Hamas’s attack on Israel and Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza have already caused colossal destruction and anguish. Some 1,200 Israelis were killed by Hamas on October 7. In the more than six weeks since, at least 13,000 people, according to some estimates, have been killed in Gaza by the Israeli army. Fear and hatred are everywhere here. Overwhelmed by grief and anger, both Israelis and Palestinians fail—and often refuse—to recognize the pain and humanity of those on the other side. If the enemy is less than human, no political solution is possible. But it is precisely the collapse of the belief in a solution, and the dehumanization that accompanied it, that got us here to begin with. We need not only a real peace process but a project of rehumanization to support it. What could that project entail?
In 2005 a group of former Israeli soldiers who had refused to serve in the Occupied Territories came together with a group of Palestinians who had fought against Israeli occupation and served time in Israeli prisons. The meeting took place in a humble hotel in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. It was the end of the second intifada, which had claimed the lives of some three thousand Palestinians and a thousand Israelis. Many of the people in the group had taken active part in the violence.
I, Avner, was there. I was born in a kibbutz in the center of Israel and raised to believe that Israel was the safe haven of the Jewish people, our one sure place in the world, and that it was my duty to defend it. As I saw it, Israel was a liberal democracy. I had always known about “the occupation,” but its reality remained vague, distant. When my time to join the army came in 1994, I volunteered to serve in Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit. I was discharged in 1998, and soon after the second intifada broke out two years later, I joined an activist group called Taayush and for the first time went to the West Bank as a civilian. I saw houses demolished, communities displaced, wells sealed. My vague understanding of the occupation dissolved. It was my army, the army I was still serving in as a reserve soldier, that enforced all of this. This oppression was mine. When Sayeret Matkal reservists began carrying out missions in the West Bank, I decided to publicly refuse, alongside twelve other soldiers and officers. Days later a friend called and told me about a group of Palestinians who wanted to meet Israeli “refuseniks.”
At that first meeting, we were curious and scared. We convened at a small room at the hotel and sat around a long table, staring at one another and exchanging tense smiles. We did not know each other, nor what to expect. An awkward, suspicious silence hung over the room. Just a few years earlier, we might have killed one another.
There was no facilitator to start us off. We were sitting around the same table, but some of us were from the occupying side and some from the occupied. The Israelis were privileged, the Palestinians deprived of even the most basic human rights. At the time we did not realize how profound this divide was, how it affected us even as we were talking. It took us years to learn the consequences of the power asymmetry on our very selves, on our interaction. What was immediately apparent was the feeling that, despite everything that set us apart, we did share something: the experience of growing into the conflict, of being groomed for violence. We were raised from a young age to do our duty by fighting and—should the need arise—killing people we had never known, people like the ones with whom we were now sitting.
The silence continued for a while longer. Then one of the Israelis introduced himself and rather spontaneously recounted where he grew up, where he served, and what had brought him there. One of the Palestinians offered his own personal story. Some people asked questions, others shared their experiences in turn. The conversation went on and on. We decided to meet again.
I, Sulaiman, was born in the village of Hizma, northeast of Jerusalem, to an indigenous Palestinian family. I grew up under Israeli military rule and experienced its brutality firsthand. I saw our land being taken to allow Israeli settlements to expand and felt my parents’ fury and helplessness. It was as if we were suffocating, losing our space, denied our place. As a teenager I could not formulate any of these feelings in words, but they drove me to join the armed struggle. I wanted to fight for my freedom. When I was fourteen, together with a friend whose house had been demolished by the army, I attacked two vacationing soldiers, hoping to take their weapons. We failed. We only managed to injure them lightly before running away.
I was arrested within days, underwent physical and psychological torture, and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. While working in the prison library, I read everything I could find about the conflict and came to realize that military force could not determine whose narrative was right, whose land this was. I started to participate in hunger strikes and came to see nonviolence as an alternative to the armed struggle. When I was released after ten years, I began advocating nonviolent resistance to the occupation and sought partnership with Israelis who believed in similar values. When I heard about the group that had come together in Beit Jala, I joined them at their second meeting.
That time Chen Alon also shared his story. He was born and raised in Tel Aviv. His father had fought in 1967, and then again in 1973. He came back from the second war different, as if he had lost parts of himself in battle. Chen grew up wishing to make up for those missing parts. He wanted to serve like his father, to be a hero who goes to war and returns a victor. He joined the armored corps in 1987 and soon became an officer. The first intifada had just broken out, and Chen did much of his service in the West Bank and in Gaza, patrolling, imposing curfews, manning checkpoints, chasing and arresting young people who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and demolishing the houses of suspected Palestinian insurgents. This was his routine for much of his four-year service, and then for an additional eleven years as a reserve officer—until he couldn’t do it anymore. In 2002 Chen was among a group of Israeli officers and soldiers who publicly announced they would not serve the occupation. They called themselves “Courage to Refuse.” In Beit Jala, for the first time, he spoke about the houses he demolished in front of people whose houses had been demolished.
Bassam Aramin grew up in a small village not far from Hebron. As a teenager, he and his friends would throw stones at Israeli military jeeps that entered their village. Later they found discarded hand grenades and hurled them at an Israeli patrol. They missed, but Bassam was arrested and sentenced to seven years in an Israeli prison. There he got to know some of the Israeli guards and their perspective on the conflict, and he began thinking about the mechanisms and belief systems that turned his guards into jailers and him into a prisoner. He realized that only a nonviolent struggle could liberate him from oppression and still preserve his humanity. That meeting in Beit Jala was the first time Bassam told his story to people who might have been the targets of his grenades.
