Combatants For Peace: Former Israeli and Palestinian Fighters Talk About Why Dialogue, Not War, Will Solve the Middle East Crisis
Monday, July 24th, 2006
Demonstrations took place around the world this weekend calling for an end to Israelís attacks in Lebanon and Gaza. On Saturday in Tel Aviv, some 2,000 protesters held a demonstration against the war, and the countryís alliance with the United States. They also called on Israeli soldiers to refuse military service. We speak with a former Captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves who is now a co-founder of the group Combatants for Peace. [includes rush transcript]
Demonstrations took place around the world this weekend calling for an end to Israelís attacks in Lebanon and Gaza. On Saturday an estimated 10,000 protestors in Toronto marched from the Israeli consulate to the United States consulate. The protesters called for sanctions and a boycott of Israeli goods. Around 7,000 people joined a protest in London that took place along the Thames River. And several hundred took part in marches in Birmingham, Amsterdam, and downtown Chicago. Anti-war protests were also held in Israel. On Saturday in Tel Aviv, some 2,000 protesters held a demonstration against the war, and the countryís alliance with the United States. They also called on Israeli soldiers to refuse military service. Today we are joined in studio by Yonatan Shapira who is a military refuser. Yonatan is a former Captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves. In 2003, Yonatan initiated a group of Israeli Air Force pilots to sign a declaration refusing to participate in aerial attacks on Palestinian territories. Yonatan is also a co-founder of the group Combatants for Peace. Yonatan was with us on Friday and we welcome him back to Democracy Now!
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. On Friday, we had a debate between you and a spokesperson for the Young Meretz, a peace party in Israel around Lebanon. But I wanted to step back today to talk about how you arrived at the conclusions you did, for you, Yonatan, to talk about your personal story. Tell us how you became a soldier in Israel.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Okay. In Israel, itís quite obvious that if you are finishing your high school studies, you join the military. I was growing up in a family in military bases. My father was a squadron commander in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. And my dream was to be a pilot. So, for me it was obvious that I will achieve this dream and I will also contribute to the security of my country.
In history lessons, I didn't learn about the occupation. I learned those beautiful peace and bereavement songs. I learned about the beautiful values, about democracy, peace, justice, equality, freedom, and it took me many years to figure out and to know that at the same time that I was sitting in the classroom in school, learning all those beautiful values, my country, my military, was occupying and oppressing millions of Palestinians, millions of people that were living without all those beautiful values. We have so-called democracy for Jewish people or for Palestinians who are living within the 1967 border. But if you live in the Occupied Territories, it's completely apartheid.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you come to this realization?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, it's a long, long process. And during this process, you suffer. You find out things that you do not want to believe. But if I have to point to a few events that really helped me to wake up and to connect all those threads to one understanding that I must say no publicly, not just going out and not participating in something, but also standing and shouting, ďWe will not be part of it anymore!Ē I can refer to two events that happened back in 2002. It was in the middle of the Second Intifada, Al-Aqsa.
The first event I was participating in, I flew a Black Hawk helicopter, and I was called. I was the first helicopter to come to a place where a terror attack took place and many Jewish kids, many Israelis were injured severely, and I flew them with a Black Hawk to a hospital in the center of Israel next to Tel Aviv. And all the helicopter was full of blood, and the paramedics and doctors tried to work on the patients. And while I was landing in the hospital, I saw underneath a wedding and people were celebrating with the chupa, and the groom --
AMY GOODMAN: This was an Israeli wedding?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: It was an Israeli wedding, and I was completely shocked: how can people be so much disconnected to reality?
AMY GOODMAN: And the kids, how had they been hurt?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: They had been hurt severely by a Palestinian fighter who got in their house and shot all the family. And maybe I will mention something that it's important. I am very much involved in the giving of support to terror victims in the Israeli side. I was volunteering in an organization named SELAH, which is the Israeli Crisis and Management Center. I saw a lot of suffering of my people.
