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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.


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Itamar Shapira

After Itamar Shapira finished his military service in 2002, he joined Shovrim Shtika, a group of army reservists seeking to raise Israeli public awareness about the occupation's effect on soldiers and Palestinians. Later, Itamar joined his older brothers in Combatants for Peace, a joint organization of Israelis and Palestinians who formerly took part in the armed struggle and who are dedicated to non-violence and dialogue. Itamar and his colleagues draw on their respected status as former combatants in demanding their respective societies' attention to the possibility of ending the conflict. Itamar is studying to be a tour guide and works at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

  • What is your name and where are you from?

    My name is Itamar Shapira and I'm originally from Ramat Hasharon.1 I was drafted into the army in 1999 and served in the Nahal brigade's combat engineering unit; I completed the three ordinary years there. I am part of an organization called Combatants for Peace, which brings together former combatants from both sides who have decided not to continue using violence as an approach to solving the conflict. We are committed to dialogue in order to end the conflict, and agree that the occupation needs to be ended.

    • 1. a city located just north of Tel Aviv, falling within that city's metropolitan area.

  • How did you reach Combatants for Peace?

    The organization was founded after my two brothers signed petitions stating their refusal to serve [in the Territories]; one brother signed the pilots' letter and the other served in an elite combat unit [General Staff Reconnaissance unit] and signed a different petition. Some people who were former members of Fatah heard about these petitions and contacted one of my brothers through people who maintain regular contact with both sides. The initiative started off with talks that had no clear purpose, and then they decided to found a joint organization with the goal of ending the occupation and the violence in general on both sides. Our forte is that on both sides people were violent participants within the struggle. Because we were once combatants, we are central in our societies so what we have to say is considered more significant than what others have to say. For example, mothers are less central in the consensus than we are and can be perceived as not understanding the situation correctly. This is true for both communities, and maybe it enables us to operate more practically than other organizations. We've been holding meetings over the past year or eight months. During this period the organization was founded and basically began operating. We're working on a website and split into a few working committees-- committees responsible for PR and for finances-- so this is the beginning of an administrative body. Meanwhile we've been holding meetings approximately once a month. During the first meetings there was a sense of confusion and of misunderstanding each other. It's a little hard for people to understand the other side's frame of mind; each side has a slightly different approach, and of course there is the approach of having the upper hand versus the frame of mind of being the controlled side. This is natural for people who grew up in this kind of an environment and have lived this way for so many years. We are trying to uproot these perceptions through personal psychological processes, but sometimes we discuss it together as a group. Gradually we achieved equilibrium in terms of understanding who the other is. After each side perceives the other's humanity something like friendship evolves. At first the meetings focused on conversations and people told personal stories; some opened up-- some dared to, some did to a lesser extent. This is part of the openness of our organization. There have been some very moving moments. At first people more or less dealt with their own issues over meeting the so-called enemy, who was responsible for killing or something to that effect, on a more personal level. It is necessary to understand that people are imprisoned by their perceptions and gradually changed and reformulated them. The idea is to undergo a personal process individually and then translate that into the group's power-- to recognize something that perhaps was recognized through formalities [in political agreements] but was never experienced emotionally.

  • What do you mean, recognizing things recognized through formalities but never experienced emotionally?

    The idea is dialogue; reconciliation is a nice word but first we need to talk, listen and understand, then we will be able to negotiate. Reconciliation will come later. Within the group we are reconciled, we do joint work and are friends but reconciliation between peoples will take longer, so meanwhile we need to negotiate. From there we aim to speak outside and inside, meaning we aren't limiting ourselves to Israel/Palestine, even though our main effort is changing peoples' conceptions here. We are also working with the EU parliament and anybody else willing to listen. We fundraise mostly abroad, of course. The organization uses joint lectures for people in both societies; so in Palestinian society, an Israeli who was once a soldier comes to talk about the change he went through and about change as an option, what his "side" thinks. In Israeli society people see a "scary terrorist with blood on his hands" and such references that we hear in the [Israeli] newspapers whenever there is mention of releasing Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinian speakers are usually people who have served prison sentences and most speak very good Hebrew; for the most part, they are very nice people—just like we are—like the soldiers who also killed and injured and abused people; every person has their own story. At the end of the day, these are people who go home and they have families. The change, the internal change every person undertakes is what we hope will be passed on to the people who hear us.

  • Who participates in your meetings?

    On the Palestinian side they are people from Fatah and from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas members didn't come; I assume there is less of a chance of them participating because it's more a religious issue for them and that makes a change in approach more difficult. These are people who all served prison sentences, some for major things they did, some for things they planned to carry out; the majority served time for throwing stones or Molotov cocktails and they served fairly long prison sentences. On the Israeli side it started with combat soldiers who served in the Territories but it also opened up to people who feel they contributed their share to the occupation through military service in Intelligence units or surveillance towers or just being in the military's civil administration units, in checkpoints. Every person has their own story. Aside from that, the basis is people who were actually combatants.

  • Are the Palestinian participants former members of the militant wing of Fatah, or former Fatah members? Are the people still active with Fatah?

    Most are still active in Fatah and some take part in its political wing but they aren't part of Fatah's military wing because that would be like the IDF. They may be still considered part of the military wing but they don't commit acts of terrorism. In general most Palestinian participants are part of Fatah, but some aren't part of any organization, they are friends of friends.

  • Where do you meet?

    Usually we meet in B areas, most of the meetings take place in the A-Ram neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. There were a few meetings in Bet Safafa,1Bet Jala, and in Bethlehem once.

    • 1. Bet Safafa is a town within the southern municipal boundary of Jerusalem, whose residents are Palestinian, some with Israeli citizenship, some with Jerusalem identity cards. It once straddled both the Israeli side and Jordanian West Bank side of the post-1948 Green Line, now surrounded by Jewish settlements and neighborhoods that have expanded southward since 1967.

  • Which language do you use in your meetings?

    Most people who come speak Hebrew but everything is translated into Hebrew and Arabic. We have translators; there were a few meetings with professional translators but mostly there are people among us who translate, Israeli guys who understand Arabic or Arab guys who speak Hebrew. Everything is translated into both languages. Language is a major obstacle to the flow of things, for decision-making. It will take a long time, but gradually we will all speak Arabic and Hebrew.

  • How do people join your meetings?

    It's mostly word-of-mouth, especially in "radical" left-wing circles that know each other and speak to each other. Everybody tries to recruit their friends from the army to join. Meanwhile, we've expanded and in our largest circle we have 35 or 40 people from each side. That isn't terribly large, but for the time being we can't work with larger groups. Our meetings usually include 25-30 people from both sides and we make sure to keep it balanced in terms of Palestinian and Israeli participants. For us Israelis it is considered slightly problematic because they are terrorists.

  • Who is considered terrorist by whom—aren't you defined by the fact that all your members are former militants from both sides?

    I meant to say that in Israeli society these activists of resistance or violent activists are perceived as terrorists. This is an act of delegitimization compared with how the army is portrayed as a defender. On the Palestinian side there is also more fear after the Hamas was elected into power, I guess it shows that they have it harder.

  • How do you deal with the term "terrorist" in your organization?

    We talk about how we used to see things through the prism of these definitions and about the changes and how we view the Palestinians and ourselves as having fought for useless things. We struggle for security but simultaneously prevent it; they are struggling for a state but the suicide attacks prevent that; we are in transition to a state of refraining from violence. We don't use the term terrorist in our group anymore; we talk about people who took part in the violent struggle. On the Palestinian side, faces change except for on the steering committee. I think that for the Palestinians is a little more difficult to participate. For the Palestinians it sometimes means life-threatening situations, depending on how much power they have in society.

  • Can you give such an example?

    The man who until now headed our organization on the Palestinian side is a Fatah member who ran for the Fatah party's elections. He is a man with a lot of power and respect in his region, in his village. It seems that his work with us got him the tatbiyeh, meaning he was accused of normalization. Normalization means that there needs to be a struggle against the occupation, but that it's possible to maintain relations with Israel in other areas, work and education for example, in order to keep on living. In Palestinian society, [the stigma of normalization] is similar to when our side accuses us of "surrendering to terrorism," but it means cooperating with the Israelis and preventing the end of the occupation, and so they are perceived as traitors. When he worked with us he was marked with the stigma of tatbiyeh, he wasn't elected for the Fatah party and he paid a political price. In general, I think the Palestinian participants have the support of the Fatah movement. They aren't extreme or radical because as far as they're concerned, they are still in the midst of the struggle. There is a certain imbalance in the meetings; at first it seemed the Israelis came with a more apologetic approach—allegedly—because the Palestinians in our organization are still in the middle of a struggle, not a violent one, but nevertheless a struggle. That evened out gradually when we understood that it is also important for us to emphasize our own national identity as Israelis. These aren't two societies seeking a solution with "no countries - no opposition" as its slogan. We emphasize each side's national identity; coming from this recognition of national identity we want to end the occupation and the violence.

  • What do you mean, to emphasize your sense of national identity [as an Israeli]?

