Filmmaker Stephen Apkon was about to give up on the idea of making a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he met two men — Chen Alon, a former Israeli tank commander, and Sulaiman Khatib, a Palestinian who spent a decade in an Israeli prison for trying to kill two Israelis when he was 14. The two, previously mortal enemies, became unlikely allies in a quest for peace.
They and the other activists drawn to their cause became the center of Apkon’s film “Disturbing the Peace.”
The two adversaries were among some 20 Israeli and Palestinian men and women who began meeting secretly in the West Bank in 2005, calling themselves “Combatants for Peace.” Since then, their numbers have increased to several hundred, and at times their mass activities have attracted crowds of 4,000-5,000 people from both sides of the conflict.
Alon had come to the realization, that “using the military to occupy the West Bank wasn’t serving the interest of their country.” And Khatib told Apkon, “We are breaking the cycle of violence by understanding we need to break our own sense of victimhood.”
Apkon and his partners, Marcina Hale and Andrew Young, are screening their film now in the United States and Europe, and the filmmaker presented the one-and-a-half-hour documentary to an audience of some 40 people on Nov. 1 at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.
“Combatants for Peace,” he told NJJN prior to the screening, is “the world’s only group of former enemy combatants working together toward nonviolence during an armed conflict.”
The Israelis and Palestinians, said Apkon, discovered two seemingly conflicting traits they had in common: a willingness to kill strangers and a strong desire to make peace. In 2014, the Palestinians and Israelis in the group organized massive rallies on both sides of the Green Line that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. He said the Combatant’s message is to confront “the ways in which we get stuck in our own national and religious narratives that tend to separate and divide people.”
In the days of the group’s infancy, the Arabs and Israelis met in a climate of fear. Though one says in the film that “we were willing to try anything to get our freedom,” the Palestinians worried that they could be arrested or killed by the police or Shin Bet agents. At the same time, as the former Israeli soldiers crossed the Green Line to meet with them, one says, “These people are dangerous. It might be a trap.”
But it was not. They greeted each other peacefully, if cautiously, and began by telling one other about the violent acts they had committed.
Assaf Yacobovitz, an Israeli Air Force officer assigned to an air traffic control unit, says in the film that he directed planes to drop bombs on Palestinian targets “without having a clear idea of what was happening.” During an attack on Gaza, he says, he was struck by the difference between the “sterile images” he saw on a monitor and the “terrible images of bloody reality” the bombs he directed had caused.
Shifa al-Qudsi, a Palestinian woman from Tulkarem in the West Bank, says she watched her 12-year-old cousin killed while he was leaving a mosque. Another time her 14-year-old sister-in-law was killed. Then her own child came home crying, telling her she saw a classmate shot to death. al-Qudsi told her daughter she was going away to do something to make her life better; in fact, she had decided to “blow herself up next to Israelis,” knowing she would die in the attack. But she was arrested and imprisoned before she could carry out the bombing. In an Israeli television interview, she said, she was “a fighter, not a terrorist.”
After an Israeli prison guard’s brother was murdered in a suicide bombing, she the guard says to al-Qudsi that “both sides were wrong for all the killing.” It forced al-Qudsi “to rethink things.” In doing so, she says in the film, she discovered that “goodness was possible everywhere. “
While Khatib was imprisoned, he and other inmates were brought to tears when they were shown the Holocaust film “Schindler’s List,” he says in “Disturbing the Peace.” It led him to learn to speak and read Hebrew so that he could understand Israelis’ points of view. “We felt compassion for them,” he says of the Jews murdered during the Shoa.
During the 2014 rallies, marchers carried cardboard mock-ups of the separation wall, doves fashioned from bedsheets, puppets depicting political leaders, and cardboard signs in three languages — Arabic, Hebrew, and English — saying “Together End the Occupation.” They marched on opposite sides of the high barrier dividing Israel and the West Bank and converged on Beit Jala, where the concrete wall becomes a metal fence.
The Palestinians were met and dispersed by Israeli army tear gas. To Alon, “all of a sudden, the soldiers looked like they were prisoners…imprisoned in violence and hatred.”
During the Second Gaza War later in 2014, members of Combatants for Peace were struck with pessimism. “Now I can see only war, destruction, and death,” says one Israeli in the documentary. “Even people who believed in peace are now doubting it.”
One Palestinian calls the actions of those working with Israelis a “betrayal.” But another says he also saw “fear in Tel Aviv in the south during the sirens,” when Israelis were taking shelter during Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.
So they rallied again, carrying signs that said, “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies.”
“We are patriots, but patriotism does not mean we stand for everything our government does,” says one of the Israeli demonstrators.
Despite setbacks and opposition from political leaders on both sides, the Combatants for Peace remain optimistic.
“We see it as a long-distance run, and we will continue to go along with it,” says Avner Wishnitzer, a former member of the Israeli Army’s Special Forces.
“I was really moved by their stories,” said Beth Hatikvah’s Rabbi Hannah Orden as the film ended. “It is important to show peace is possible, even in a time of violence. Even if we cannot change the situation now, we must not stay silent.”