red lines. We decided that I would go back to Jerusalem and park an explosives-packed car at the Israeli Police headquarters.
“On May 29, I arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing, aiming to enter the West Bank from Jordan in order to start organising the operation. But I was arrested on the spot. I was interrogated, tried and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, and an additional three-and-a-half years on parole.
“After [the] Oslo [Accords were signed in 1993], I was released from prison two months early. I settled back in my village. I’m still a Fatah member, and my activity in Combatants for Peace reflects my conclusion that there’s no other solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than stopping the cycle of blood.
“Violence brought us no results: the Palestinians did not get rid of the occupation, and the Israelis did not get rid of the Palestinians. A two-state solution, living side by side in peace and security, is a solution which, I believe, both the Israeli and Palestinian publics agree upon.”
Osama Abu Karsh, 35, was born in Samouah, south of Hebron. He now lives in Ramallah, where he works as a youth coordinator at Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy, an NGO
“It all started off as a game, in late 1987. In the evening, me and six classmates would raise a Palestinian flag, and in the morning the soldiers came by and picked elderly people or young kids to take them down. I remember the first one I made: I stole some of my mother’s clothes, and made a Palestinian flag out of them.
“My parents tried to stop me. They punished me and they forbade me to leave our house. But gradually, our gang started to gain control over the whole village of 2,000 residents. The riots spread like fire. The political inspiration was Yassir Arafat, who lived in Tunisia, gave speeches on the radio and was our hero.
“On March 2, 1988, I was arrested. I still remember the nine days of interrogation. They did not let me eat for five days or sleep for three days. They cuffed me in a position that allowed me only to stand on my toes. They locked me in a dark cell exactly the size of my body. Eventually, I confessed.
“I was sentenced to 33 months in jail. I was still a youth, and I missed home. Once, my mother tricked the guards and managed to hug me for a few seconds. I felt as if I was back in her womb. When she left, I felt so deserted.
“I was released from jail in December 1990; I made a decision to stay quiet and go to university. I choose not to take part in the second intifada because I decided that I would not take part in any violence.
“The strangest thing was that prison life actually taught me how to use non-violence as a mean of struggle. In prison you have nothing but your body, and that’s what you use against the jail’s administration, either by strikes, by dialogue, or by any other non-violent ways.
“I think that the first intifada was successful: internally, it built a national awareness among the Palestinians. Politically, it led to the Madrid conference and later to the Oslo Accords, which have eventually failed because the Israelis continued to settle in the occupied territories. And I attribute the first intifada’s success to its non-violent nature: raising flags, strikes, and even throwing stones at tanks are non-violent tools, although Molotov cocktails are a different story.”
Chen Alon, 38, from Tel Aviv, is married with a daughter. An IDF major, he refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada
“On the eve of my recruitment in February 1988, footage of Israeli soldiers hitting a cuffed Palestinian was broadcast all over the world and shook me deeply. In Gaza, we were given clubs, taught how to storm kids throwing stones and shoot rubber bullets.
“In Rafah, I was also surprised to learn that for the past 20 years the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under a night curfew: each night, after 7pm, all Palestinians were forbidden to leave their houses. In daytime, we patrolled to catch the kids who threw stones — our own presence was provoking them to do so — and at night we enforced the curfew. Gradually, I could see how the more arrests we made, the more intelligence we got, the harsher the violence it generated among the Palestinians.
“And there was the fear. You found yourself surrounded by hundreds of people, stones thrown at you, and the only way to get yourself out is to do something to scare them.
“Luckily, under my command no-one killed Palestinians in such situations. But it did happen to other units. Once, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at me, and a few nights later we were sent to make an arrest related to this incident. We stormed the house, and I was immensely surprised when the Secret Service agent ordered us to arrest a ten-year-old kid. We did, but felt very troubled. Later that night, my soldiers said they were not able to sleep. I felt exactly as they did, but explained that there was a bigger picture which we, as soldiers, could not see. It took me some more years to admit to myself that our actions there were not only immoral, but had a severe negative influence on Israel’s security.”
Dr Haim Weiss, 38, lives in Jerusalem with his partner and two daughters and teaches literature at Ben Gurion University. An IDF officer, he refused to serve in the territories during the second intifada
“In May 1988 we were sent to tackle, as infantry, the riots in Gaza and the West Bank. We were told that within a couple of hours a chopper would come and take us to Gaza, and in the meantime three of us were taught to shoot rubber bullets — lead bullets thinly wrapped with rubber, inaccurate yet potentially lethal ammunition. We patrolled the streets: our objective was a show of force and our mission was described as ‘seizing flags and erasing graffiti’.
“There were no specific targets or intelligence data. The method was to pick people at random, take their identification cards, and order them to paint over the graffiti, to remove burning tyres or to take down flags. Mostly, we chased kids who were engaged in silly actions set to upset us. It was clearly totally ineffective, but there was no other modus operandi.
“It had no sense to it, and it was scary. Once, after a 12-hour patrol, a kid threw a block at me, and hit my shoulder. Instinctively, I targeted him through my rifle’s viewfinder. Luckily, he had already run away. These are edgy situations. You’re tired, hungry, frustrated. The equipment is heavy and cumbersome. It was warfare against the unknown: the enemy was ‘everybody’ and the method of fighting was to catch people and beat them.
“Our goal was to complete the patrol with minimum damage — or maximum, depending on who the patrol’s commander was. We all preferred the deployments in Lebanon. As a young soldier, I didn’t have a comprehensive perception of the situation. It didn’t occur to me that the Israeli army should simply not be there.”