    Because of the equilibrium; I mean that power relations clearly tilt in favor of the Israelis. Occasionally Israelis are directly affected by terrorism but the feeling is that it's different; for most Israelis it isn't a matter of "my bus will explode any minute now." That does exist, but less than for the Palestinians—for them it [violence and occupation] is almost the daily routine. It's a matter of time before the exit to the main road is blocked off, or something will be confiscated, or there will be a knock on the door, regardless of whether you are a terrorist or a civilian. Obviously, when you realize that you feel apologetic. We Israelis also have more confidence in our national identity and we don't need to emphasize it, especially me, as a [former] combat soldier. No one doubts my Zionist  fervor, my patriotism; if you are somehow connected to the Holocaust then it only strengthens that sense of being "one of us" you don't need to reiterate and stress that you are a Zionist and that you believe that Israel should exist here. The Palestinians do feel that way because their Palestinian state is still on the way and they constantly feel the need to emphasize their sense of national identity. That's why there is an imbalance in our relations. Once we understood this, we—the Israeli side—we could deal with it. It is mainly a matter of what you reveal and whether you reveal that you have a sense of national identity too and that you think that you need to exist here and aren't willing to throw yourself into the sea. This isn't self-evident. We need to understand that we must express this in our meetings and also to Israeli society in order to receive approval for what we are doing or to receive a positive reaction from the Israeli public.

  • You said before that combatants enjoy a special status in both societies, respectively. Why do you think this is?

    Clearly it's because a person fought, sacrificed their best years, some people became officers, some are pilots, fighters in elite units, all sorts of quality units. In Israel it is a well known fact that this entitles you to respect and high positions; some people move up and they are the people who are running the country. Clearly the army is central in Israel, and whoever was a combat soldier allegedly has more to say about security and about the conflict. I think this perception is shared more or a less in both societies, which are aggressive. We haven't got a female Minister of Defense, or someone who hasn't serve in the military.

  • Do women participate in your meetings?

    There are a few women; there was a debate at first about whether there should be. A few women arrived at first and I think that's natural because there are many women involved in efforts to end the conflict. I'm speaking very generally. So there were women and then there was talk about women not having served as combat soldiers so maybe it harms the image of combatants sitting opposite combatants. But on the other hand, we need women so that this is also represented.

  • What are you referring to?

    That feminism is represented. I don't really care about this. In the end, there are women on both sides who are involved in this.

  • Were these women combat soldiers?

    No, but they view themselves as part of it. It's a matter of where you draw the line; one will say she refused when she was 18 because she is a pacifist or because of the injustice. Some women served as officers, one woman was an officer for 4-5 years in the army and says, "I did my part by calling people up for reserve service." To each their own. I don't think this is going to be a main issue for our PR and media work. We don't intend to send women or men who weren't combat soldiers to lecture. On the other hand, in terms of operative mechanisms, the meetings themselves, fundraising, PR and media work, that doesn't have to be done exclusively by the "killing male" sector.

  • You said that you recruit participants through your army units, friends from the army. How can you reach women who were combat soldiers?

    In theory, women who served as combat soldiers would be the best thing that could happen to us because they would bring a feminist perspective, in terms of equality and also in terms of being combat soldiers. So there is a lot there; it combines two approaches we want to include. However, it's very difficult to reach them; there are few women who served as combat soldiers. As it is, the percentage of people who refuse to take part in the armed struggle is small, so obviously the percentage of women is even smaller because there are fewer female combat soldiers. I think that even when women are combatants, because men in Israel arrive at this position more "naturally"-- they become combat soldiers because it is expected of them, they look forward to it, wanting to become a "man" and the ethos of the combat soldier that everybody is raised on—for a women it is less of a social expectation. In order to justify herself as a combat soldier and fit in with the men, a woman usually needs to be more aggressive. This isn't unique about women combatants; it is also common among people who become religious. People who become religious are stricter about every little thing. In general newcomers are less secure about their role and need to prove themselves. That's why most of the women combat soldiers I met who served in the Border Police and such units were more aggressive than the men. It's more difficult to reach them.

  • If you are relying so much on your status as a combat soldier, aren't you in a way reinforcing the value that you say both societies place on militancy?

    Yes, because it's a very strong value. We come to talk to people in the name of militancy because it grabs people's attention and they feel it's legitimate for us to be talking about reconciliation. We are addressing both societies in this manner because in both societies the ethos of war is central. If we talk about pacifism and an anti-war approach, that won't be accepted by the societies socially or politically. People view that as outsiders' approach or as removed from reality. Our position, as people who were combatants, is more practical and it is easier to speak from there. We feel that our direction is anti-war though.

  • Are there Orthodox Jewish participants among the Israeli participants?

    Yes, Yehuda Shaul who founded Shovrim Shtika1. He's ultra-Orthodox,2 maybe not ultra-Orthodox anymore but strictly orthodox; he defines himself as ultra-Orthodox, even though he hasn't got a shtreimel.3 works with us at Combatants for Peace too. There are a few regular national-religious Jews, quite a few. In Israel, orthodoxy often goes with right-wing politics, but we do have quite a few Orthodox Jews.

    • 1. (meaning "Breaking the Silence" in English) is an organization of former Israeli soldiers. The goal of Shovrim Shtika is to increase awareness within Israeli society to the army's military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip so that Israelis at large may "know the price which the generation who is fighting in the territories is paying, the impossible situations it is facing, [and] the insanity it [the Israeli army] is confronting everyday". For more information see Shovrim Shtika's website.
    • 2. Ultra-Orthodox refers to the theologically strictest sect of Jews regarding law, scripture, and practice. Referred to as haredi in Israel.
    • 3. Shtreimel refers to the fur hat worn by many haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

  • Why did you join Combatants for Peace?

    I came because of my brothers. Since finishing my army service I've been active. During the last six months of my army service I got a taste of serving in the Territories, it was just before Operation Defensive Shield.1 I finished my service just when Operation Defensive Shield began; I was lucky not to have served at the time. During this period I understood that things weren't as I had previously understood them to be, that it wasn't really a matter of the army being up against an enemy, that the Israeli army isn't exactly a defense force. I felt like I was risking the state's security by entering villages very simply because every time we went in we encountered someone who didn't quite want us there who would shoot; people were killed, and then there was revenge taken, and then a suicide bombing in another place... 20 more dead, and we would set out to catch another one. We saw the names; we were a small unit, so we knew whom we were off to arrest and what they had done. I kept track of all the people we went after in my head and every one of them was connected to someone killed in the previous round. That alarmed me. I used to feel pretty righteous in my own way, I thought that I was there to do police work and catch someone who killed a lot of people, arrest them, and if a person shot at me because they didn't want to be arrested then that was their problem.

    • 1. Operation Defensive Shield Refers to an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) incursion into several cities (and their nearby villages and camps) in the West Bank, lasted from March 29th until April 21st of 2002 and represented the largest military operation in the West Bank by the Israeli army since the War of 1967. According to the Israeli Government, Operation Defensive Shield resulted from a series of (predominantly suicide) bombings in the preceding weeks, most notably a suicide bombing during a Passover Seder in the Israeli city of Netanya on March 27, 2002 that killed 28 and injured 140. The IDF incurred into the West Bank cities of Qalqilia, Tulkarem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Jenin, followed by the imposition of curfews and closures. In August of 2002, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a report covering the period from the beginning of March to May 7th 2002, detailing the actions and/or alleged actions of both Palestinian armed groups and the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield, specifically in Jenin, which include: the booby-trapping of Palestinian civilian homes by armed Palestinian groups, arbitrary arrests and detentions of Palestinians by the Israeli army, the use of Palestinian civilians as "human shields" by the Israeli army to accompany house-to-house searches, disproportionate and indiscriminate destruction of Palestinian public and private property, the denial of humanitarian access to afflicted Palestinian areas by the IDF, and three attacks by the IDF on ambulances. According to the report, 497 Palestinians were killed and 1,447 were wounded during the IDF reoccupation of Palestinian areas from March until May 7th 2002 while the Israeli death toll numbered more than 100, with "scores wounded", as a result of approximately 16 bombings during the same period. Additionally, the report found that "over 2,800 refugee housing units were damaged and 878 homes were demolished or destroyed during the period covered, leaving more than 17,000 people homeless or in need of shelter rehabilitation". In Jenin, allegations of a massacre spread quickly throughout the international media, with casualty estimates in the first days approaching the hundreds. The United Nations Secretary-General report, however, found that by the time of the IDF's withdrawal on April 18th that at least 52 Palestinians (up to half of whom may have been civilians) and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in there. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that 30 Israeli soldiers were killed during Operation Defensive Shield. For a summary of the United Nations Secretary-General Report and a link to the report itself see http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2002/SG2077.doc.htm

  • What made you realize that it wasn't like that?

