Ex-combatants speak to area at CRC event



What do a former IDF counterterrorism officer and a Palestinian activist and former prisoner in Israel have in common?

They are both searching for peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian Sulaiman Al Hamri and Israeli Shimon Katz came to St. Louis as a part of a 22-city tour by members of Combatants for Peace, a group advocating non-violent solutions to the Middle East conflict.

Al Hamri and Katz spoke at the Central Reform Congregation on Sunday at a talk sponsored by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Children of Abraham, the CRC and Students for a Peaceful Palestinian-Israeli Future.

Al Hamri, 42, is a member of Fatah in Bethlehem and has spent a total of four and a half years in Israeli prisons for protesting Israeli occupation and for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. After his second prison term, Al Hamri studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decided to pursue non-violent solutions.

In March 2005, Al Hamri and other Palestinians set up a meeting in Beit Jala with Israelis who refused to serve in the West Bank or Gaza.

“It was a very strange meeting, full of fear and suspicion,” Al Hamri recalled. “But at the end of the talk, we found that we could work together, and we formed the group, Combatants for Peace.”

Although the meetings were at first kept secret, the group went public in April 2006, and peacefully demonstrated together for an end to the conflict.

Katz, 29, served for four years in the Israeli Defense Force as a counterterrorism officer, mostly in Lebanon. But after traveling to India, Katz found an interest in meditation and ideas of nonviolence and compassion. When he returned to Israel and was called up for reserve duties, manning a checkpoint in Nablus, Katz found that his feelings about serving in the military had changed.

“I went through a big transformation, ” he said. “I grew up feeling very patriotic, but at the same time, I felt this was very wrong…military action keeps creating and refueling the circle of violence,” Katz said.

Katz spoke with his commanding officer about his reservations, and was transferred to a logistical unit.

Katz said the first time he went to a Palestinian village, he was terrified.

“But after I left the meeting, I wasn’t scared of the village anymore, ” Katz said. “Once I met them, I saw that these people aren’t demons.”

Combatants for Peace, which is mainly composed of former IDF soldiers from Israel and Fatah, Popular Front and communist party members in Palestine, advocates a two-state solution, based on the pre-Six Day War borders of 1967, with a shared capital in Jerusalem, and the removal of West Bank settlements.

“Combatants for Peace is not for the coexistence of oppressor and oppressed,” Al Hamri said. “We are seeking an independent Palestinian state.”

Katz said that while the organization has the overall goal of creating two independent states, the organization focuses on smaller, more manageable goals.

“We might be pretentious in this group, but we’re not stupid, ” Katz said. “We don’t think this conflict will change automatically or very quickly.”

The group has successfully advocated against a law barring Israelis from driving Palestinians into Israel.

When asked what Americans can do to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al Hamri urged the audience to work together.

“We need a coalition to work together for peace. Make ties with the Muslim and Palestinian communities here and organize to influence policymakers,” Al Hamri said.

“When people listen to each other, it’s an opening for dialogue and solutions.”