Itamar Shapira, former soldier in the Israeli army, refusenik and now member of the organization Combatants for Peace, looks uneasy from the moment I greet him. I have been to Tulkarm in the West Bank to talk with former Palestinian militants, and to Tel Aviv to meet former Israeli soldiers but today Itamar can’t face telling his story. “I don’t know if I can tell it again,” he says, shifting awkwardly on his chair, looking weary and a little suspicious of yet another foreigner using his story.
“If it’s for Israelis and Palestinians then it’s worthwhile”, he says.
I try to explain that I’ve come to collect stories for the UK-based charity, The Forgiveness Project, which will be used primarily for workshops within Israel, but Itamar still isn’t convinced. “Let’s see how I feel as I go along”, he says, beginning hesitantly with his family background. Within minutes, however, he stops and with a heavy sigh, announces, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this.”
It’s little wonder he can’t carry on. He’s been telling his story for five years now and it’s taking its toll. The only reason to tell a painful story is if there’s a clear motivation to help others; if not it just re-traumatizes. Itamar suggests that I look up his story on the internet and when I get back to the hotel I do just that. Like all Israelis he spent three years in the military, where he served in the Occupied Territories. While there he served in a particular village where he was involved in violent conflicts resulting in the deaths of several Palestinians. In one interview he confesses:
Personally, I did receive an order to shoot and saw that the targeted person wasn’t armed.
It is stories like these which weigh heavily on these former soldiers who choose to relive their past for the sake of seeking peaceful solutions to the conflict.
Many Israelis I meet ask me if I’m afraid to go to the West Bank. I haven’t been afraid and wonder if I should be. The second intifada is considered over now, though unrest over the Israeli occupation simmers below the surface and nothing has changed to ease the Palestinians’ plight. Some people assure me that check points are having their restrictions lifted but we see no evidence of this.
Late in the afternoon, as the mosque is calling the people of Tulkarm to prayer, I meet 23-year-old, Riham Musa, who is studying law at the local university. It transpires that like Itamar she’s been having second thoughts about whether to talk to me or not. She explains that she’s tired, hungry and bitterly frustrated having been held this morning by soldiers at the checkpoint and consequently has missed an important exam. Such unremitting and invasive inconveniences have been wearing Palestinians down for generations. Riham decided, in the end, to come and meet us at her friends’ insistence.
“Go and tell them what it’s still like living here. The world needs to know,” they’d said.
Over the years I have read much of the Palestinian struggle through media coverage, but nothing quite prepares you for the visual shock of crossing a checkpoint and moving suddenly from the tidy affluence of the first world to the chaos and poverty of the developing world . For Riham, it is this disparity which politicized her. She explains that as a teenager she tried to find something other than the occupation to talk about, “but there wasn’t anything else.”
“How can girls get together in Tulkarm and talk about make- up and fashion?”, she asks.
In 2003, when she was 15, Riham started talking at school one day about suicide bombers, declaring that she would be prepared to become one herself. Back home, fired up by an urgent need to take action, she waited till dark, grabbed a kitchen knife (the only weapon available to her) and went down to the checkpoint with the intention of killing as many soldiers as possible. Once there, however, she froze to the spot, unable to carry out her plan. The soldiers, believing her to be strapped with explosives, starting firing and she took a direct hit in her stomach. Riham ended up serving a ten-month prison sentence, spending some of that time in hospital having two operations. Her decision to support a non-violent approach grew out of this traumatic event. “I believe violence breeds violence and there’s no choice now for me other than to find another way,” she declares.
When I decided to use violence by taking the knife, even though I didn’t use it, I brought violence upon myself. I now want to use the Law and not weapons to fight the enemy.
The Israelis I meet in Tel Aviv are mainly liberal but most talk of having adopted a head-in-the-sand attitude — something they are not proud of but which is a convenient position to take when protecting children from hard truths. There are few Israelis who speak out openly against the occupation but hearing Israeli and Palestinian ex-militants committed to ending the occupation through peaceful means is one way of raising people’s consciousness. Driving back to Tel Aviv, the Israeli photographer confesses that the past three days spent photographing members of Combatants for Peace has opened his eyes, often leaving him with a feeling of shame.
“But I’ve come out of my shell,” he says with deep sincerity, “and I can’t go back. I need to carry on with this type of work.”