    During my service we would receive information about the person we were after. I saw that every time bombings were carried out by relatives of the people killed last time, or those injured or captured the last time, so I realized that this kind of police work is maybe called for from a more focused view, but that we were feeding a bloody cycle. It isn't about who is right; we are all guilty and we are all guilty of everything we do, but the need to end the cycle was stronger that the moral aspects of it. Practically speaking it means not feeding it any longer. Besides the personal experiences from war, which are unpleasant, you loose some of your innocence and the lovely thoughts and aspirations that people have in life. The participants from both sides are nice and good people and that certainly isn't what comes to mind when you think of a person who has killed or who is capable of killing. There is the aspect of moral principles which are personal and psychological and society isn't necessarily interested. That's why when I talk to people or when I reason with myself I do address these moral principles, but when I am involved in political activities or when I'm trying to persuade people, I try and ignore my personal beliefs because there are always at least two sides to every belief. When you say something based on your personal principles, people can argue with that and you can't prove anything because these are personal matters, sensitive issues. Politically speaking, I try to draw on rational points. For example, that continuing the occupation ultimately means the [Palestinian] struggle will continue too. It is inconceivable that the struggle will end while there is still occupation, and the occupation cannot exist without injustice; because the Israeli army is an army, it knows how to kill. When we try to turn an army into a police force, and when we build such an ethos of bravery, like "the defender" versus "the enemy", "good" versus "bad", "civilians" versus "civilians", racism comes naturally and exists in us and in our society. Of course that will create so much injustice and these grievances will always be translated by some people on the other side into violent consequences. It's a cycle; the more oppressed you are, the less you can look beyond and make allowances, such as, "Well, they actually do want peace but because they are 19 years old, because of Zionism, because of the Holocaust, because of the Jews' sense of persecution..." All these ideas are related to a privileged lifestyle and cannot be delved into by people who are mostly very poor and therefore more easily mobilized. This is why you can find terrorism there. Because our side perceives them as terrorists after witnessing the occasional suicide attack, for Israelis they become "animals". There is no use trying to talk to them because not only are they terrorists, but they are uneducated and cannot rise above that. In short, it is a cycle, and in order to break it, the stronger side has the power to change things because the weaker side is burdened by a difficult economic situation, which prevents it from considering the consequences.

  • Does that mean that you are not holding what you say is the weaker side accountable?

    Any person is personally responsible for what they do. On our side too you could say that people who grew up feeling like victims about to be thrown into the sea could be regarded as not responsible for their actions, but the idea is not apologies and questions like who is guilty, who isn't, who is accountable; the idea is that it takes two to tango. Perhaps in this cycle, which has been going on for years, one of the sides is more powerful and therefore more capable of stopping it. Blame is less relevant and is also apparently two-sided, depending on how you look at it. To me, the idea is more practical, meaning ending this cycle.

  • You said that Israelis perceive that the Palestinians cannot rise above militancy. Do you agree?

    It's really difficult for Palestinians to rise above the causes of nation-building or fighting occupation for their state. For Israeli society it is very difficult to change the perception of having neither state nor refuge, having to be strong and needing the Israeli pioneer whose defense is his sword. Both societies lack the ability to rise above this and I'm talking about Israeli society from the perspective of an Israeli. I'm familiar with this society from within and as someone who was raised on it. I am trying to bring change: the situation was that once we were helpless, now we can defend ourselves and more. Now our military strength is corrupting us and not helping us.

  • What do you need from the Palestinian side in order to be able to work together?

    In terms of the organization and personally speaking, I need them to recognize that violence is not the way, and to recognize that there is fault on both sides. Sometimes there is a sense that there is culpability only on the Israeli side and I perceive that as a problem because it implies there is a misunderstanding. The fact that we are strong doesn't mean that we aren't victims of our own perception, and we are equally stuck there. Perhaps because we have power, we can change that.

  • Victims of what perception are you referring to?

    The perception of victim-hood. I think that generally speaking Jews perceive themselves as victims, regardless of whether it's true or not. It's difficult to get to what led to it, whether the Holocaust led to the sense of persecution and then to the pogroms1 or whether the sense of persecution led to the persecution. I'm sure both feed on each other. The sense of constant persecution means we must [work to] feel safe; it requires us to have a strong army to protect us, and if somebody else is paying the price for this then the response is "Oh, well..." It's part of our education. The by-product of this attitude in Europe is racism against Arabs or Muslims.

    • 1. Pogrom refers to riots or attacks against Jews and Jewish property, most notoriously having occurred in Russia in the last quarter of the 19th century and in Germany and Poland in the 1930s.

  • Are you saying that Jews brought on the Holocaust themselves by being fearful?

    I think that any violence is always two sided; if you came in the name of judgment you wouldn't accuse the Jews for causing the Holocaust, that's ridiculous. I don't deal much with blame; that could go all kinds of directions. I assume that feeling persecuted doesn't mean that you can claim the Jews caused the Holocaust or that the Palestinians are the cause of the occupation. Those who deny the Holocaust took place might claim the Jews caused the Holocaust; people who deny the occupation or who deny its corruptive effects could claim that the Palestinians are responsible for it. I just want to stress that I'm not comparing between victims of the Holocaust and victims of occupation. I had never heard about Qibya1 or about other villages where Israel killed many people; I had never known about the Nakba. I never knew that there used to be Arabs here but that now most of them are gone. I never considered that they once lived where Tel Aviv University now stands or where my community is or where another person's town is. It wasn't real. Even if I did know all this, then I thought the Arab villages had been there but had been "abandonded"--or something like that. I wasn't aware of the intensity of the pain the other side bears. You can say, "But they use terrorism," but if you don't understand the pain you obviously won't understand things that evolved from it; it's like on our side. If you don't understand there was a Holocaust and that people always suffered from pogroms and persecution, you won't understand why Israel is here or why we insist on being here.

    • 1. refers to a military operation against the Palestinian village of Qibya in the West Bank on October 14, 1953 by Unit 101, led by Ariel Sharon. The operation against Qibya, where a violent Palestinian partisan group was thought to be based, was designed to punish and chastise and prevent border incursions with Jordan. In all, nearly 50 houses were destroyed, killing villagers when buildings were blown up. Following the incident, the UN Security Council published a rebuke of Israel's actions. For the full text click here. For more information, see Jewish Voice for Peace's website.

  • Do you do reserve service?

    Theoretically, or technically speaking, I'm still part of reserve service. I refuse to serve in the Territories. Once I actually had to refuse, meaning I was called up.

  • Are all the Israeli Combatants for Peace refusing to serve in the Territories?

    Yes.

  • Why? Do you have a policy on this as an organization?

    Because it strengthens the occupation and the cycle. For us the occupation is a clear form of violence, even the bureaucracy of occupation—the "enlightened occupation".

  • Are there participants who don't refuse?

    We are all reserve soldiers so we don't visit the Territories on a daily basis; sometimes people come to their first meeting without refusing, or a person may not refuse at first because maybe they think things can be changed in a different way; we invite him to go see. I gather this happens on the Palestinian side too, even though there's a difference. For the Israelis reserve service is not a daily routine but a structure in itself, while for the Palestinians there are street activities. In terms of active participants, we say a person can't participate in any kind of violence and occupation is a type of violence.

  • What did you say when you were called to reserve service in the Territories and refused?

    I said that I am not willing to enter the territories occupied in 1967 wearing a uniform. My commander tried to dissuade me, but I made it clear that I would be willing to serve on the northern border, willing to train, but not to cross the Green Line. It is also the matter in this case of border crossings—meaning checkpoints on the Green Line between Israel and Palestine which I view as problematic to the same extent so I won't serve there either. Staying in reserve service is important to me. It's important because the army is perceived as an important issue in Israeli society and also so as to remain within it and not to throw everything away—in terms of the army—and so that my work will have more of an effect. Also, I have friends from the army.

  • You said you would refuse to serve in checkpoints on the green line because they are as problematic, why?

    That's a difficult question. Refusing to serve is both a measure of protest and an expression of my conscience, a way to change as well as not taking part in the occupation. This goes for protest too. I wasn't ever called up to serve at a checkpoint bordering the West Bank or on the Green Line, but the current reality is that the Green Line isn't a line between two states. It isn't that by standing at a checkpoint on the Green Line I'm defending my country and by entering the Territories I'm imposing. Palestinians enter Israel, live among us and are controlled by us, so being at a checkpoint and stopping Palestinians to take their car apart or even trying to prevent soldiers near you from abusing or detaining people or allowing women to give birth at checkpoints or die there on occasion, that's the same apartheid or governance. There are Palestinians who travel to hospitals in Israel because they can't access other hospitals; they pay taxes to Israel and are supposed to be granted health services but they are detained on suspicion of being suicide bombers or prevented from entering because they are said to be faking illness. Sometimes people are harmed beyond a cure. That is a form of occupation and the same kind of violence.

  • But what about the argument that says, if you don't do reserve service someone else will?

