Ten-year-old Abir Aramin was on her way to buy candy January 19 when she was killed near her school in Jerusalem. She was the daughter of Bassam Aramin, a founder of Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian organization committed to ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Sulaiman Al Hamri, a Palestinian, and Shimon Katz, an Israeli, both of Combatants for Peace, just started a month-long speaking tour in the United States when they heard about Abir. Al Hamri wanted to return to Jerusalem to be with his friend but decided it was more important to continue educating Americans about the conflict in their homeland.
“This is the main motivation for us: to prevent this kind of thing,” Al Hamri said. “So, in spite of the hardships, we will continue.”
On Tuesday, Al Hamri and Katz, who fought on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spoke at MU about their decision to join forces as advocates for peace. The Combatants for Peace tour aims to illuminate the human suffering behind the political conflict in order to build widespread support for a Palestinian state.
Although the group’s message is both political and religious, Katz says the stories are personal.
“We are not experts, or professors, analysts, politicians,” he said. “We are just people who lived there.”
Katz was a member of the Israeli army as part of the Israel Defense Forces, when he went to the Far East to study meditation and the writings of the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi.
“Something inside me transformed,” Katz said of the experience.
“I don’t know how or why it happened.”
Al Hamri, who grew up in the West Bank, joined a Palestinian resistance group as a teenager and spent more than four years in Israeli prisons. He said his turning point was in 1989, when he met an elite IDF officer who believed in the Palestinians right to a secure state of their own. That was the beginning of Al Hamri’s belief that peace between the two peoples was possible.
Then, in 2005, Al Hamri began meeting with other Israeli officers who wanted the fighting to stop. Those meetings eventually led to the creation of Combatants for Peace, which is a coalition of former fighters, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have committed to never using violence again.
“It wasn’t easy to convince myself or other people to meet with these people because we used to be enemies,” he said. “The first meeting was full of fear, full of suspicion, but full of hope. We decided on the name because we are still combatants, still fighters, but for peace.”
When he returned to Israel from the Far East, Katz heard about Combatants for Peace and visited their Web site.
“The ideas written there were exactly what I believe,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Katz, who is obliged to serve 30 days a year with the IDF until he turns 45, was called back to the army. After explaining that he didn’t want to be a combat soldier anymore, he was transferred to another unit. He hopes to earn a master’s degree in social work and eventually become a therapist in the army.
“Every year, I will be called,” he said. “I want to do something constructive.”
Although they only met about a month ago, Al Hamri and Katz now consider themselves friends and plan to keep in touch after the tour, which they say has not been easy for them. The schedule is grueling and the subject matter is emotionally draining. During his speech at MU, Al Hamri’s voice broke when he mentioned 10-year-old Abir. He took a long pause before he was able to continue.
On Monday, the men spoke to about 150 people at Washington University in St. Louis and gave three radio interviews. Katz recalled that during one of the interviews a Palestinian woman called in and accused Al Hamri of being a traitor to the Palestinian cause.
“There is no answer for people like that,” Al Hamri said.
Jeff Stack, of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, which co-sponsored the MU event, said he found the two men’s conviction “enlightening.”
“I am a pacifist with a pacifist organization,” he said, “but we don’t get tested the way the people of Israel and Palestine are tested.”