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The civil movement "Combatants For Peace," founded by former IDF soldiers and Palestinian combatants, has been officially declared the winner of the Anna Lindh Euro-Med Award for the Dialogue between Cultures 2009.
The award is voted on by the members of the Anna Lindh Foundation's networks of civil society organizations in 43 countries, and this year recognized the contribution of organizations and individuals in promoting a culture of peace and coexistence in the Euro-Mediterranean Region, according to a foundation statement.
Members of the foundation's region-wide network, totaling over 2,800 civil society organizations, participated in electing Combatants for Peace as this year's winner.
In 2005 a group of 12 Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the territories met with four former Palestinian gunmen, mostly from the Fatah movement, who years earlier were trying to kill one another. In the meeting, both sides expressed the desire to take responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lead their societies out of the vicious cycle of violence through dialogue and mutual understanding. After a series of meetings, the group came together to form Combatants for Peace on Pessah of 2006.
The outbreak of the second intifada raised questions for founding member and former General Staff Reconnaissance Unit soldier Avner Wishnitzer, who felt he was not getting the whole story from the Israeli media. Out of curiosity, he volunteered with the Israeli peace group Tayush and found himself on the other side for the first time.
"We went to bring blankets to Palestinians who lived in caves, which had been destroyed by the army," said Wishnitzer. "I started to realize that this anti-democratic system is the creation of my government and therefore it was my responsibility."
The first meeting between the former combatants was an eye-opening experience for both sides. who found they had much in common, dispelling false notions that they once held of one another.
"It was a very strange feeling to have one of the guys on your right saying: Last time I was here was with a tank in 2002; another one saying I demolished a house just two kilometers from here; and a Palestinian saying I threw a hand grenade on an army jeep," said Wishnitzer. "It was very intense, and very real because we were the ones who did it, we were the ones who participated in this violence, and at the same time we are its victims."
For former Fatah gunmen and founding Combatants member Wa'el Salama, the group provides a constructive dialogue, which he believes is the only solution to the conflict. Wa'el was jailed in Israel for eight years after attempting to place a bomb on a car outside a court in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Despite his commitment to non-violent resistance, continued conflict and settlement expansion make Wa'el's job of raising awareness in the Palestinian community increasingly difficult.
"It makes our work very hard when we try to convince others about non-violent resistance when there is continuing military activity, arrests, and house demolitions," said Salama. "But sometimes, a lot of times, in the right situation it becomes easier. We will succeed, I think, but it will take a long time, not a few years."
Combatants For Peace engages in a number of activities to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and to resist what they see as the Israeli occupation. These activities consist of weekly group dialogue meetings, assisting Palestinian farmers on southern Mount Hebron who face harassment from settlers, tours of east Jerusalem, and social projects such as Abir Aramin's Garden.
Ten-year-old Abir Aramin, daughter of founding Combatants for Peace member Bassam Aramin, was killed in January of 2007 after she was wounded in the head by a rubber bullet fired by border policemen while walking home from school. The shot was apparently fired towards nearby rioters in the West Bank village of Anata, Ynet news reported at the time.
After Abir's death, American NGO The Rebuilding Alliance approached Abir's father Bassam with an offer of monetary aid, but at Bassam's request, they provided funding for a playground to be built in Anata as a memorial to Abir and a place for other children to play.
Bassam has remained undeterred in his quest for peace and non-violent resistance despite the loss of his daughter.
"I told them [Rebuilding Alliance] that one Israeli soldier killed my daughter, but more than 100 ex-Israeli soldiers have come to participate and help build Abir's Garden and resist the occupation," said Aramin.
"I didn't find that the answer was to kill the killer, because he has parents too, and it's not personal. I feel responsible for Israeli children as I feel responsible for Palestinian children - they are innocent."
The High Court of Justice has agreed to review Abir's case in October, which had been dismissed four previous times, Aramin said.
For founding member and Israeli Coordinator Wishnitzer, his involvement in the group stems from deep-rooted Israeli patriotism. He sees the continued settlement expansion and disregard of Palestinian human rights as a battle for Israel's soul.
"I said in Arabic at a rally the other day that I am here because I am an Israeli patriot, I'm here because I care about my country," said Wishnitzer. "This is my country and I'm fighting to save it from itself. Our society is going in a very dangerous direction and we have a shared interest in ending the occupation. If we who carried the guns and literally shot at each other, if we can do it so can anyone else, and we are doing this without losing our identities or our societies."
The official bestowing of the award will be held in Stockholm, Sweden on September 21, marking the International Day of Peace. Representatives of the Swedish government as well as other high-profile political and cultural personalities will attend the ceremony, according to the Anna Lindh Foundation.