    Yeah, I'm familiar with the claim that says that if I am there I'll be able to prevent those things from happening; I held that to be true for a long time. I decided that I wouldn't refuse army service but that I'd refuse to carry out specific orders when things seemed problematic. If they were to instruct me to shoot at kids then I would say, "Well, he seems a bit too small to kill at this point." The more I investigated what occurs in the Territories with a broader perspective in mind, the more I understood that the problem is created by the [military's] presence. Smiling while you're on guard, or what is called the "enlightened occupation", doesn't help anyone forget they're under occupation. Qalandia checkpoint1 is one example: now it's been turned into a civilized border crossing with automatic gates and glass booths and people pass in a respectable manner. But if a person cannot cross with his daughter or take his pregnant wife to the hospital, it won't help if a soldier smiles at him while saying, "You may wait for 5 or 6 hours please". When you enter a house at 2 am and remove the family because it's a good lookout point, or if you confine a family of 20 or 30 people to a single room and guard them armed, well your smile might make you feel good, but it has no effect whatsoever. People may even smile back at you because they are so scared and so aware of your power. I assume they wouldn't smile at you at that moment if you weren't armed. The "enlightened occupation" only perpetuates it. The concept of tatbiyeh, normalization, in Palestinian society maintains there cannot be truly normal trade relations or even friendships. The "enlightened occupation" simply perpetuates our presence there. Take the withdrawal from Gaza; you could claim that it's wonderful that we got rid of the burden of being responsible for 1.5 million second class citizens. On the other hand, the withdrawal from Gaza merely perpetuates the occupation in the West Bank, which is currently more problematic because there everyone is on top of each other [settlements and Palestinians] and villages are cut off and olive trees are uprooted and burned on a daily basis. The withdrawal from Gaza seems even more dubious because it makes the world regard Israel as enlightened, and it makes us perceive ourselves as such. From there, you could reason "even after we gave them Gaza the Palestinians continue with terrorism." But that understanding doesn't take into account that the occupation continues and is in its prime—perhaps it's even stronger than it was before, so the withdrawal is delaying a ceasefire and thus an end to violence by both sides. For me, serving in the territories is cooperating with this [occupation], because my smile won't help. When I served in the territories I was nice. I was never cruel to people, I wasn't sadistic or brutal, but it makes no difference whether these things are carried out while smiling, or not smiling, totally in earnest and professionally (because as a soldier I didn't smile because that wasn't my job). It makes no difference to a child whose father is being taken away, to a family squeezed into a small room or sent out of the house and guarded because it is a strategic spot, or a family whose apartment is demolished because a terrorist was found in the building so all eight floors come down. The man's smile from the bulldozer won't help. Take the claim that says that if everyone were a conscientious objector there wouldn't be an army. Changing forty years of occupation2 and issues relating to fears and the perception of victimhood that are terribly sensitive for the Jewish people—all this won't happen in the usual manner, at least not by elections once every four years or demonstrating occasionally. I think that refusing to serve is inevitable. On a personal level, you can never really be sure that you wouldn't be killing an innocent person [if you don't refuse]. It's never difficult to receive an order to kill innocent civilians and then to claim they were armed. Sometimes it's a difficult situation because you simply cannot know who will leap out on you and you shoot because you want to stay alive. Often the person jumping out from behind you is a frightened little girl or a little boy, an older person. These things happen every day.

    • 1. Qalandiya checkpoint (also transliterated as Kalandia) is located south of the West Bank city of Ramallah and north of Jerusalem. The Kalandia checkpoint, operated by the Israeli army, serves as a major crossing point for Palestinians between much of the northern West Bank and Jerusalem.
    • 2. 40 years refers to the approximate time period since 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

  • Did you ever receive such an order during your army service?

    Personally, I did receive an order to shoot and saw that the targeted person wasn't armed. I did fire at a vehicle carrying four passengers, one of whom was armed; he didn't fire at us before we opened fire. There was one weapon in a vehicle that carried four people and we killed them all. While we were firing at them, one guy opened fire at us. I saw one of them before he was killed and he was unarmed. During that same incident, an hour later a friend, a sniper, who was 150-200 meters away from me, received an order to fire at a man said to be armed. The helicopter claimed he was armed, but my friend could see through his binoculars that it was impossible to tell from such a distance, surely not from the helicopter. He received an order to shoot; he fired and hit. I don't know whether he killed the person or not; he doesn't either, or at least that's what he says. That happened, and three hours later at daybreak a friend who was a marksman, he was right by my side—our shoulders were touching—he received an order to shoot somebody in the knee from 450 meters; that means either a death sentence or missing the target because you can't hit someone's knee from such a distance, but he wasn't told to execute the man. Luckily he had the courage to say he couldn't make the shot and he didn't, he was adamant. From testimonies I collected from when I was in Shovrim Shtika, people did receive such orders and some made a different call. It is common enough.

  • Some will claim that the Israeli Army is careful not to hurt civilians, more than Palestinian military organizations who specifically target civilians.

    A lot of the terrorists I meet with-- I say "terrorists" but I view them as combatants. We are indoctrinated with the term "terrorist." Many of these combatants who really did want to kill a lot of innocent people decided to target only soldiers or police; they account for most of the people I've met with. The larger part of their struggle is carried out against soldiers because that's who they see. I am not justifying a person who carried out an attack on a bus and targeted innocent people, but then the IDF does that on a daily basis. It's a part of the official orders that come from the current Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, someone who isn't bothered that 14 or 15 children were killed in the attempt to kill one person. A member of Hamas could likewise justify killing people by reasoning that if he gets aboard a bus and blasts 20 or 30 people, chances are one of them will have been a soldier. A civilian bus isn't a justifiable target, but killing an entire clan or harming an entire neighborhood in pursuit of just one activist isn't justifiable either. The IDF does this openly and everybody knows about it. Shovrim Shtika is an organization of [Israeli] combatants who testify about themselves or their friends or IDF orders. We issued a booklet that shows that many of the orders now being issued are what once may have been considered "manifestly illegal."1 For example, shoot to kill any person walking around the Kasbah between 2-6 am; arrest 50, 100, 200 men from one village—some remain in detention without trial from between six months and 10 years with a military warrant alone; occasional killings, some are approved. Some people are fined if they refrain; there is an officer, a sniper, who refused to kill a six year old, he refused to shoot him in the chest. That officer was fined 150 or 200 shekels.2 It's hard to say that the IDF is really very different from terrorist organizations, essentially. When the struggle becomes more religious [for Palestinians] and more passionate and you have a personal grievance because of an injustice committed against you, then you don't get upset when people around you say "Death to the Jews." This is something that can be changed only by improving living conditions and beginning peaceful education. I guess that this generation will be damaged psychologically on both sides, and maybe the next generations... hopefully.

    • 1. Kfar Kassem refers to orders and events such as what occurred at Kfar Kassem, a Palestinian Arab-Israeli town east of Rosh Ha'Ayin. On October 29, 1956, on the eve of Israel's war with Egypt, Kfar Kassem was the site a massacre in which 47 Arab-Israeli citizens, including women and children, were killed by Israeli border police. Arab-Israeli villages near the Jordanian border were placed under a wartime curfew; however, many villagers in Kfar Kassem were outside of the village at the time and did not know the curfew had been implemented. When they returned to the village past the curfew hour, they were shot. The IDF border policemen who carried out the killings were later convicted of murder. See Joel Greenberg. "School Official Wants to Mark Israeli Atrocity", The New York Times, 6 Oct 1999, pg. 12.
    • 2. 150-200 Israeli Shekels is approximately equal to $32-$42 US dollars in February of 2006.

  • Please tell me about Shovrim Shtika.

    Shovrim Shtika was founded by four soldiers from the Nahal brigade who served in Hebron; during their service there these people perceived the unbearable nature of the reality of Hebron with 200 settlers and 100 yeshiva students and something like 400,000 Palestinians, and the impossible situation that arises as a result, but that's a whole other issue.1 Shovrim Shtika organized a photography project and it was exhibited at a photography school in Tel Aviv. Shovrim Shtika's central concept is that there is a conspiracy of silence inside Israeli society that initially starts between a soldier and his family. When a soldier is on leave, he never talks about exactly what he's doing and how many people he beat up or if he killed anybody, or how many people or their identity, or how many houses he blasted. These issues are kept between a soldier and his friends; there is also a more profound conspiracy of silence within a soldier himself in that he doesn't consider his own actions. People reach different states of aggression as a result of being in control, yet they are tired and frustrated and just kids. Society is silent about what appears in the papers, about the little that is published. There are other pacts of silence, but this is the main one we want to call attention to and get out in the open.People came to the exhibit with their parents and talked to them about what happened. Parents usually say, "Of course not. My sweet Yoram would never do such a thing." I know quite a few parents like that and I am familiar with what their sons did. It's true, their son would never do such a thing because at home he's a good boy and a very nice guy, but if he's in control, tired and people are pissing him off, he changes a little. He doesn't even have to be really annoyed for the situation to trigger him to contribute to a continuous sense of humiliation: though he himself serves in the Territories for only two years, later sweet Yoavi replaces him, and for the past 40 years an entire population has been humiliated, therefore Palestinians end up involved in the struggle. Shovrim Shtika's main objective was to collect documentation from soldiers talking about orders, or about themselves or their friends or commanders, which is the best way. People talk about these things. It's similar to B'Tselem, but B'Tselem has the badge of infamy, of being left-wing Europeans, so people think, "what could they possibly know, they don't understand our [the Israelis'] suffering and they have less power, they're a bunch of bleeding hearts." If a combatant testifies about the changes he went through it is much more powerful. You can say, "I'm a brave soldier from an elite unit and I prevented suicide attacks in Israel and I did such and such and this and this, and suddenly I realized what had happened to me." This also means putting a mirror in society's face and saying, "Look what's happening here." People usually don't expose such things, and society is full of former soldiers who live with this. This doesn't necessarily mean people are traumatized to the extent that they have nightmares and can't function, but things are getting more violent and more racist. It is unlikely that a person who never unburdens himself will let somebody else admit to these things because this would reveal something about him. The conspiracy of silence is strengthened and empowered and the way things are going, this war will never end. The assumption is that we need to break this conspiracy of silence and show society what it really is, show the mothers and the parents, so that they understand what they are sending their child to do. Maybe they'll look at their kids in a different way and talk to them when they come home on leave, so they understand what goes on in the Territories. It seems that without realizing these things we won't cease fighting.

