On Feb. 21, the Colorado College branch of Jstreet U, which is a national organization that works primarily toward a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, invited two representatives to give a presentation on their experience of joining the activism scene in Palestine through Combatants for Peace.
Combatants for Peace is a nonprofit organization led by a collective of former Israeli and Palestinian soldiers. The egalitarian, bi-national, grassroots organization was founded on the belief that the cycle of violence can only be broken when Israelis and Palestinians join forces. It started in 2005 when some Israeli soldiers from elite units signed an open letter in the newspaper refusing to serve any longer in the West Bank: “What we were asked to do was not right.”
A group of Palestinians reached out to this group of Israeli soldiers for a meeting. They initially had a secret meeting to develop trust, community, and closeness between the two groups that both never thought civility was possible. The Israeli soldiers thought it was a trap for them to get bombed. However, in 2006, they formally launched Combatants for Peace. The network grew to hundreds of core activists who dedicate their time for activities in several areas of the West Bank, thousands of participants, and hundreds of thousands of followers.
The pillars of the organization are “deep commitment to non-violence, togetherness in decision-making regarding finances, organizing activities, maintaining equality between the Israeli and Palestinian activists, commitment to giving space for women’s voices, and lastly, action on the ground.” Combatants for Peace representatives clearly highlighted that it is not a dialogue group, but “a group committed to action and service.” They are not undermining efforts of dialogue and understanding, rather, they perceive them as not enough. Their main goal is to “maintain the integrity of non-violence resistance and activism amidst violent communities” through non-violent communication/activism training and ensuring that all their activities remain non-violent.
While they also recognize the inherently unequal nature of the Israeli and the Palestinian groups, Combatants for Peace unites on taking action to stop the occupation and the violence. Actions include building playgrounds in destroyed Palestinian land, providing water sources, and participating in peaceful protests.
Noga Nobaz, the Israeli representative from Combatants for Peace, is the coordinator for the Jerusalem group. She is 32 years old, living in Haifa, Israel. Her great-grandparents are Ukrainian, but they came to Israel in the 1920s. For them, Israel is a place where you can live “with security, but also live proudly as Jewish.” She recognizes how lucky she is to have been born in Israel and therefore exempt from the struggle of Jews in East Europe. However, she found an equally disturbing struggle in Israel.
Nobaz described living with suicide bombings. In 2000 during the Second Intifada, she lost many of her classmates in one of the suicide bombings on a bus. At that moment, Nobaz felt so close to death and the void that every family feels when they lose their child. She became aware of the conflict. Nobaz used to think that brave leaders are responsible for bringing peace to the conflict, so she waited for those leaders. However, those leaders never came.
At 18, Nobaz was drafted. She did not hesitate to join; she was proud. One of her close friends refused to serve because of the conflict; however, Nobaz viewed her friend as very radical at the time. In 2014, the war in Gaza took place. By seeing the horrific photos on TV of destruction and massive causalities, Nobaz knew she couldn’t wait for the brave leaders. She started to go to protests where she learned about Combatants for Peace, whose representatives were at the protest. She admired the Palestinians’ courage to come to Tel Aviv to speak to Israelis in Hebrew. While Nobaz felt conflicted in thinking empathetically about the Palestinian side and its causalities, she decided to join Combatants for Peace.
On the other hand, Raed Alhadar, a Palestinian from Ramallah, described his side of the story of the occupation. “My story is like a story of many thousands of Palestinians living under the occupation,” Alhadar said. When he was a child, he used to hear his father talk about his land as stolen by an Israeli settler. “I will bring you to the Jews if you do not stop what you are doing,” his mother used to shout at him as a child. This is the environment that Alhadar grew up in, an environment that is angry about stolen land and scares children with the Jews.
As a child, Alhadar used to throw stones at the Israeli Jeeps. Alhadar thought it was a game until Israeli soldiers shot his friend in front of his eyes. In response, he tried to make a homemade bomb with his friend who lost his finger in the explosion. Consequently, Alhadar was arrested and jailed for three years while he was still under age. Palestinian prisoners were able to study and read in jail, so Alhadar learned about Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, among others. Through this, Alhadar deduced that non-violence would be the only way to fix the situation. After he was released from jail, Alhadar witnessed his cousin get shot, which prompted him to join the militant section of Fatah movement.
When Alhadar was invited to the first meeting for Combatants for Peace, he was very hesitant to meet Israeli soldiers. He was worried that one of them may have killed his friend or cousin. At first, there was no trust. However, in spite of his certainty that “there is no equality between the two sides,” Alhadar believes that both sides have to leave the weapons behind to change peoples’ lives and situations. “Life cannot continue with violence,” he said. “Non-violence is the only secure way to defeat the hate, revenge, and the conflict.”
If you want to know more about Combatants for Peace, watch the movie “Disturbing the Peace,” available on Netflix.