Fighters cross the divide for peace in Middle East

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Bassam Aramin vividly describes the shock of his first meeting with the fresh faced, pony-tailed Noam Hayut. Three years ago, at the height of the intifada, Noam had been the commander at the biggest checkpoint in the West Bank between Jerusalem and Ramallah - for Palestinians like Bassam the most hated symbol of their lack of freedom of movement.

"I stared at his face and he said 'why are you looking at me?' I said: 'I want to be convinced you are an Israeli Jew who commanded the Qalandiya checkpoint. I don't see this in you. You are a human being.'" Both men recall it as a deeply uncomfortable first encounter, despite Noam's harsh self-criticism over what he did as an Israeli soldier and officer. "He said: 'I consider all of what I've done is terrorism,'" Bassam recalled. "I told him: 'It's true. All you did is terrorism.'"

"The first time I was speaking it was not easy for Bassam to hear what I did in Beit Jala [a notorious flash point of the conflict] or in the neighbourhoods around Qalandiya," remembers Noam. "And it wasn't easy for me to hear he attacked a soldier. I thought: that could have been me."

Today the men banter with the ease of old comrades. As Bassam, a 37-year old Muslim who was gaoled by Israel for seven years for an attack on an Army jeep, breaks off to pray, Noam, 26, calls out to him: "You'd better say something good about me to your god!"

Both men are part of a unique and unprecedented 120-strong group of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters who have been meeting in secret across enemy lines for over a year. On Monday they will publicly launch themselves as "Combatants for Peace" to campaign both against occupation and against violence as a means of achieving peace.

Even arranging the meetings, conducted in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, is difficult. West Bank Palestinians are forbidden to travel into Israel; Israeli civilians are prohibited from entering the West Bank.

The men who assemble regularly are no hippie peace-niks. Most of the Israelis were in elite combat units and many, like Noam, still do reserve duty. But all now refuse to serve in the occupied territories. They include, for example, Yonatan Shapira, one of the 27 Israeli Airforce pilots who signed the famous 2003 letter which stated: "We, who were raised to love the state of Israel ... refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centres."

All the Palestinians were militants, mainly in Fatah- linked armed groups. Most have served serious time in Israeli gaols and all, without in the main renouncing the right of "armed resistance" to the occupation, have declared they will no longer have any part of it.

"We are not academics," says Bassam. "We come from the same battlefield."

The turning point for Bassam, who now works in the Palestinian Authority archive, came in jail in Hebron when he began talking to one of his Israeli guards, an extreme right wing settler. He says he will never forget how the prisoners were ordered to strip to their underpants and to run the gauntlet of soldiers who beat them with sticks.

"I was 18 but there were kids among us who were crying," he said. "The language between us and the guards was black hatred."

Then one day the guard said to Bassam: "You don't seem like a thug. Why are you in prison? Why do you hate us?" "And I realised he didn't understand why we hated them, and he thought we were the settlers and that his own country was under an Islamic occupation," he said. While neither guard nor prisoner, in a dialogue which extended for months, may have wholly convinced the other, "the settler started to understand we have the right to live in freedom, as they have the right. He was so extreme and he started to change."

If Bassam could have a constructive dialogue with a settler, Bassam thought, he could certainly talk to Israeli soldiers now refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Bassam says that while some of his friends have refused invitations to join the meetings, few, if any, have attacked him for doing so himself.

Noam remembers being sent to Gaza as an officer cadet early in the intifada, in a unit which - "protecting settlements that no longer exist" - uprooted orchards along a road which was being regularly bombed by militants.

As the son of a farmer who "knows the meaning of an old orchard" he watched the distraught old man who owned the trees emerge at dawn with his grandson to see them cut down "kneeling in the sand and crying. All I could do was use the little Arabic we knew, and shout 'get out of here'."

He says out that almost everything that happened in his Army service could be justified at the time on purely military grounds. But he adds: "You justify it from a military point of view when you are a country at war. But ... it's an occupation. We fought society. The enemy we saw was society."

Noam, who thinks that he never personally killed anyone, nevertheless adds: "People outside ask me how can you speak with people who have blood on their hands? It's not easy to say I have blood on my hands but I was there fighting as part of the Army."

But how can a small minority of ex-combatants on either side change a political landscape complicated by Hamas's election victory? "You sow a seed and all you can hope it will grow into a big plant," says Wa'el Salama, a former Fatah militant gaoled for an abortive plot to blow up an Israeli government building in the first intifada.

Avichay Sharon, another former elite unit member whose "Breaking the Silence" group of anti-occupation ex-soldiers played a big part in setting up Combatants for Peace, adds: "Israelis will say 'why it is always us who have the conscience and no one on the other side does?' Well, now we have some Palestinians who are with us and against violence."

On Monday the EU Commission is expected to recommend that direct aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority be cut. And yesterday Washington declared that it was also making more cuts in indirect aid to the Palestinians.

Bassam thinks the West should give Hamas a chance. "I think Hamas will make peace," he says. A more sceptical Noam interjects quietly in Arabic, "Inshallah" - god willing.

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