Anata, East Jerusalem
Bassam Aramin became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in the ancient city of Hebron. At 17, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops, and spent seven years in army prison. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon – not even when, two years later, his ten-year-old daughter Abir was gunned down and killed by an Israeli soldier while on her way home from school.
We never felt safe. As a child I fought the occupation by raising the Palestinian flag in our playground. We were always running from jeeps to avoid getting beaten by the soldiers. Our homes were invaded and children were killed. It was routine.
At the age of 12 I joined a demonstration where a soldier shot a boy; he died in front of me. From that moment I developed a deep need for revenge. I became part of a group whose mission was to get rid of the catastrophe that had come to our town.
We called ourselves freedom fighters, but the outside world called us terrorists. At first we threw stones and empty bottles, but when we came across some discarded hand-grenades in a cave, we decided to hurl them at the Israeli jeeps. Two of them exploded. No one was injured but we were caught, and in 1985, at the age of 17, I received a seven-year prison sentence.
In prison the other prisoners treated us like heroes, but our jailers taught us how to continue hating and resisting. On October 1st, 1987, all 120 of us – all teenage boys – were waiting to go into the dining room when the alarms suddenly went off. Over a hundred armed soldiers appeared and ordered us to strip naked. They beat us until we could hardly stand. I was held the longest and beaten the hardest. What struck me was that the soldiers all wore smiles on their face. They were beating us without hatred; for them this was just a training exercise. They saw us as objects.
As I was being beaten, I remembered a movie I’d seen the year before about the Holocaust. At first I had been happy that Hitler had killed six million Jews. I wished he had killed them all, because then I never would have been sent to prison. But a few minutes into the movie, I found myself crying, and feeling angry that the Jews were being herded into gas chambers without fighting back. If they knew they were going to die, why didn’t they scream out?
I tried to hide my tears from the other prisoners: they wouldn’t have understood why I was crying about the pain of my oppressors. It was the first time I felt empathy.
So now, walking between the soldiers who were beating me, I remembered the movie and I started screaming at them: “Murderers! Nazis! Oppressors!” And as a consequence, I felt no pain.
The incident with the soldiers made me realize that we had to preserve our humanity – our right to laugh and our right to cry – in order to save ourselves. I also slowly realized that the Israelis were oppressing us because of their own trauma in the holocaust; I decided to try and understand who the Jews were.
This led to a conversation with a prison guard. The guards all thought of us as terrorists and we hated them fiercely in return; but this guard asked me, “How can someone quiet like you become a terrorist?”
I replied, “No, you’re the terrorist. I’m a freedom fighter.” He really believed that we, the Palestinians, were the settlers, instead of the Israelis.
I said, “If you can convince me that we are the settlers, then I’ll declare this in front of all the prisoners.”
It was the start of a dialogue and a friendship. We discovered many similarities and some months later the guard said he understood and supported the Palestinian struggle. From then on he always treated us with respect, and once even smuggled in two big bottles of Coca Cola, which I shared with all the other prisoners.
Seeing how this transformation happened through dialogue, and without force, made me realize that the only way to peace was through non-violence. Our dialogue enabled us to see each other’s purity of heart and good intent.
When I was released, it was the time of the Oslo Accords, and there was a great feeling of hope for a two-state solution. It never happened because the politicians said we weren’t ready for it. If I hadn’t developed such strong beliefs and principles, anger would have taken over yet again.
In 2005 that some of us who believed in non-violence started meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers. We were meeting as enemies who wanted to speak. The Israelis were refusing to fight, not for the sake of the Palestinian people, but for the sake of the morals of their society. We too were not acting to save Israeli lives – but rather to prevent our society from suffering more. It was only later that we both came to feel a responsibility for each other’s people.
There is a much more tragic story to tell as well: On January 16th, 2007, an Israeli soldier shot my 10-year-old daughter, Abir, in cold blood outside her school with her friends.
The children hadn’t even been throwing stones. She had just bought candy at the store, and hadn’t even had time to eat it. The case is not yet closed, but it is unlikely that justice will ever be done. The soldier responsible has not even been identified. For there to be reconciliation, and for me to consider forgiveness, Israel has to recognize such crimes.
Abir’s murder could have easily led me down the path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there is no return to violence from non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.