And what happened a few weeks later after this event when I brought these children to hospital is that the commander of the Air Force and the government decided to assassinate the leader of the Hamas in Gaza Strip, Salah Shahade. And they ordered a F-16 with a one-ton bomb, that shot -- that dropped this bomb on the house of the Hamas leader in Gaza Strip, killing with him 14 innocent civilians, 14 innocent people, including nine babies. And although I didnít drop this bomb and I didn't shoot in my life anyone, but I felt that this, me being part of this system that is causing this harm and this suffering and this killing to innocent people, it's just the same like being a terrorist in another organization. And those kids who were killed by my fellow pilots and these kids that were killed by this Palestinian fighter are just the same.
And it took me a while to understand that not just these guys down in the wedding were disconnected to reality, but also in the cockpit here inside me was a lot of ignorance, a lot of things that I didn't know. And then you start to figure out and to learn and to find out all this half-side history lesson that you didn't get. And I realized that in order to change and not just to find a solution for myself, for my soul, for my being able to live with myself, I have to do something publicly. And I went from one pilot to another, used my connection to the Israeli Air Force military by, you know, people knew my father and I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of pilots, and I found more than a hundred pilots that agreed to cooperate by being silent about that. Just a few of them agreed to sign the petition that I wrote.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, ďbeing silentĒ?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: It took us about three to four months to recruit all these co-signers on this letter. When you want to do something that will be strong enough, that will shake the Israeli public opinion and the government and the military, you want to find not just one or two pilots who are willing to refuse. So we found brigadier generals, colonels, Air Force squadron commanders, Apache pilots, F-16, F-15, Cobra, all kind of squadrons from the Israeli Air Force, and all these guys agreed to keep silent while some of us are willing also to put their names on this petition and to refuse publicly.
And as a result of this petition, there was a big uproar in Israel, and all the signers were called to an interview with the commander of the Air Force, General Halutz, who is now the commander of the Army who is actually leading these criminal attacks on Lebanon. And in this interview with him, he told me that he's going to discharge me from being a pilot in the Air Force, and I told him that actually Iím willing to be charged by him. Don't just discharge me, but charge us all in charge of refusing to legal orders, because we are willing to sit in jail if they can show in court that these orders of killing suspects and, by that, killing innocent civilians, is legal. And, of course, they preferred just to let us go, and no one of us was in prison.
And since then, many of us became very active in the anti-occupation movement and in the anti-apartheid movement in Israel. And that's why Iím here today talking to the American people, talking to the Jewish community, trying to convince them that it's us who have to lead these demonstrations around the world. It's us Jewish people and Israelis and former fighters, former combatants that took part in these wars, to lead these demonstrations who call for international pressure, who call for sanctions against the Israeli government who is doing these cruel things and brutal things in Lebanon. It will harm us Israelis, it will harm us Jewish people, if you will not wake up now, because it will not continue forever, and someone has to put an end to this.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Yonatan Shapira, a former captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves, initiated the group of Israeli Air Force pilots who refuse to fly attack missions in Palestinian territories. We're going to go to break. When we come back, I want to ask you more about this one-hour meeting you had privately with the head of the Israeli Army currently in Lebanon, and we're also going to bring on a Palestinian fighter, a former Palestinian fighter, who is in the group that you have co-founded, Combatants for Peace. He was in an Israeli jail for some seven years.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with the Israeli soldier, the former captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves, Yonatan Shapira. In 2003, he initiated the group of Israeli Air Force pilots who refused to fly attack missions on Palestinian territories. He also co-founded the group Combatants for Peace. In a minute we're going to go to East Jerusalem to speak with a former Palestinian Fatah fighter who is in the group with Yonatan, but you mentioned this private meeting you had with General Halutz. We see him on the news a lot now talking about Lebanon. What transpires? Just you and him?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yeah, we were -- me and him -- in his commander's room, and he's a very charismatic person. Therefore, I think he's very dangerous. In that meeting, we discussed the whole issues and the situation in our country. I told him that I believe that these are war crimes and I do not want to participate in them and I think that he should, as well, not participate and not order any people to go to participate in those missions. I told him also that I believe that if Israel decided to occupy Palestinians, Israel is responsible for the life of the civilians, if Israel is responsible for the life, not just of the Israelis, but also the Palestinians. And then, in answering, he told me how he sees the different value of human beings, when Israeli citizens is on top, then Israeli soldiers, then Palestinian civilians and then Palestinian fighters.
