My father was born in 1898 in Ukraine. As a child he lived through terrible pogroms in which Jews were killed and attacked, without the police giving any protection. This, and his knowledge of Jewish history, convinced him that Jews could not be safe as a minority in someone else’s land; he immigrated to Palestina in 1919, to build a safe-haven for the Jewish people.
I was born in Haifa in 1935, but grew up in the United States where my father directed a Jewish educational institution. My parents believed very strongly in a Jewish homeland in Israel, while hoping for peace with the Palestinians.
When I returned to Israel I was drafted into the army reserves. I was a highly motivated soldier; I did my best to contribute to both the army’s strength and to its ethical standard. I became a squad commander, commanding patrols and ambushes in border areas to prevent armed Palestinians from entering Israel-controlled areas.
A turning point for me came during our initial tour of duty in the first intifada, in Jericho in 1988, when I met a Palestinian family.
My army unit arrested Wajiha near a non-violent demonstration. My job was guarding her until the Shabak took her away. Her sister Yusra’s husband, Saed, was also arrested around that demonstration. He and a dozen demonstrators were kept locked up in our base for about a week. Every evening Yusra would arrive with a pot of supper for her husband to break the day-long fasts of Ramadan. Yusra spoke a a good English, and I would chat with her. She seemed like a very reasonable person, despite all the clashes taking place out on the streets.
I was very confused by what I was seeing in the intifada. The first intifadahad erupted four months earlier, in December 1987. At home, Israelis watched it on the evening television news, with scenes of stone-throwing and mobs of rebellious Arabs. When our unit arrived in Jericho for our first real taste of the intifada, the Company Commander of the outgoing reserve unit taught us the ropes. He showed us that he kept a bottle with some gasoline in his jeep at all times, so that if he should kill a Palestinian, he could convince the inquiry that the Palestinian had thrown a molotov cocktail. When the Palestinians closed their stores for the intifada-called daily strike, he demonstrated how he destroyed the front of a poor man’s shop by driving his jeep through its locked front door. He assured us that we would come away from our reserve duty convinced that the Palestinians were our confirmed enemies.
But what we saw was different and confusing. Despite Molotov cocktails that were thrown, the Palestinians we saw seemed like ordinary decent people. Driving around in our jeeps in Jericho, armed to the teeth, we saw bus-loads of European tourists, British and Germans and Swedes, sunburned bright pink, girls in the briefest of attire, walking around freely and looking at the sights. The tourists would shop in the market, eat in the garden restaurants, and visit the site where John the Baptist baptized his people in the Jordan River nearby. When one of our jeeps wouldn’t start, a group of Palestinians laughingly came over and pushed it to start the motor.
When we were discharged I decided that I must find Saed and Yusra and try to understand what was going on.
I went to their house in Jericho and said to them, “I’ve come because I wanted to talk with you, but I could understand if you would not want to talk to an Israeli, and a soldier at that, and I’ll leave if you wish”. Saed invited me in with the Arabic welcome, “Ahalan w’-sahalan.” We sat down and began to talk, when Yusra came in with a small cup of coffee. “I know that it’s Ramadan,” I said, “and I would not like to drink if you are fasting.” “It’s all right,” Saed replied. “I am Muslim, so I will not drink. But you are not, and you are my guest in my house, so I will be pleased to see you drinking.”
From the Israeli press I had understood that the intifada was a new method for achieving the Arabs’ age-old goal of throwing us into the sea. But they both said, “What we all want is our own state next to Israel.” I felt that the Palestinians really had a message of peace, but throwing stones would never convince us. So we agreed that I would bring some Israelis for dialogues with people from Jericho. It was remarkable for us to see how we, as Israelis, could be sitting in Palestinian homes in the intifada with no concern for our security.
For one of the dialogues, we entered a small, one roomed hut. The walls were white-washed, and in one corner was a simple metal bed, the only furniture in the room. On the bed lay an ancient, withered, bone-thin dark-brown man in a white jalabiyye (an ankle-length shirt which traditional men still wear) that looked almost like a shroud. It was hard to tell whether he was still alive, or dead. One of our hosts crouched down next to him and said very softly, “There is a group of Israelis here, who want to talk with us about peace.”
The old man pulled himself together, and very slowly stood up from the bed. He looked like Mahatma Gandhi, only taller and more dignified. Slowly he walked over to me, put his arms around me and kissed me. “Where have you been?” he asked us. “We have been waiting so long.”
My commanding officer believed in Wajiha’s innocence, and tried to get her released from prison. When we were next called up, to rule Ramallah, I suggested to him that we try to get the Palestinians there to desist from throwing stones, and in exchange we would not interfere with their making non-violent demonstrations (which were forbidden). He ordered me to try to find leaders in Ramallah who would agree. I was unsuccessful, but the army found out and sent me to prison. For me, it was a terrible disappointment to see my army, with which I identified, preferring Palestinian stone-throwing to non-violent demonstrations for freedom.
My experience in Jericho led me to help build dialogue-action groups in a dozen Palestinians towns, villages and refugee camps. This human contact between Palestinians and us Israelis convinced me that we must work together, and this is why I joined Combatants for Peace.
The full story of my experiences in dialogue-action groups, as well as my attempt to have the army allow non-violent demonstrations in Ramallah (which led to my being sent to prison), and my meeting with Yasser Arafat in Tunis, can be read in my memoir, “A Zionist among Palestinians”, Indiana University Press, 2012.