There were still walls standing between us. But as we spoke and listened to each other’s stories, we were digging small holes through them, imagining what it would be like to glimpse ourselves from the other side. A former Israeli soldier knows how his uniform feels, the sense of duty and pride he associates with it. But how does a young Palestinian girl perceive it when she wakes up in the middle of the night as soldiers wearing these uniforms burst into her home? Palestinians know from a very young age what “resistance” means to them, and why they choose to be part of it. But why do Israelis often perceive that same struggle, which from a Palestinian point of view seems so justified, as “terrorism”?
We realized, through many such informal encounters, that by telling our personal stories we were telling one another, and ourselves, the stories of our societies and of the conflict between them. We began to feel that we had all been handed a script at birth, a script written by others, and we were expected to play our roles as antagonists. And we understood that by narrating our stories we were breaking character and assuming responsibility for our actions. We founded Combatants for Peace, as we came to call our group, to promote the belief that we can transform ourselves, turn violence into trust, pain into compassion, war into peace.
Since then Combatants for Peace has drawn in thousands of participants. The group no longer consists only of former combatants. We realized that, in one way or another, everybody who lives here is involved in the violence; what matters is recognizing our ability to decide not to follow our instinct for revenge. That does not mean giving up on politics and withdrawing from action. It means struggling together, resolutely but nonviolently, against the driving forces of oppression and violence.
This is an uphill struggle. Many people, here and around the world, believe that this conflict is fated to go on. We, by contrast, insist that humans and the societies we make are not frozen entities but processes, open to intervention. It is not that anything is possible. Past traumas, dependencies, and habits of thought limit our horizons. Deep-seated religious traditions on both sides lay claim to the entire land, and they are not going to fade away. But both societies also possess notions of compromise—like sulha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), a time-tested tribal mechanism for conflict resolution—on which to draw in order to facilitate a peaceful solution.
The process of rehumanization that we promote is not a nicety. It means valuing all human lives as equally sacred and resisting all ideologies and mechanisms that subject one group of people to the violence and oppression of another. Our vision does not efface the asymmetry in power between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, we challenge it. By working as equal partners in decision-making and formulating our message, we seek to embody, rather than talk about, the future that we want to create.
The occupation is the primary obstacle on the way to that future, and we spend much of our energy struggling against it. We have protested unequal access to water in the South Hebron Hills, demonstrated against the expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, and organized against the displacement of Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley. We have resisted limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, demolitions of their houses by Israeli settlers, and the detainment of Palestinian children. Our activists, Palestinians and Israelis both, have led hundreds of direct actions, joint rallies, marches, public talks, and memorial ceremonies together. We have been ostracized, beaten, and sometimes arrested, ironically, for “disturbing the peace.”*
It is true that we are here to disturb something: an oppressive system that has been so persistent that it is almost naturalized in the eyes of a majority of Israelis and many people abroad. We are here to unsettle the false and endless “peace processes” that cover up the expansion of the settlements and the deepening of the Israeli occupation, which has by now become an apartheid-like system. We advocate a process that could give both people a secure, free, and dignified future in this land, neither of them subject to the violence or oppression of the other.
Maintaining these commitments has not been easy. Our community of activists has been hit hard by the violence. Bassam Aramin’s daughter, Abir, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in 2007. She was ten years old. Ahmad Hilu, one of our Palestinian activists, lost dozens of his loved ones to Israeli bombardments in Gaza in 2014. Three weeks ago, Ahmad learned that his cousin, a woman with special needs, was pulled from under the rubble in the Gaza City neighborhood of Tal al-Hawa. She died a few days later.
Our Palestinian colleague Fatima, like Ahmad, has family in Gaza. Over the past few weeks dozens of her relatives have been forced to evacuate their homes, many of which are now in ruins. Her niece lost a leg in one of the bombardments. Only thirty kilometers from Gaza, one of our Israeli colleagues, Nurit Badash, lost a longtime fellow peace activist, who was murdered by Hamas on October 7.
But even loss can be transformed into compassion. For eighteen years Combatants for Peace has held annual joint memorial ceremonies for those who have been killed in the conflict. This year’s ceremony drew 15,000 people. A few years ago, we also inaugurated a joint annual Nakba memorial ceremony to commemorate the displacement and erasure of hundreds of Palestinian communities in 1948, which any solution to the conflict must take into account.
Our ceremonies stress the effects of mass violence on individual people. Israelis and Palestinians who have lost their loved ones or suffered displacement share their experiences and express their commitment to life and liberty, despite their pain but also because of it. To share the loss is to recognize the humanity of the enemy, and to see that as individuals we are all victims of the ongoing violence. But we are also its perpetrators.
This is our other central message. War is a choice, and we can choose differently to prevent future casualties. It is up to us to undo the reasons for violence, the occupation, the ideologies of hate and supremacy. Those of us who were once involved in the violent oppression of the Palestinians or in the violent resistance to Israeli occupation aim not to deny our past but to work with it, turning it into a basis for joint, constructive action. When so many people here and around the world overtly or covertly wish for one side to vanquish the other by force, we insist, as we have always done, that there is no military solution to this conflict. We hold on to our humanity. It is the value of each life that guides us through this storm.