    • 1. We could not find evidence to support the figures Mr. Shapira mentions.

  • Is the strategy then to emphasize the detrimental impact on soldiers, instead of sending the message that the behavior is morally reprehensible?

    Shovrim Shtika aims to present reality from the soldiers' point of view, assuming there is a vow of silence within society, or apathy there or at home that brings soldiers to keep quiet, or be afraid to talk about it with commanders and pass it along. Shovrim Shtika doesn't seem to want to say anything clear cut such as "the occupation corrupts." It does say, "look at this and think." It doesn't stress therapy for soldiers by talking about the harm it caused us, but I think it's a two-way street. One aspect is the deterioration of the soldiers' morals and the other aspect is where the sense of power leads us, the fear of understanding what is happening on the other side and that it leads to suicide bombings (whether legitimate or not). It's about a perspective looking from within [Israeli] society. Shovrim Shtika doesn't advocate refusing army service so as not to lose favor...it still exists as an organization but it changed its purpose and deals less with militarism in society and stays in the same groove. I prefer not to talk about them because I am not part of them now.

  • Did your family ask you questions during your army service?

    I guess that relatively speaking, I used to talk to my family about things; I told myself things too... When I traveled around Israel to interview soldiers, I witnessed a lot of beautiful processes, processes that a person undergoes in an hour. It would start by a person saying, Look, if you want I can tell you a few things. I don't know though; nothing special happened. Then I would ask, how long they served in the Territories; Two years, but I can't really recall any extreme occurrence. If you live life with movies about the Holocaust and you didn't line people up in ditches and kill them, then really, it isn't that extreme. But then suddenly a person will say, Oh, yeah. Bribes? Not bribery. Occasionally I took a cigarette. Then I'd say, "Only cigarettes? Didn't you ever take a masbaha [rosary] that people play with when you were at a checkpoint?" Yes, but they offer; it's all good natured. So I persisted, "How about pita and food?" Well, that too. They offer it, but they're happy to. This goes on until I ask, "Did you ever delay1 Yes, but he violated the curfew2 so I detained him for 4 hours or so. Gradually this person realized different things about himself. It starts out with minor things like bumming a cigarette, which maybe isn't so bad in itself, but then it goes to a different place: Oh, I do remember that when we demolished the house3 the house next door came down too. I hadn't considered that... yeah. You know what else, there were a few donkeys in the house so maybe they died. Come to think of it, an entire neighborhood came down there after we left, but we weren't on it. We were dead tired. a person for violating a curfew?" Gradually houses demolished without a reason are remembered, people who died for no apparent reason; there are things you cannot fathom. The conspiracy of silence doesn't mean that this person didn't talk about it at home because he was embarrassed to, but because he forgot pretty quickly. I say "he" but I'm also talking about myself. I've also reached a level where I could think over how angry I once got at a group of taxi drivers because they indirectly served people who avoided the curfew—the workers who left Jericho to go to work. The taxi drivers waited for them to return and that really irritated me; it was after a night without any sleep... I ordered them to leave and they didn't want to. They gave me the finger; in the end I shot tear gas at them. I asked for permission and a sleepy clerk gave me the okay, so I shot tear gas. They ran away, came back, and laughed. It really annoyed me; how dare they laugh at me? When you come to understand the levels of aggression you have reached, it's easy to see how people get into the situations they do, especially at checkpoints, where things I don't even want to think about are unleashed. People repress and society represses this; society usually doesn't even know. An article about an officer who went crazy was published about somebody who served at Qalandiya [checkpoint]. My aunt put it on my cousin's bed because she knew he served there, he was an officer. He yelled at her and said she couldn't understand what was going on there. She didn't exactly know whether the article was about him or not, but it was about delaying people for hours, as usual, delaying people, taking apart cars to inspect them so people are delayed for hours—take everything out then put everything in—or telling a driver to take the long way around which means a 3-4 hour drive. I don't know what specifically happened in this case, but you just go crazy because you are edgy and everybody yells at you and you have to please both your superiors and your subordinates... then some stupid person comes and wants to pass through the checkpoint and hasn't got a permit, or his permit is invalid; so what does he want? The stress makes things come undone—and it isn't because the person is bad. It could be me or you, or anyone. The situation causes it. Shovrim Shtika's idea is to show that as much as the people on our side are good, it doesn't make us benevolent out there.

    • 1. Delaying persons at a checkpoint is an unofficial practice employed by Israeli soldiers at their own discretion.
    • 2. For information on curfews employed by the Israeli army and their use as a restrictor on population movement, see B'Tselem's "Freedom of Movement" section at http://www.btselem.org/English/Freedom%5Fof%5FMovement/  
    • 3. House demolition According to the website of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), "[s]ince 1967, 12,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem". Nearly half of those demolitions have taken place since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. The Israeli army practice of demolishing Palestinians' houses is illegal under article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli army and government claim that houses are demolished for two main reasons: military/security, and lack of building permits. The majority of houses (also factories and shops) destroyed in the West Bank the Israeli army claims are destroyed for military and security reasons, including structures the army deems could be used in attacks against Israelis, or as a punitive measure against families from which a member is suspected of planning or carrying out attacks. Most of the Palestinian homes destroyed in East Jerusalem, certain parts of the West Bank, and in Palestinian cities and towns within Israel are destroyed because they lack a building permit from the Israeli authorities. Building permits are extremely difficult and at times impossible for Palestinians to obtain. See Amnesty International: http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE150332004?open&of=ENG-ISR and http://icahd.org/eng/faq.asp?menu=9&submenu=1  

  • What kind of activities did you take part in with Shovrim Shtika?

    There was the exhibit at the beginning, but it only dealt with Hebron. The main work is documenting, and besides that there are lectures all over Israel. Shovrim Shtika doesn't claim that people shouldn't serve in the Territories and they don't call on people to refuse to serve. Shovrim Shtika's idea is not that soldiers should break the law [by refusing] in order to atone for orders that come from above and things that Israeli society supports financially. During the lectures, people who hear about the atrocities often say, "How did you not refuse? How could you not state you would not do that?" Shovrim Shtika's reply turns it the other way around and says, "How can you consent to my doing this? You send me there, or you send your kids there, pay your taxes, you hear what the orders there are. I'm showing this to you so that you will 'refuse' using ordinary measures." I don't really relate to this, although I do agree with it in general and in theory, but this strategy will take a long time to work and for me it's crucial to end the situation. Obviously I can't keep on doing these things [in the Territories] anymore; that's why I refuse to serve and this is why I'm not very active in Shovrim Shtika. They do lectures, collect testimonies, tour abroad. Most of the fairly blind support for Israel comes from Jewish circles in the US, mainly it's economic support, in return for our living here in the line of fire and protecting the entire Jewish nation and the holy sites for them, while they are ignorant of what's taking place here. There are lectures abroad there; Shovrim Shtika toured the US and spoke with Jewish groups and at universities, mostly in Jewish circles. There are smaller projects; Shovrim Shtika issued a booklet with the orders for opening fire that aims to show what the orders for opening fire really are—in practice—in the Territories.1 It includes testimonies of people who recall what they were actually instructed: at whom to shoot, when, the sequence, the unclear orders and the explicit orders, and orders to demolish houses. It shows the arbitrariness and the fluidity in the practice of house demolitions—big and small, clearing orchards, the arbitrariness of the fact that any low ranking officer in the field has the power to give these orders... Every soldier standing guard at a post has the capacity to fire; he gets bored after eight hours—but again—he isn't a bad person, he's just a kid. So he shoots at a water tank and then is questioned, so he says, "I was fired at from there." So the officer says, "You were fired at? Where from?" At this point he sure isn't going to back down, after he blew up a water tank and is frightened and doesn't want to be punished; so he points somewhere arbitrary and says, "From there." Of course the officer isn't about to go up to the house and ask the family whether somebody fired from their house, so the order is to demolish the house, for example. From the point of view of the Palestinian living in that house, the army came, then his water tank was fired at and five hours later his house was demolished.

    • 1. The booklet Mr. Shapira is referring to highlights the differences between army rules for opening fire as they exist in theory and practice.

  • Is that example real?

