"We're motivated to talk to each other," former Palestinian Fatah fighter Sulaiman al-Hamri said, "because we don't see any other solution."
"Just saying no is not enough," said former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) counter-terrorism officer Shimon Katz, 29 said. "We needed to do more."
The two men found their way to do more by helping form Combatants for Peace. The organization was conceived in a number of clandestine meetings in 2005, and went public in Jerusalem in April 2006. Since then, the organization has engaged in an outreach program to, in Katz's words, "raise the consciousness in both the Israeli and Palestinian societies of the aspirations and fears of those on 'the other side.'"
They have done this by means of lectures, nonviolent demonstrations and legislative advocacy.
The event at the Skirball was one of several in the Los Angeles area, and is part of a 22-city tour arranged under the auspices of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), together with more than a dozen local co-sponsors. Other venues included Temple Israel of Hollywood and UCLA Hillel.
A capacity-plus crowd of some 400 people, including mostly younger Jews and Muslims, filled the Skirball's Magnin Auditorium and gave the two speakers a warm welcome. The straightforwardness of the event gave little evidence of the passions that preceded it.
Earlier in the week, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahranot revealed that the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, had warned of the dangers such an event posed to Israel's cause.
"The willingness of Jewish communities to host these organizations, and even sponsor them, is unfortunate," said a report Danoch sent to Israel's Foreign Ministry and all Israeli envoys in North America. "This is a phenomenon that must not be ignored."
Many of the Israeli participants in Combatants for Peace, Katz included, have refused military service in the West Bank on moral grounds.
Danoch's caution was echoed in Web postings on the event by the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, which drew an angry response from one of the event sponsors, Americans for Peace Now.
But at the event itself the talk was of reconciliation, not confrontation. Katz, 29, a former officer in an elite IDF intelligence unit, served four years in both Lebanon and the West Bank; al-Hamri, 42, is a native of Bethlehem who was a "resistance fighter" since age 16. Al-Hamri spent four years in Israeli prisons and is currently a member of the Fatah High Committee.
Katz, the son of an American-born mother, lives near Jerusalem and had a privileged upbringing. He recalled that he was keenly patriotic while in high school and looked forward to his army service. It was while serving in Nablus that he began to question his country's policies in the occupied territories, saying they are "counter-productive and fuel the cycle of violence." After completing his active military service, he spent a year in India, describing it as "a time of transformation." While there, he studied meditation and became interested in the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, which eventually led to his becoming a member of Combatants for Peace after returning to Israel.
Shimon Katz's father also served as an officer in the IDF, including duty in the territories. Nonetheless, Shimon said that his father is "very supportive" of him.
"He asked me only not to do anything to damage Israel's reputation," Katz said. Commenting on Israel's current policies, Katz said, "We believe we must talk first; we can't wait for security first. There's no time to wait."
Al-Hamri, a married father of four children ranging in age from 3 to 13, said the two-state solution outlined in the Oslo Acccords is the best chance of peace.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," he said. "Basically we are speaking of peace between two peoples. We believe each has a right to live in peace on its land, which should be separated between the two peoples. What we're talking about is applying the Oslo agreement. The solution is simple. Getting there is very difficult."
He dismissed the current conflict between Fatah and Hamas as nothing more serious than "normal tensions" and is convinced that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah will prevail.
Both men described the difficulty they had in meeting with the other side. "Initially we were full of fear," al-Hamri said, "but we learned that we're all human and can talk together."
Katz described walking to a meeting in a West Bank town without a weapon, and feeling isolated and vulnerable. After the meeting, he said, he felt much more at home.
Amy Wilentz, the award-winning journalist and author of "Martyrs' Crossing" and many other books, moderated the evening's program. In introducing the evening's principal speakers, she said, "Only humans make war and only humans can unmake it. What is needed now is an opening up."
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