And as a Jewish person who is also from a family that suffered lots and lost a lot in the Holocaust, and I was raised to be aware and not to follow any kind of racist leaders, I think that now it's very important to be mentioned that these leaders, this guy, this specific commander, is so dangerous for us, and Jewish people from all around the world must wake up and understand that in order to support Israel, in order to make sure that Israel will continue to exist, we must stop these guys. We must stop them, because now they continue to lead soldiers.
Young soldiers are being recruited today, and I saw just in the news how the commander, the same commander, is receiving them and hugging them, and sometimes I feel like it's something like sacrifying some [inaudible], some kind of worshiping, and in some way -- if I can say just last thing about the Jewish community here in the United States, some people say that instead of worshiping God, the Jewish God, the Jewish community here -- not all of them, but some of them -- are worshiping Israel, and this is very dangerous.
AMY GOODMAN: You're talking about the Israeli Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What was his response to the issues you raised privately?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, he was sitting in front of me next to his desk. Under his hand was the newspaper from the last day, and the pictures of all the Israelis, both Palestinians and Jewish, who died in a terror attack in Haifa. It was back in October 2003. And he told me that he's trying to protect these people from dying, and Iím just cooperating with the enemy. So I asked him if he can think how come that this young lawyer, who was this suicide bomber in this attack, decided to sacrifice his life and to kill innocent people. How does he think that, you know, people, civilians, become suicide bombers? ďDon't you think that maybe we have to think, maybe we created this crazy jail, while people don't have any other reason, and they just don't have reason to live, so they become suicide bombers?Ē And he said, "You know what? I don't want to talk about this stuff," so what can I tell?
AMY GOODMAN: And the rationale of the Israeli government in Lebanon, that Hezbollah has been raining down missiles in northern Israel and that they have to protect the Israeli people and protect them for all time by routing out Hezbollah?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, it's insanity, and it's a lie because my government now is refusing to cease fire. How can you in one hand cry about missiles that are attacking yourself, you, your family in Haifa, in Afula, in Kiryat Shmona, and at the same time refuse to cease fire? The same aspiration, the same idea that you can just kill and annihilate all of Hezbollah is the same logic of Nasrallah, that will kill all Israel or this kind of nonsense. And there is a lot of mental disorder issues here. And that's why I don't think that the solution for this situation will come from within the Israeli politics. That's why we have to work both from external pressure and internal pressure. The external pressure will be led by Israelis and Jewish people around the world with all the other human rights activists, and the internal pressure will be led by soldiers who refuse to participate in these war crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a fighter, a Palestinian fighter who is with you in the group Combatants for Peace. Before we go to him in East Jerusalem, can you tell us about this group? Who's in it?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: We decided that it's not enough just to say no. We have to find out what do we say yes to, and actually my brother, who is also a refusenik, he was in the commando unit. He initiated this group with us and with several other Israeli refusers and Palestinian former fighters. We were all part of the violent struggle of our people, Israelis, as well Palestinians. And we decided a year and a half ago that we have to meet together and find a nonviolent way to struggle against occupation and against the circle of mutual violence, and we found out that these guys have a lot in common with us. We were meeting for about a year in secret meetings discussing our political views and our own process of transformation. And now after our launching event in last April, we decided that we are ready to go all over the world, in Israel, in Palestine, but all over the world to bring our message to the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Yonatan Shapira, let's turn now to Bassam Aramim, former member of Fatah, served a prison sentence of seven years, arrested in Hebron when he was 17 years old, speaking to us from East Jerusalem. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bassam Aramim.
