Another amazing grassroots effort in the Middle East is Combatants for Peace, a group of former Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers who have united to reject violence and tell their stories to each other as a way of finding peace. I first heard about this group through a blog post here by Valerie Elverton Dixon back in March. Recently, I was able to sit across the table from Bassam Aramin, one of the men featured in her post, and listened to him tell his story firsthand.
As a teenager, he was imprisoned by Israeli forces for flying the Palestinian flag. This only fueled his militancy, and he received a seven year sentence for planning an attack on Israelis. In prison, he and one of his jailors began a dialogue-not to convince each other, but to understand each other. It was also during this time that Aramin watched a film about the Holocaust, and his understanding of the Jewish people deepened.
Then in 2005, through a dialogue facilitated by a peace group, he met a former Israeli soldier, who told the story of all he had done in his career: humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints, torturing them, cutting down their olive trees-all he had ever done to hurt Palestinians. As Aramin listened, he became angrier and angrier. When the soldier finished his story, Aramin told him: "I want to eat you."
But Aramin was frustrated because the soldier wouldn't argue with him-he agreed that what he had done was wrong. Then Aramin then went on to tell his own story, of all that he had done-even exaggerating so that his deeds would be comparable to that of his enemy. At the end, the other man replied: "I want to eat you."
But somehow, magically, through this exchange of stories and honest anger, these men became friends, and eventually partners in the search for peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Then, on January 16, 2007, Aramin's 10-year-old daughter was shot in the head and killed by Israeli soldiers while she was walking home from school. He has made repeated invitations to speak with the soldier responsible, but has received no response. He is a man deeply committed to dialogue, even after suffering unimaginable and senseless loss.
Aramin also has an interesting sense of optimism when discussing the current hawkish Israeli government under Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman. He said it took eight years of Bush and Cheney for the U.S. to elect Obama. Maybe after this government, Israel will be ready to elect their own Obama.
I'd like to share his optimism, because I am glad to have a president that favors conversation over military force. I am glad that Hezbollah's coalition didn't win in Lebanon. I am glad to hear that Ahmadinejad is unlikely to win re-election in Iran later this week. But even with these hopeful political winds, there is so much in this region opposing peace. I pray for many more Combatants for Peace to rise up and tell the truth in this region where so often politics has failed to do so. These are the stories that I carry in my heart as events in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Iran swirl in my head.