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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace



Ex-Israeli soldier urges dialogue instead of fighting

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

January 9, 2007
By Moni Basu

Elik Elhanan drove with fear into the heart of the Palestinian territories. The former Israeli soldier had never seen a Palestinian except down the barrel of a gun. Now he was about to meet face-to-face with former "terrorists" in an area that was off-limits to Israelis.

Palestinian suicide bombers killed Elhanan's sister Smadar in downtown Jerusalem in 1997. She was 14. Innocent. Her life was brutally ended because she was Jewish.

But Elhanan was not interested in revenge. Elhanan and several other former Israeli soldiers met with their former foes in Bethlehem. He discovered at that meeting two years ago that the Palestinians were equally frightened to talk to the Israelis, thinking the meeting might be some sort of military trap.

They spoke to each other -- unapologetically -- of their past acts of violence.

"For the first time, I could ask in person all the difficult questions," said Elhanan, 29, now a student at Tel Aviv University.

That initial meeting resulted in the formation of "Combatants for Peace," a group of Israelis and Palestinians who once participated in violence but now believe dialogue is the only way to end the bloodshed.

"If we can speak in spite of everything we have experienced, then everyone can," Elhanan told students in a packed Paideia School auditorium Monday afternoon. The talk kicked off a 22-city U.S. speaking tour for his group.

"Walls can fall down," he said, adding that meaningful dialogue can result in much-needed compromises on the path to peace.

Elhanan was supposed to have been joined on stage by his group's Palestinian coordinator, Sulaiman Al Hamri, a youth leader during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) who spent more than five years in Israeli jails. But Al Hamri's U.S. visa was not issued in time for him to speak in Atlanta.

Elhanan told his young audience that when he was in high school, he lived in the bubble of a comfortable Jewish household, uninterested in the conflict consuming his homeland. He joined the army as required by Israel's mandatory conscription rules, proudly fulfilling what he saw as his civic duty.

The bubble burst the day his sister died.

Elhanan's commanding officer told him that operations against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon would give him a chance to avenge Smadar's murder. Elhanan could not believe such an intelligent man would see everything in black and white -- that he did not distinguish between Sunni Palestinians and Shiite Hezbollah fighters. His hatred was for all Muslims.

Elhanan said the Middle East conflict is not a religious one, nor is it a clash of civilizations.

"This war exists solely because there is an occupation," he told the Paideia students. "And whenever you have occupation, you have resistance."

Both sides are guilty of violence, and with each act, they incite more, Elhanan said.

"The person who killed my sister is dead," he said in a later interview. "It's too cheap to substitute a body for her."

Elhanan believes a peaceful two-state solution is possible if Israelis and Palestinians begin speaking to each other. When Palestinians say suicide bombings are unacceptable and the Israelis stop ruling the territories with martial law, Elik Elhanan will have his revenge.

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