BASSAM ARAMIM: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you came to be in Combatants for Peace? In Fatah, you were a fighter in the First Intifada?
BASSAM ARAMIM: Yes, I was a fighter before the First Intifada. As you mentioned, from the Fatah movement and recently I'm involved in the new group with Israelis, Combatants for Peace, which is composed from both sides and it's open for anyone who looks for peace and settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have the main principles of our group, our courageous and moral group, first of all to put an end for Israeli military occupation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; to be free from settlers and soldiers and walls and checkpoints; to replacement of killing and bloodshed by peace and reconciliation between the two peoples; to implementation of the two-state solution, living side by side in full cooperation and peace.
And we have an important message in this group. We want to say to the Israelis and to the Palestinians and to all the world that we have a partner. We are partners. And the Israeli government must stop saying that there are no partners, there are nobody to speak or to negotiate with in the Palestinian side.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the response of other fighters and former fighters to you; for example, the people you served time in prison with? You served from 1985 to 1992. You were a leader in the Israeli jail?
BASSAM ARAMIM: Hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: What is the response of other fighters, people who -- and former fighters in Fatah, in Hamas, to what you are doing, calling for a nonviolent solution?
BASSAM ARAMIM: Yes, we have a big group. Almost we have 100, at least, Palestinians ex-fighters and ex-prisoners who believe in this new way, and they are very courageous. And I want to thank them. Also I want to thank the Israeli combatants or soldiers for their moral and courageous stand to refuse to be a part of Palestinian suffering to refuse to be a part of the occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe, Yonatan, your first meeting with Bassam?
BASSAM ARAMIM: Yes.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yeah,
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Iím asking Yonatan to describe his first meeting with you.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: We were a small group. It was at the beginning when we started to initiate this group, and we decided at each meeting we will start by one or two people from each side will tell their own story, so we'll start to create these bonds, this connection to each other. And it was very strong to hear what Bassam has to say and what Suleiman, another guy there, has to say. For them to listen to Israeli soldiers telling about, for example, one guy in our group was the commander of the Kalandia checkpoint, which is a horrible place where thousands of Palestinians are standing every day and being humiliated, and to see suddenly the commander of this checkpoint sitting with them as a refuser, as a refusenik, saying that he is going to work with them hand by hand, side by side, to put an end to this crazy situation was something very, very exciting and encouraging.
I just want to mention -- I know that we don't have too much time -- in October, an organization that was established by faculty, called Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, FFIPP, is going to bring Bassam and me to the States to a big national -- touring campuses, giving lectures and meeting students and meeting media and everyone that wants to listen to the message that we have to say. If people are interested to having us in their campus, they can contact this organization, FFIPP.
AMY GOODMAN: I will link -- at Democracy Now!, we'll link to that organization, and people could go to our website at democracynow.org.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: If I can mention last thing, if we still have one minute, there is the issue of normalization, and many Palestinians are afraid that when you create a dialogue group, you also have some kind of accepting the occupation, accepting your oppressor, but this group is different. Once you are creating a coexistent group, a group of people who are reconciling with each other, but also are extremely connected to the political call and to the political action, I think it's right and it has a right to exist now. We are not just solving our own problems and curing our own wounds. We also call for massive pressure against the Israeli government that continues this occupation, and this must be mentioned.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see that pressure building in the United States, as an Israeli who's been spending time here?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, it's one of the hardest things, because there is so much ignorance here, and seeing what your government is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over the world, you don't have so much hope. But sometimes you must do something in order to still have a reason to live and to wish in this world, and I also believe that if we can put some pressure on European leaders that are a bit less ignorant than your government, maybe we can make something.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Yonatan Shapira, former captain of the Israeli Air Force Reserve. Also joining us from East Jerusalem, Bassam Aramim, a former member of Fatah, served in an Israeli jail for seven years, arrested when he was 17 years old.