    Yes, all the examples took place. Shovrim Shtika's booklet was published and distributed to the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief of Staff. There were discussions in the Knesset, and on television the Chief Military Prosecutor or the Army Spokesperson were confronted with Shovrim Shtika and in response said, "No way, this didn't take place, that didn't occur", but there was evidence that it did. There was a ruling in the High Court of Justice that forbade confiscating car keys. The Chief Military Prosecutor claimed that these things didn't occur and that if they did then they were an exception to the rule and would be dealt with accordingly; so we asked him, "How many sets do you want, will 100 sets of keys be enough?" His reply was that 100 would still be an exception to the rule. We brought him 1000 sets. In every base in the Israeli army, in every company commander's vehicle there are hundreds, thousands, of car keys because you take the keys to delay people and usually they go and get a different key. Most keys aren't returned. One of the issues we raised is arbitrary house demolitions and the latest issue was the practice of human shields.1 We tried to bring it to the state's attention and there was a confrontation with the Chief Army Prosecutor. In the end, the HCJ repealed the army's use of human shields. That proved that the practice of using human shields exists here. Israeli society thinks only beasts are capable of such a practice, "beasts" being Palestinians who recruit young children to join the struggle. Currently human shields are still used by the army only now there is a court ruling prohibiting it. We have testimonies from after this practice was repealed that prove it is still being used. Now the system is that the next door neighbor is taken to check for rigged devices. There is a photograph of a child tied to a Border Police vehicle's hood and a Border Policeman is standing behind the open door in a position to fire. Of course this usually doesn't reach the media. If it does, it reached Ha'aretz, and if it does then it's only in the back pages.

    • 1. Human shield In October of 2005, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli army's use of Palestinian civilians as human shields is illegal. Prior to the ruling, the Israeli army had at times used Palestinian civilians as human shields in an effort to minimize the possible danger coming toward soldiers. For more information on the Israeli High Court of Justice ruling and a brief background on the practice of human shields see Chris McGreal. "Israeli High Court Bans Military Use of Palestinians as Human Shields", The Guardian Unlimited, 7 Oct 2005, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1586928,00.html  

  • What do you think would happen if people in Israel saw such pictures?

    In the end it would convey the fact to people that there are two sides here. It's not the legend of the brave Maccabees1 or the myth of "few versus many;" it isn't. What happens is that we kill them, they kill us, we have fewer dead, and if they had the power they probably would kill more people. I'm not ignoring the fact that there is a lot of hate and terrorism, but it is mutual. Because we have more power, we demolish more, and kill more people.

    • 1. Maccabees Refers to the group of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, who revolted against their Greco-Syrian rulers in the second century BCE. The Maccabees' recapture of the temple in Jerusalem and its rededication is celebrated during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

  • What challenges does your work with Combatants for Peace pose for you?

    First of all, maintaining a level of activity throughout your own daily routine. Obviously there is no pay, not much respect, and changes aren't apparent very quickly. You need to keep projects going and make time for it. It's also a psychological process of understanding who you were. Things come up when I recall something I did-- yet another action that I wouldn't do today. It's a challenge, psychologically, to confront yourself as well as understand the people on the other side and figure out who they are. There's also general administrative work that we don't always have experience with and working with people is also a challenge for me. In the end I'm working towards something, an aspiration that is a little more than the relatively smaller objectives that life offers. I think that's more or less it.

  • Do you encounter negative responses to your work?

    Yes, sure. Many people view my work as "talking to the enemy" or think I hate the Israeli people or that I am a traitor; every person has their own views. At first it bothered me more and I felt as though I was no longer considered the salt of the earth. I used to be in a social position that always landed me jobs. Every time you apply for a job or interview with a company and tell that you were a brave soldier, it's taken into consideration because it has some glory or status in Israeli society. That's something you give up because you aren't in the consensus anymore; people view me as part of the radical Left. I guess that compared with society, my work is more radical because talking to former Fatah members, or people who currently are Fatah members who oppose the occupation or oppose violent activity, is considered treason or being a bleeding heart... it bothers me less now because I've settled down a little, I've relaxed a little.

  • How do your friends from the army react to the work you are doing?

    Most of the friends I have from the army are settlers. During my army service I related best to the religious people in my unit, there were nine settlers and eleven guys from kibbutzim.1 The guys from kibbutzim are pretty indifferent to everything that's happening, to my work too... some say, "Good job" and some think it's too extreme. In short, there is the usual Israeli indifference. My settler friends think I'm screwed up, or nuts. They say this with a half smile or without smiling at all... Relationships have not been ruined because of this. Gradually, ties are cut after the army, naturally, but there is still a sense of friendship and the feeling of being friends from way back. That still exists. It's hard for me because I have a few friends who live in illegal outposts.2 I don't visit them but we meet occasionally at celebrations or weddings of people from our unit. I meet them and we talk, dance together and everything is fine, we almost never get to talking about that [my work]. There isn't much... I haven't been able to bring anyone from there to Shovrim Shtika or to Combatants for Peace. I didn't try very hard because there was general indifference towards it, people don't want to hear about it, and I've got my own life. My work basically interrupts daily life because of recalling things that happened during my army service, thinking about all that; there are long journeys, they take a lot of time, there is money people have to spend on such an organization sometimes. If there isn't something burning inside it's hard to convince a person, that's how it is in society.

    • 1. Kibbutzim Plural of kibbutz. A kibbutz is a community established by and for Jews based on communal property, in which members have no private property but share the work and the profits of some collective enterprise, typically agricultural but sometimes also industrial. Initially founded in Ottoman Palestine on socialist ideals and currently located by and large in Israel, many kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz) have become privatized in the last few decades.
    • 2. Illegal outposts Refer to those areas, predominantly hilltops, which contain structures for residence (usually for a small number of people) separated from any permanent settlement. Many such outposts are established with the idea that they will some day develop into permanent settlements. While the establishment of outposts are, in many cases, illegal and unauthorized, some assert that the Israeli government has helped fund their establishment. See "Israel Funded Illegal Outposts", BBC News Online, 9 Mar 2005, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4328817.stm For more information on outposts and a list of existing outposts, see Peace Now at http://www.peacenow.org.il/site/en/peace.asp?pi=58  

  • You finished your army service. Do you view yourself as a fighter?

    A former fighter; I guess, it isn't an inseparable part of my personality. I don't have swords or scalps at home in my cupboard. For these purposes I'm a former fighter, or defined as a combat soldier in reserve service. I don't know many people who wouldn't want to say this. I don't know anybody who would denounce somebody's having been a combat soldier in the past or now, even in left-wing circles. To have been a combat soldier is considered positive in Israeli society; if you still are a combat soldier then that could be perceived as being problematic to some people. When you're young, you mostly act according to what society wants and what you know is good. Everybody wants to be a hero, everyone wants to be in the social center included in the consensus; every kid wants that. If you continue [being a combat soldier] later that can be a problem, but I don't know anybody who hides it.

  • Do you encounter prejudices in your meetings?

    Yes, of course. I started off with a few prejudices. Every side—if somebody [Israeli] says that they were in the Intelligence then the Palestinians hear "Shabak, Shabak" and everybody gets very scared. For us it's difficult to depart from the hierarchical structure in the group, it's easier for them to do so, but obviously there are many prejudices, mostly they are suppressed because people perceive themselves as enlightened.

  • How do you deal with prejudices in the group?

    It takes place on a personal level because there isn't a general effort to cope. We don't do such profound soul-seeking because it isn't relevant to us and that would require much more from the organization. Every person does it on their own with themselves, whoever doesn't... most people do this on their own because they come with the initial awareness that something is wrong with the approach they've heard up until now. It's logical, we work things out; we raise issues and most people overcome them I think, or they change. I think that people who don't think about these things before they come probably won't take this step. I think we can only stimulate people to think if they are aware prior to their participation; bringing people who aren't aware to have an awareness isn't my job, if it is even possible.

  • How do you intend to proceed with your activities in the future at Combatants for Peace?

    I talked a little about that before, maybe not enough. One of the things we have planned is to take Combatants for Peace to the media at a certain stage. There is the personal aspect: we call on any combatant or soldier who contributed to the struggle --let's call it the violent struggle or the conflict—and wants to attempt to end it using peaceful means and has the energy and strength to go through the process of meeting with the person he once knew as the enemy. We do this to expand the circle as far as possible. More people mean more power; that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is actively working to end the occupation. Part of the former aspect is the idea of lectures in both societies in order to open up society and contribute to the understanding that both societies are trapped within their own perceptions. A person I know once put it nicely, he said that it is like two cowboys that both want to withdraw and retreat but neither can be sure whether when he turns his back the other won't shoot, so neither wants to start turning his back. People are afraid in both societies. Supporters of the Labor party want to end the occupation and the conflict but they claim that the moment we put down our arms they will shoot at us, and cite Oslo as an example of this. The other side also says that too—they will forget because they don't care that people are living this way. If we stop using terrorism it won't sink in, they won't comprehend that something is wrong, that people are being oppressed and it will take hundreds of years to gain independence. Both sides are right. This is how it is in most places. The goal is to put an end to this cycle.  If both societies see that the other society wants to but is afraid to, if people understand that both sides are in a state of fear, maybe they will identify their role in the cowboy scenario and maybe it will contribute to better understanding in both societies, something that takes a long time to change. I believe that most people want to live their lives in peace and quiet without too much of a fuss. Maybe people want to be heroes to a certain extent, but most people don't want to send their children to their deaths, most people don't want to die. People don't really want to invest their time and blood in something that isn't their family, their pleasure, their health. The second aspect, the more practical and speedy track, is to do something more political like foreign policy, a boycott on Israel, steps that can end the occupation more quickly because social processes take generations.

  • You said that the economy affects national stances. Do you think a boycott might increase nationalism in Israel?

