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Leverett activist finds no easy path to peace in Palestinian conflict

  • Leverett peace activist Paula Green, of “Combatants for Peace,” and Stellan Vinthagen, chairman of the University of Massachusetts Nonviolent Direct Action and Resistance Studies. RECORDER STAFF/Richie Davis

  • The training focused on how Combatants for Peace, with between 100 and 200 active members using nonviolent means to end the occupation, can garner support and attention to bring that about — through action like monthly “freedom marches” in the West Bank and through their alternative memorial observance each May. Those actions are shown in a new documentary, “Disturbing the Peace,” which Karuna Center will screen Nov. 1 at Amherst Cinema. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • PAULA GREEN PAULA GREEN



For the Gazette
Saturday, October 08, 2016

LEVERETT — Just back from training former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters now working as “Combatants for Peace,” Leverett peace activist Paula Green said she saw some hopelessness and also fear over rising tensions around them.

Yet the 10-year-old organization, the only binational group of its kind trying to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine, plays an important role in the decades-old crisis, said Green, founder of the Karuna Center in Amherst, which she represented for a five-day training.

Green, who trained 10 former Israeli soldiers and 10 formerly militant Palestinians in Aqaba, Jordan, together with University of Massachusetts Nonviolent Direct Action and Resistance Studies Chairman Stellan Vinthagen, said, “It is very brave to stand against your own society and work with the so-called enemy in such a powerful way. Their relationships, like in a long marriage, have been well tested. They have conflicts, they have terribly hard things to talk about.”

The six-day 1967 war, after which Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula and West Bank, occurred long before most Israelis and Palestinians were born. So when the two trainers asked the “combatants” to imagine a new, post-conflict society, “They came back with lots of creative ideas, but also with each side saying, “We can’t imagine it. The Palestinians said, ‘We’ve been occupied our entire lives. We can’t imagine life without the occupation,’” reported Green. “The Israelis came back saying, ‘We’ve been occupiers since the day we were born. We can’t imagine what it would be like to not be an occupier.’ It’s that deep.”

Also, she said, there is no binational dialogue as in the days of the 1990s Oslo talks.

“All that’s gone,” she said. “The ‘combatants’ say the dehumanization, the stereotyping, is about as high as they’ve ever seen, each side of the other, because there’s no way to break that down.”

‘Historic solidarity’

When they showed the trainees videos from the American civil rights movement and the South African apartheid movement, Green said, “They were just riveted by the screen, because they feel so alone. The Palestinians feel so unseen, and nonviolence is so under-represented in both societies. It was so important for them to realize there was historic solidarity with other people.”

The Israeli peace movement, she said, is “weaker than before, terribly weak. I think the assassination (in 1995 of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin took the wind out if their sails. It’s very small, very sad.”

The training focused on how Combatants for Peace, with between 100 and 200 active members using nonviolent means to end the occupation, can garner support and attention to bring that about — through action like monthly “freedom marches” in the West Bank and through their alternative memorial observance each May. Those actions are shown in a new documentary, “Disturbing the Peace,” which Karuna Center will screen Nov. 1 at the Amherst Cinema.

“It’s very hard to do that kind of work in a stressed situation, being occupied or occupier,” Green said. “They have to work much harder than anybody else keeping their structure together, keeping their relationships going. Both groups are treated badly by their own societies, they’re not accepted, they’re considered traitors.”

As a result, some have been harassed or fired from their jobs.

Resistance studies

Vinthagen, a Swedish sociologist who in 2014 became the inaugural endowed chair in the first-of-its kind Resistance Studies Initiative, has examined and worked with activists struggling in Turkey, India and elsewhere.

“I’m a great admirer of what they’re doing. Just by existing, they show a very courageous alternative and way forward,” he said. During the training, he witnessed tensions and conflicts they were having, within their own groups and with one another.

“All the time, they were trying to maintain respect, and the relationships, with the strong arguments and the show of love going on at the same time,” Vinthagen said. “I find it very humbling to see them in that situation having energy.”

Like Green, who has worked with nonviolent, grassroots human-rights movements groups around the world, Vinthagen points to Tibet’s long struggle against Chinese oppression, the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir and the Morocco’s occupation of the western Sahara as similar situations.

Yet, he added, “This a completely unique group. There’s no other area in the world where we have an ongoing world conflict, with ex-combatants from both sides united in one binational group fighting for a peaceful solution. You can find that when it comes to periods after an armed conflict but not during. I think the stress that creates is immense. The discussion is about recognition and acknowledgment of the pain and suffering.”

The violence that ISIS has unleashed in the Mideast and in the larger world “has made (Israel) ever more frightened and the Palestinians ever more despairing,” Green said.

She heard from one Palestinian participant in the training relating how his grandparents were forced out of their village when Israel was created in 1948 into the Deheisheh Refugee Camp, south of Jerusalem, where he, as the third generation, now lives. “It’s a reminder of how displaced people are.”

“It’s very hard,” she added. “These are two profoundly traumatized groups, people who are struggling. (It’s crucial) to find a way to share this land and acknowledge the past, which has created all this suffering in the land.”

As an unarmed, nonviolent movement trying to create social change at a time when armed groups are very prevalent, Vinthagen said, “Especially when you’re a Muslim, there’s a perception and prejudice that works against you. You have to work hard to maintain a difference between you and the armed actors.”

Martin Luther King, he recalled, said that people who try to tear down nonviolent resistance movements also pave the way for armed alternatives.

Green agrees. “The presence of ISIS and other armed groups makes the need for nonviolent campaigns much more urgent than ever, because people are seeing the results of violence, the extremes of violence in the past year or two. That should be an opportunity to strengthen nonviolence, but it’s very hard in this context, and especially hard when the groups are trying to work together and can’t meet, they can’t get together to see one other and do anything because of the walls and checkpoints. They’re working against enormous obstacles.”

As the occupation has solidified, with more Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, ending it becomes ever harder — and ever more necessary, she believes.

“In the end, they have to share a small piece of land, and an infinitely small amount of water,” Green said. “And this occupation, and the inability of the people to know each other at all, mitigates against the possibility of sharing the land. You can’t share with people you don’t know, and people you’re taught to hate and consider dangerous and violate your human rights.

“When the populations have a natural way to mix, they break down some of that, little by little,” she said.

On the Web: www.cfpeace.org and www.karunacenter.org