Photography by Dubi Roman
Wael Salame lives in Anata, East Jerusalem. In 1990 he was arrested as he crossed into Israel from the West Bank on his way to blow up an Israeli police building. After five years in prison, he turned his back on violence and, through the organisation Combatants for peace, chose a path of peace and mutual understanding.
I believe that any nation under occupation has a right to resist. As someone who grew up in 1967 and saw what happened when we Palestinians were driven out of our homes, I always felt it was my right to fight. My family was always afraid that the massacres of 1967 would happen again, so we ran north to the caves whenever war returned.
In 1973, when I was 16, I was arrested for the first time – falsely accused of throwing stones and shattering a factory window. I’d had a fierce argument with the factory guard the night before, and he came to my school with a policeman to arrest me for something I hadn’t done. As a result I spent 48 hours in a cell and had to pay a fine. This was the first time I clashed with the occupiers. Also, around this time, just over 1,000 acres of agricultural land belonging to my family was confiscated and used to build an army base. To this day it remains Israel’s largest army base, and we have never received any compensation. Anger at all this injustice led me to join a Palestinian resistance organisation.
It wasn’t until the First Intifada in 1987, while I was living in Jordan, that I became actively involved in the struggle. Back then the resistance movement encouraged anyone who had the will and the ability to go through military training abroad, and then return as a fighter. I trained in Algiers and found that my talent lay in making bombs.
In 1990, seven Palestinian civilians waiting at a bus station were killed when an off-duty Israeli soldier called Ami Popper ran amok with an assault rifle. After this cold blooded murder, a spokesman for the Israeli Government made a statement claiming Popper to be insane. I was furious because there were no words of repentance; no one said it shouldn’t have happened. Because of this brutal act of murder and the Israelis’ refusal to see it as such, I asked my leaders if I could return to Palestine to take revenge. I was given freedom of movement between Jordan and the West Bank and had a number of meetings with the Head of Operations to discuss what action I could take.
Our target was the Police Head Quarters in Shiekh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. We planned the operation meticulously, but in the end I never got to carry it out because I was arrested crossing the border. After 41 days in detention I was sentenced to eight years in prison, of which I served five with three on parole.
In prison my perspective began to shift. I can speak Hebrew so I got talking to one of the guards who told me he didn’t understand how we prisoners could live in such conditions. He thought we were common criminals and didn’t realise we were freedom fighters seeking independence from our occupiers. Having explained my background, I warned this guard that he shouldn’t talk to me because it might put his job at risk. The guard said he didn’t care, so I invited him for a cup of coffee and we began to talk about the history of the conflict. It was a conversation that lasted many weeks.
I was in prison during the Oslo Accords and, despite the negative results, I saw the positive influence this had on the Palestinian people. It was a time of hope. The sight of the people of Jenin one day throwing stones and Molotovs at the Israeli army, and the next day throwing flowers and saying, ‘Go in peace, but leave us alone’, was extremely influential on me. I didn’t want to see our nation making further sacrifices. I began to believe the solution to this conflict had to be political and peaceful.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that a drastic change took place in my political views. Until then I thought all coexistence peace initiatives were commercially motivated, and none actually aspired to end the occupation. I thought Combatants for Peace was yet another attempt at ‘normalisation’; in other words, that we would be asked to work for peace on Israeli terms, not as equals.
However, in the end I did agree to attend a meeting of 25 Palestinians and 25 Israeli ‘refusniks’. No one knew I could speak Hebrew, so I sat listening to what the Israelis were saying among themselves. After three-and-a-half hours I was convinced there was no normalisation in this process. Finally, when I spoke, I said I thought it would take a long time to build trust. I said that I needed to know that these Israeli soldiers were actively working to establish a Palestinian state according to the borders of 1967. They assured me that they were.
From then on I became convinced that this group was actively doing something to expose the lies of the Israeli leadership. I have remained active ever since, believing passionately that if Palestinian freedom fighters and former Israeli soldiers can form a group with a common cause, then anyone can.