    That's true; that could happen. Given the current lifestyle in Israel, I don't think that Israel will let a boycott happen. Israel won't want to reach that point; even if it does come to that, it will only take a short time before Israel deals with it. Anyway, in order to be effective it would have to be a global boycott, and currently this cannot be undertaken because of Bush. We don't need Europe because the US backs Israel enough, so this could produce an even more problematic situation: a European-only boycott. I don't believe this is what will happen, I mean, if the whole world, Europe and the US, threatened Israel with a boycott similar to the one imposed on South Africa...1 that's the only method that made a change there, until that point nobody really cared about what happened there and apartheid existed for years. I think for me, it's a matter of the period I'm going through personally in terms of my perception of a boycott. When I'm frustrated then I think it's the right thing, but in general I'm aware of the fact that it's a double-edged sword. It would have to be smart and not necessarily a boycott on all Israeli products, it could be certain products or a decision to mark all products manufactured in the Territories so people wouldn't buy products that come from the Territories [settlements]. This type of boycott could lead to bitterness only on a certain side of Israeli society and perhaps that wouldn't be the deciding side—the people who live inside the borders of Israel—so it would harm them less and harm the economy less and encourage the government not to invest in industries in the Territories. If the academies in the Territories aren't acknowledged as universities, it will discourage people from living there. A boycott isn't ideal because it borders on violence, but it is a line that can be considered acceptable. In the current situation after the withdrawal from Gaza, a boycott would be... I think that a boycott would have been more effective before the withdrawal, but now it is more of a problem because people will say not only did we suffer the disengagement, now we're being boycotted? It would be perceived as global cruelty, which would increase the feeling of Jewish victimhood that would prevent it from being a positive measure. Over the course of time, when people understand that things go on or get worse, maybe it would have an effect.

    • 1. In the 1980s and 1990s, many groups and nations refused to have any financial dealings with South Africa (as well as participate in sporting events, or perform music for all-white venues, for example) as long as the South African government continued its policy of apartheid.

  • Please tell me about the lectures at Combatants for Peace.

    Now it's the beginning of January [2006]; we're beginning to schedule the first meetings and organize speaker workshops for ourselves. We've already had one workshop that lasted about 9-10 hours. We met and practiced simulated situations, considering what every society needs to hear, what points will stimulate people. We intend on continuing these workshops in order to prepare our speakers, and we are starting to contact organizations that would want to hear us. I presume that schools or anything concerned with the [Israeli] establishment won't agree to host people who refuse to perform military service or reserve service—at least schools won't. I think universities will; if we manage to reach universities that will be a good thing because that's a good crowd. It will be easier in kibbutzim because they welcome these things and like to organize activities for their members so this will be attractive there. I think we will speak with any organization that wants us. I know less about the Palestinian side, but it looks like on the Palestinian side schools might want to hear us too.

  • Who is it important for you to reach in Israeli society?

    Everybody. It would be good to talk to kids because it's a good thing to know who they're up against, who they will be killing in two or three years. It's good for them to understand that this is a person, where he lives, why he lifted that same rock that landed him in prison for ten years, or that Molotov cocktail or anything else. The idea is to lecture in pairs, a terrorist with another terrorist, or a combatant with another combatant, soldier and terrorist—whatever people want to call it. We are bringing people from both sides for people to see. If people in Israeli society could see a terrorist with bloodied hands—or even a terrorist without blood on his hands—for them he is the enemy or the unconscionable beast, so when he tells his story it will become clearer that he is a person and what his motives were. It doesn't mean he was right in doing it, but it addresses the question of what made him do it, what got him there, and that there is a path that leads back; it shows that this isn't a person who doesn't think...we want to give people a face and grant people the opportunity to ask questions. The moment you see that your enemy isn't a distant figure perceived as a green blotch on the night vision equipment when you're a soldier, or as a masked madman that has no face or name—there is a person there—that can change things. When an Israeli talks to Palestinians he can talk about his side and show his perspective, that he, the Israeli, was also once a fighter, "like you", that's what he will tell the people he's talking to. If I talk to Israelis or at an Israeli school, I will be addressing children who want to be heroes and serve in elite units. Maybe our speaker served in an elite unit and can say, "I'm not sure that you will be such a hero there. " A kid can listen to him, or to me because I'm not his mother... I'm allegedly a macho male that represents the consensus. This enables us to tap into the feeling of "I want to be just like him". This is a person that a kid can listen to. Because the Israeli and Palestinian speakers come together, kids will also be able to listen to the enemy, see him—see this dangerous and horrible person that is usually crucified by Israeli society. In Palestinian society it isn't easier and maybe it will be more difficult for me to say, "I served as a soldier. I didn't grow up in the kind of home that taught me that all Arabs must be killed. I never hated anybody, and what I did was because of so-and-so...I thought I was just protecting..." Palestinian society will also be able to see—maybe a little—that Israeli soldiers aren't raised on Hitler-like education and think only that we are cruel soldiers that enter their houses and that it all stems from hatred. This doesn't try to legitimize but rather to show them that this is also a child.

  • What do you expect Palestinian audiences to leave with?

    What will the Palestinians do with it? I hope, I mean I can't expect anything from anybody—not from the Israelis either—I expect them to back us up. We need public opinion there to project to the Israeli side, so that it will see it is possible to turn around. For the Israeli side it's very important to have Palestinian organizations and groups, even parties, that will proclaim for all to hear: If you can stop the occupation, society here won't demand Tel Aviv after we get Ramallah. We want a Palestinian state and we don't support terrorism. Terrorism is negative and we are trying to prevent it. I'm sure that Abu-Mazen will say, "We will fight terrorism" but in reality he can't really do it because public opinion supports terrorism—or maybe doesn't support it but fears terrorism. People who are supposed to enforce the law there are brothers of people who... it's almost impossible for the PA to enforce the laws. The goal is that from the within Palestinian and Israeli societies there will be people who oppose terrorism, oppose killing innocent people. Stop the occupation and we'll be able to stop violence from both sides.

  • How is your work affected by the political situation?

    The political situation here doesn't change—Israeli and Palestinian politics. Technically speaking, we are affected by whether there is a closure and curfew imposed and then people can't come. A journalist once said that politics is the most dynamic thing that never changes. It doesn't; all the huge changes boil down to "he said such and such," and "that person said so and so;" it doesn't make a difference, nothing changes in the field. Maybe on the Palestinian side things change during elections. In short, not much. Politics stay the same.

  • You said that you became involved after a long period of feeling that you were going to become involved. Was there a certain event that underlined the fact that the situation is problematic for you?

    In retrospect, almost everything I was doing proved to me that there are two sides, mostly. I tried not to take it to the extreme—to thinking we are the bad guys and they are the good guys, period. That assumption is also extreme and is as idiotic as the other perception, it doesn't help to change anything and it isn't a smart approach. It's exactly the same thing, but from the other direction. So everything that I am doing stresses the fact that there are two sides and always have been. I am right, and they are right too: a house was demolished and maybe there was a child behind the wall. If I killed somebody who was dangerous maybe he was going to kill many people. I try to acknowledge the fact that it's a two-sided situation and that we aren't aware of this.

  • Are there Israeli participants who are afraid to travel to your meeting places?

    No, well yeah... slightly afraid... there is some concern because it doesn't feel that safe, so we travel together, I'm usually not concerned about this but there are occasions when I am. The army is pretty strong everywhere we go. I feel pretty safe with the Palestinians; they aren't terribly threatening...

  • What is this conflict about?

    This conflict? The perception in Israel is that it is about a frustrated people that found its place here, and a people that didn't know it was defined as such1 before the frustrated people had arrived. This is a little too general! We know what this conflict is about! It's too general, I think. It seems...I can give a history of what I think happened. We were persecuted and we set out for Zion. The Zionist movement was established and we received public support because of our political power in the world and in large part due to the Holocaust and persecution. We organized worldwide support from the US and Europe, and the Palestinians didn't gain this support because there was nobody to receive it or reason to and then they mostly affiliated themselves with the Soviet bloc. We were always supported by the West, or mostly by the US, so the Arabs naturally became our enemies.Gradually the Palestinians formed a national identity, one they didn't really have earlier as farmers and clans under British rule and throughout the years here. They became hostile because they feared the Jews would strip them of everything, take all the places away from them, the land, and we became hostile towards them because they were aggressors and didn't want us here, incited violence against us in mosques, and both sides... In 1948 we accepted the UN's proposal and they didn't; maybe they were more extreme, at least their leaders were, and the people there didn't really care. This is how wars begin; each side doesn't know what's happening on the other side, there is fear, incitement... The people are addressed through matters that concern them personally and then each side builds its wall slowly. There is an enemy on the other side, so people go and fight the enemy. This goes on until people stop at some point.I think this is a fairly conventional war, not as complex as people try to present it; it's a conflict. There are holy places but I don't think that Joseph's Tomb2 is considered more important for us than the Sudetenland3 was to Czechoslovakia; they felt it belonged to them. Holiness and religion are mixed in, but basically this is a pretty banal conflict between societies.

