Submitted by Peter Denison

ESB bannerThe New York Times of Saturday, October 29, 2016, printed a story about a woman named Shifa al-Qudsi, a Palestinian so upset by the mistreatment of her people that she volunteered to become a suicide bomber. Fortunately, she was caught before she could detonate the bomb and was sentenced to six years in an Israeli prison. During her imprisonment, she learned about a group called “Combatants for Peace” which had been started by some Israeli veterans whose army careers had convinced them that there must be a better way than shooting and bombing the enemy. Shifa had come to the same conclusion while serving in prison. Thus she joined a group composed both of Israelis and Palestinians working for a peaceful solution.

Several years ago, on the CBS program Sixty Minutes, I learned about two thirteen-year-old girls, one Israeli and one Palestinian who had become fast friends. They also had wanted to work for peace and reconciliation. Five years later, Sixty Minutes did a follow-up. By that time the Palestinian girl had become disillusioned because of all the Israeli violence against her people. As a result, she had decided she wanted to become a suicide bomber. I have no further information about her and don’t know if she carried out her wish, returned to being a peace activist, or simply dropped out.

How is it possible for the same person to want to be a peace activist at one time and a violent militant at another? There is an underlying aspect of their characters, an intense feeling of patriotism for their people, an idealism which can lead in either direction. In either case, their motivation is idealistic, not self-regarding. Americans tend to call them thugs or worse, but this is not accurate (at least in most cases). When they are held in an Israeli prison, they support each other and behave in an orderly manner — as the political prisoners they consider themselves to be. As a result they have much better personal relationships with their prison guards. (Of course, this is possible because Israeli prisons are relatively civilized, unlike most prisons in the neighboring Middle East nations.)

Combatants for Peace had scheduled a conference in the United States, and Shifa wanted to go just as other members had. The Israeli government did not feel able to trust her and wouldn’t let her travel to Tel Aviv to get a visa. In a sense, the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem is fear and lack of trust. Most Israelis would love to have a definitive peace settlement and not have to worry about terrorist acts every so often. But can they trust the Palestinians? And equally important, can the Palestinians trust the Israelis? Both sides tend to dehumanize the other as simply thugs who only respond to force. Yet violence never ultimately works either.

The Israeli-Palestinian standoff is only one of many on this earth. In our country, we continue to have racial conflict and senseless killings. I can see why some African Americans seek revenge for police killings by killing some police officers who ironically happen to be innocent. It’s a feeling many sympathize with. But it just won’t work. If the police fear that they are the objects of assassination attempts, they will be more inclined to simply shoot first. We must regard the other side as also human and try for reconciliation. It’s true that the methods of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King do not always work. Despite their peaceful ways, both suffered a violent death. But when the weaker side chooses violence out of frustration, they simply lose the emotional support of those who could be persuaded to intervene on their side. We must aim for reconciliation.