Arab lawyer invited to train kinder, gentler Israeli soldiers

Kim Sengupta
Friday 25 April 2008 00:00 BST

Wafa Fahoum felt she had to make a stand when her nine-year-old daughter Nadine – an Arab representing Israel at tennis – was singled out for questioning by airport security staff while her Jewish team-mates simply walked through.

Ms Fahoum's campaign to stop others being subjected to such treatment eventually led to her teaching Israeli security guards about how it feels to be an Arab citizen facing daily indignities. Now she has been asked by the Israeli military to organise similar training for soldiers. The initiative follows revelations from former Israeli troops about their abuse of Palestinian civilians. The Independent has highlighted cases ranging from casual mistreatment to vicious assaults during routine patrols. One veterans' pressure group, Breaking the Silence, stresses on its website the need "to force Israeli society to address the reality which it created" in the occupied territories.

Ms Fahoum, 42, a lawyer, approached the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, directly to suggest training for the forces. She was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of senior officers. Speaking during a visit to London, she said: "One of them said that soldiers would be better human beings for something like this. That was very encouraging."

Ms Fahoum has been invited by Mr Peres to meet George Bush when the US President visits Israel next month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the nation's birth. During her visit to Britain, organised by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, she has been meeting MPs and peers.

She insists, however, that what she is doing is "about reconciliation, not politics". She said: "I believe that among today's soldiers we will have our next leaders. If we want to live in a better society in a better country for all its citizens, we must teach them about Israel's citizens who are Arab. What we want to do is expose young Jews to the Arab narrative of the history of Israel."

Members of Ms Fahoum's family in Haifa fled their homes during the violence that followed partition and the birth of Israel in 1948. The suffering which took place then and since then should never be forgotten, she says.

It took Ms Fahoum almost seven years of pressure following the incident with her daughter for security staff training to start. "There were, of course, those on the course who claimed I was exaggerating what the Arabs were facing. They were in denial," she said. "But these people were the real challenges. Some of them had come from extremely religious communities and had never met an Arab before.

"I thought that if one could get them to see the view from the other side, then we are achieving something."

The airport course is now taught by a mixture of Arab and Jewish instructors and that is how she envisages the project for soldiers to develop. "Some real progress has been made over," she added. "If you ask Arabs, they will tell you there is much less obstruction. I have not had any Arab political group object to what I am doing. For example, in the past they had different coloured luggage tags for Arabs and Jews, now it is the same colour. This may seem a minor matter but it is quite symbolic, and it is a step towards ending division."

Ms Fahoum believes that the struggle for equality must mean the two communities trying to understand each other. One personal decision was to send her daughter to a predominantly Jewish school, rather than an Arab one. "I thought long and hard about this and it wasn't that easy to get her in," she said. "But there are other Arabs there now and that is a very good thing."

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