    • 1. Mr. Shapira is referring to the contested notion that the Palestinian national identity was not formed until the state of Israel was established in 1948. For a scholarly work on the topic, see Rashid Khalidi's Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.
    • 2. The tomb of the biblical figure Joseph (Yusef in Arabic and Yosef in Hebrew) is located in the West Bank city of Nablus. It is revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians as his traditional burial site. Under the Oslo Accords, it was stipulated that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority would protect the rights of worship and access of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans to the site. One of the most hotly contested religious sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Joseph's tomb has been the site of recurring incidents of violence. For a brief background on Joseph's Tomb and a recent timeline of incidents of violence there, see: Margaret Dudkevitch. "Joseph's Tomb: Holy, Hotly Contested," The Jerusalem Post, 13 Dec 2003.  
    • 3. Sudetenland Refers to the Czech territory, bordering Germany, which was ceded to Hitler in the Munich Pact in 1938. Hitler sought self-determination for the German speaking people of the Sudetenland and viewed that territory as part of Greater Germany.

  • You talked about the Palestinians being aggressors to the Zionist settlers at the start of the century - do you think the Palestinians were historically the only aggressors?

    The books I read as a kid stressed only Palestinian aggression and that explained why Bar Giora1 was established, the Shomer,2 why the 1929 riots or the Arab Strike occurred, because we had to protect ourselves. This perspective is based on us arriving here innocently, of national duty, moral duty, and the aspect of whether there had been aggressive Zionist activities was forgotten. Now that I read more and that I understand more (still it's not much), I think that to the extent of my knowledge at the beginning of settlement, during the first and second aliyot there hadn't been organized aggression against the Arabs. Obviously since the Etzel and Lehi were founded, since Unit 1013 and the War of Independence, the Nakba, there have been aggressive actions. I don't know about whether it occurred at the start of settlement.4

    • 1. Bar Giora Refers to a group of Jewish militiamen established in 1909, who were based in the Jewish settlements in Pre-Israel Palestine under Ottman rule. Named after Simeon Bar Giora, the Jewish military leader in the war against Rome (66-70 C.E.). Bar Giora later merged with Hashomer.
    • 2. Hashomer ("the Guard" in Hebrew). Refers to a group of Jewish militiamen in the Jewish settlements of pre-Israel Palestine between 1909-1920 under Ottoman and then British rule. According to the Jewish Agency, "Members of Ha-Shomer were prominent in the life of the new yishuv and played an important part in settling new land" (http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/concepts/d1.html). for more information, see http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_mandate_jewish_forces.php  
    • 3. Unit 101 Refers to a commando unit of the Israeli army that operated between 1953-1955 and was responsible for measures and retaliations against border incursions on Israel's border with Jordan, headed by Ariel Sharon. The incursion in Palestinian village of Qibya is perhaps the most notorious of the unit's operations.
    • 4. Mr. Shapira is referring to Jewish settlement in Pre-Israel Palestine, predominantly during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

  • What do you think about former peace processes?

    What, Oslo? For a long time I believed that Israel always wanted peace and that the Arabs always turned down our offers, so obviously my perspective was that it was their problem, because they didn't want peace. This perspective also claims that the Arabs didn't want peace and that they started the War of Independence. That's a pretty convenient perspective; it includes putting the blame on one side only and claiming that we always tried to reach peace but they didn't want to—there is "proof" of this. Now I discovered that there is also proof of the contrary that is shunned by the educational system and our society. People don't know—or if they do they are satisfied believing what is easy to hear. Accepting guilt is a very brave process to undertake; societies are rarely capable of such a process. It happened in Germany, but only after the Holocaust. It's really difficult for a society to feel it is guilty after anything lesser than that.For me, peace processes always used to make me feel that only once they want peace, that's when there will peace here, but things won't change until then. Later, the beginning of the Oslo peace process gave everyone hope or it gave the majority of the people here hope. I thought the conflict was going to end. Then, as things happen, people die in their prime—Rabin, Sharon.I don't know, was Oslo a good thing? Yes. Oslo was the right direction I think, but I guess both sides weren't ready then. We didn't grasp that the occupation leads to suffering and the Palestinians didn't understand that we really meant what we said and the Palestinians lacked a democracy and education, and so violence erupted again. Anything could be rationalized and justified to us, as usual: we had signed an agreement and we had given them weapons, granted them autonomy and refrained from entering the Territories for a few years, so when they started the intifada the blame was on them. For Palestinians it was the same, but the other way around: they [Israelis] never ended the occupation, we were never granted their freedom, we only had small isolate stretches that were considered area A—and that's why there isn't peace.

  • What is the ideal situation you want to see here?

    Ideally? Two states I should think, living peacefully, growing apples...

  • Is that kind of peace possible?

    It is a possibility. I'm skeptical whether it could happen now; I can't imagine peace here in the near future. I hope that it will happen because without hope there is no reason to work for peace, but I don't expect my generation to witness us living together, doing business with each other, blossoming relations. I think there needs to be separation; I think that a separation barrier is a good idea in theory—not its current contour obviously, the way it closes off tiny ghettos—but a fence that high, of similar intimidating proportions on the 1967 borders; that would be fine. Both sides in Israel endorsed their widespread support of the separation wall because people thought that the barrier is a border and if there is a barrier then the army won't be in the Territories. The Left was very happy and the settlers maybe thought, "great, a barrier means we can incarcerate them with a wall and then the Arabs won't interrupt our lives." So the wall received widespread support and of course was then built on a contour that is neither here nor there; it doesn't please either side, it certainly doesn't please the Palestinians, but here in Israel, neither the Right nor the Left like it.

  • What does the word peace mean to you?

    Peace? For me it is a blessing, it means a hope. I'm not personally connected to this word, and it doesn't move me.

  • Do you think there will be peace here?

    Maybe...

  • What does that depend on?

    On us, on them, on everybody. I'm sure there will be peace here; I don't believe any war can continue forever. Either we won't be here and there will be peace, or they won't be here and there will be peace, or maybe both sides will exist here and there will be peace here. At some point things will quiet down here!

  • Are international actors important in this conflict?

    Yes, certainly. International actors are the main reason for our ability to be the stronger side and not the weaker side in the occupation. As a society, we are economically dependent, very dependent on the US mainly and a little on Europe. Like many things that have to do with the fact that these countries have become economically established, most of the shares in Israel are connected to overseas investors. The dollar is dominant in the economy here, so obviously external actors have an effect. We certainly are a good base for the US in terms of everything that's taking place here in the Middle East—that's us. In the meantime the US has a negative impact on the conflict.

  • Why is the US's impact on the conflict negative?

    Because it's an advantage to the US that we're fighting each other; we can be given arms and we continue it. If there is peace, maybe it will become apparent that the Muslims aren't all that horrible, which would insinuate that they are human beings too and then the war in Iraq1 will no longer be legitimate nor will the control over Afghanistan2 appear legitimate. Oil—there is a lot of power involved. I don't mean that Bush in particular enjoys seeing us fight, but I don't think it really troubles him, plus he can find a way to benefit from it. Europe has its interests here too in promoting the arms industry. Israel sells quality weapons abroad and we are big experts on war in general. Israel markets its strategic knowledge and systems for combating terrorism, not only arms, and currently this type of warfare is in demand all over the world. In short, Israel serves as an extension of the developed world in the Middle East. Most countries don't want to put all that in the hands of Egypt, Jordan or Syria because they aren't perceived as stable countries while Israel is, and so Israel guards their economic interests.

    • 1. Refers to the US led War in Iraq that began in Spring of 2003.
    • 2. Refers to the US led War in Afghanistan that began in the Fall/Winter of 2001.

  • What do you want international audiences to know about the conflict?

    Because international audiences' opinion potentially have financial importance, I think it's important to convey the message to the world that this war can come to an end, that it isn't a war centered on uncompromising religions that want to kill everyone, a holy war. That's a common perception in Europe, as well as in Bush's head. I also want to say that this has an end and that must begin with the strong side. If I could set European foreign policy, I would decide to boycott Israel or threaten to boycott Israel until it withdraws from the Territories. Also, all the billions of dollars allocated to the Palestinian Authority, which used to go straight to Arafat's pocket without any of it reaching the people there, that money could have built up Palestine as a state which within one generation could have been very advanced in terms of their approach, education system, democracy, sanitation systems, traffic systems.1 The billions of dollars, the many billions that went to the PA used to go straight to all of the large mechanisms, Jibril Rajoub2 and Yasser Arafat... the people saw very little of that. Poverty didn't change, construction projects and education weren't advanced and incitement... poverty is obviously one of the causes of terrorism. The occupation can be prevented using the economy. The money sent can be funneled to encourage education and democracy; in short, it would create a lifestyle that wouldn't make a person want to commit suicide. Other options exist and this could be paradise here. It will pay off in the end.

    • 1. Since his death in 2004, Yasser Arafat's management and control of funds related to the development of the Palestinian territories has come under intense scrutiny, with many asserting that the former Palestinian President diverted funds to his private use and other non-essential projects unrelated to the growth and economic infrastructure of the Palestinian Territories. See David Samuels. "In a Ruined Country: How Yasir Arafat Destroyed Palestine", The Atlantic Monthly, September 2005, at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200509/samuels  
    • 2. Jibril Rajoub (1953-) Long-time member of Fatah, close advisor to Yasser Arafat, and former head of Palestinian preventative security in the West Bank. For a profile of Jibril Rajoub see the BBC Online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1881756.stm