Last night Brit Tzedek, a group that opposes the Israel lobby from within the Jewish community, staged a presentation by two members of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian resistance fighters working for a two-state solution. About 60 people turned out in the basement of Beth Elohim, a Reform temple in Brooklyn.
A table was set up on the dais. I recognized the Palestinian at once. He wore a pressed blue shirt and khakis, had a trimmed mustache. Sulaiman Al Hamri walked with a steel crutch. A smallish Jewish kid pulled out a chair for him, a mophead in his 20s with a string bracelet and jeans and old beaten shoes. Now I waited for the kid to bring in the Israeli. Then he sat down next to Al Hamri and I realized he was the Israeli. Just a kid. Elik Elhanan.
Elhanan introduced them. “We are not professors or experts. We did not come here to tell you the truth or what is absolutely right. We came here to tell you our stories and opinions.”
Al Hamri told his story first, about spending 4-1/2 years in Israeli prisons. I’ll blog about this in days to come, I want to tell Elhanan’s story now.
Elhanan is a student in Tel Aviv, 29. He grew up in Jerusalem and as a boy, he did not realize there was a conflict in the Middle East. For he never thought about it, and when the time came that he did, he didn’t see that he had any part of it. “I have no problem with the Palestinians, no fight with them.” At 18, he joined the Army for the usual reasons. Out of a sense of duty, and privilege, and wanting to be part of something bigger than himself.
His consciousness changed. Over the next three years, he realized, “I am part of this conflict, I can’t escape it.”
Several events had taken place that had “obliged” him to see the larger issues. In some, he had found himself “an aggressor.” He didn’t want to go into these events, he said dismissively. They had made him aware of the “discrepancies between the very lofty discourse describing what we are doing and the reality on the ground.
“But the most influential event, I found myself all of a sudden, a victim. On the 4th of September 1997 two suicide bombers left Nablus and killed five people in Jerusalem. 180 people were injured. Among those killed was my sister Smadari and her friend. They were going to school.” A third friend was so critically injured she is still not the same.
Elhanan said there are many social mechanisms in Israel to help survivors deal with grief. They are intended to keep people from “sinking into the pain,” to get them back to normal life. He found that he had no interest in getting back to normal life. “Because this life is not normal. I thought, there is something very wrong with it, and I’m not willing to go back.”
“I didn’t limit my emotions to great sadness and great anger. I felt there must be something else. My sister deserves better than to be confined to a dark place, as an object of sadness. Or to be limited to a reason to be angry, to hate, to fear.” And of course his sister’s death was not like someone slipping in the shower, it was a murder; and Israeli society had an answer to a murder of this character. It was perceived as an attack on the nation, to which Israel would respond with vengeance to preserve its honor. This answer Elhanan also found unacceptable. He did not feel that he was missing his honor, all he missed was his sister. “By concentrating on this revenge I am doing something very terrible to her memory also.” To have a body in exchange—that felt like a very cheap price to put on Smadari’s life.
The soldier became withdrawn. “I don’t like people speaking in my name. And I lost all faith in the judgment and common sense of the state to react to such situations.”
One day his unit commander came to his house to tell him to come back to the army. A big operation was coming up in Lebanon. “I think it will do you some good,” he said. “Maybe you will run into some terrorists, and you will have a chance to even the score.” Elhanan was shocked and disturbed by the statement. The commander was a good, smart man. Yet he was describing a solution that sounded to him like “perpetual war—beyond history and politics and geography.” Avenging a murder in Jerusalem by murdering someone in Lebanon.
He remembered of an operation he had been listed to take part in as a young soldier but that for administrative reasons he had missed, to his great regret: an action in Lebanon. It is the burning desire of all soldiers to make “a mark on their guns,” and that had been his chance. The action was celebrated as the killing of 11 terrorists. But he had seen pictures and heard the other soldiers’ stories: “three children and two old men.”
Following the action, Katyushas had fallen on Kiryat Shemona and hurt Israelis. So because of the IDF’s actions, Israeli civilians were hurt. So in Elhanan’s view, Israeli soldiers were actually violating their oath, to protect the people of Israel. He had lost his bearings. “I had no idea who I was fighting, or where I was living.”
After a process of reading and thinking, he came to a new understanding. Elhanan’s voice became passionate. “My sister didn’t die for the security of Israel. She didn’t die because the Arabs are a lower breed, or because Islam is a fanatic religion or because of a clash of civilizations. She died very simply because there is an occupation. Over a disputed piece of land…I should struggle against the occupation, is what I should do.”
When he had heard about the refusenik soldiers, he had joined them. Still, that felt passive. When a group talked of meeting with Palestinian ex-combatants, he jumped at the idea. Now “the emotions that were boiling inside me” found a place to go.
The soldiers’ first meeting with the Palestinians, in Bethlehem, was illegal. It had involved the Israelis’ hiding in an olive grove after dark to wait for taxis to show up on a street. But when the taxis came, the numbers were different from what they had been told, and the Israelis suddenly thought they were doing something very stupid, that they might never return to the safe place they were right then. “This was true, but in a different way than we imagined.” They were brought to a house where the Palestinian men, the faces they had come to fear and despise, were waiting. The Palestinians also were afraid that it was a trick. The two sides began to talk.
Now they were coming to the U.S. for a month. They had a simple aim, to convince American Jews they had an active part in this struggle.
During the Question period, a man at the back spoke for me when he brought up the one-state solution. Why should we favor a two-state solution? The South Africa model showed that was not the answer.
Elhanan said, “The idea of one state is very compelling. It is the most just solution. But I think there is something paternalistic about it.
“I lived as a sovereign in my own country, I did not suffer all the problems of occupation. We can talk about false consciousness and a nationalistic dream, but I will tell you that my two grandfathers fought the British occupation [in the 1940s] to have a Jewish state and both were hurt in that struggle. One was from Europe where he had lost everything. I know what it meant for them to have a state, to have a passport, to stand proud on their own. I can’t tell the Palestinians to renounce that.”
The story of the peace process is not a love story, he said, it is a divorce story, a bitter divorce. “What we need now is separation. Not like the wall. But that each country can stand on its own side, reconstruct itself, and heal its wounds. After that, who knows, maybe there will be a federal solution. Right now, no way.”
After the talk I stood in line to say hello to Elhanan. It felt a little like waiting to talk to a rock star, there were girls ahead of me. When I got my turn, I said that he had honored his grandfathers, did he also fault them?
“This is a hard question,” Elhanan said. He might wish that they had been less Zionist or more socialist, but he could understand the state of mind they were in.
And for another thing, one grandfather had already done it for him; he “kind of faulted himself… I don’t know if you know Mattityahu Peled.” A hero of the 48 and ’67 war, General Peled had become an Arabic scholar and a leader of the left in the Knesset. He was one of the first to meet the PLO. That was Elhanan’s grandfather.
Then it all made sense: the unassuming manner, the eloquence, the natural sense of leadership, the authority.
Sulaiman Al Hamri and Elik Elhanan are near the start of a 22-city tour that will take them across the country. Tonight they are at the Village Temple, 33 E. 12th St. Go, and see a future leader of Israel.