To Break the Circle

Rana Salman - Combatants for Peace


Leaning on their Values

Rana Salman was nervous ahead of an October 9 zoom call for Combatants for Peace activists, their first call since their worlds had changed two days earlier. At first Rana, the Executive Director, thought to herself, “maybe it will be difficult to really talk to each other because there was so much pain and grief and trauma”.

But then the organization’s DNA kicked in, as Rana says, is “built on a solid foundation of values of non-violence and shared humanity, and respect, and mutual understanding, that actually helped a lot … It was a very, very difficult conversation. But the fact that we were able to sit together and talk about it and share our feelings and our fears and grief together. That was actually everything. That’s why we do what we do.”

Days have since turned into weeks and now five months have passed and the war continues. Rana sees Israelis and Palestinians as being lost, stuck in a continual state of grief.

Rana, who lives in Bethlehem, sees a special role for Combatants for Peace, a one of a kind grassroots organization founded in 2006 by Israelis and Palestinians committed to breaking the cycle of violence after either serving or refusing to serve in the Israeli army or as Palestinian combatants. Together they act out against the occupation and advocate for a political, not a military resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Joint Action

Taking joint action is the main way the group works together. Recently they had their first joint demonstration against the war, held near Jericho. They also called for the release of the Hamas-held Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. 100 peoples were in attendance. They have also continued protecting Palestinians in the Jordan Valley and the south Hebron Hills, escorting shepherds for example as they try to protect them from settler or army violence. Before the war that work was done by both Palestinian and Israeli members, but because of new military roadblocks travel has become more dangerous for the Palestinian members. Now, it is Israeli members who are doing the work. 

The volunteers are reporting back that they are seeing increased harassment and violence from the settlers, with all eyes focused less there than on Gaza, Rana says.

“We are trying to empower the steadfastness of the Palestinians, so they … remain on their lands. And that’s very important. So what we try to do is provide some protection through our Israeli activists so they (Palestinians) won’t be evacuated or displaced from the communities,” she says. 

Pushing for a Political Solution

Rana, who came to Combatants for Peace after several years working in tourism in the West Bank, organizing political and educational tours for visitors from abroad, traveled to Washington, DC in February with colleagues from Combatants for Peace. There they met with Congress members, State Department and White House officials to share their perspective on what was happening on the ground regionally and to lobby for U.S. action against settler violence in the West Bank, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza  and brokering a cease-fire deal to include a hostage for prisoner exchange that can then pave the way to a negotiated peace settlement. 

“We’re actually trapped in the same circle of violence, so every few years we will face the same thing unless we actually go forward to where we are working on a political solution,” says Rana.  “We feel the international community has the power and must use its influence to actually push for this peace and not for war.” 

Rana herself did not meet Israeli counterparts until her early twenties during a trip to Germany, but years later in 2014 she had her first real transformative experience with Israelis on a wilderness expedition for Palestinian and Israeli women leaders. 

“We were working together to find water, to set up tents, to cook meals together … there was time for conversations, to actually have exercises to build mutual trust, creating friendships and relationships that I could take back home and continue to maintain,” she says. She credits that experience with leading her ultimately to her work with Combatants for Peace.

The Freedom School

One of their flagship programs is an educational program for young people between the ages of 18 to 26 called “Freedom School”. Israelis meet together in Israel and Palestinians together in the West Bank, each group learning more about conflict, their identities, and non-violent resistance, including models of how it has worked in other parts of the world. The Israeli group learns some Arabic, joins field tours of the West Bank to see for themselves what occupation looks like. Eventually they are introduced and can start taking joint actions together. The program has been disrupted by the war but a new cohort for both groups is supposed to be starting again soon. 

Also, in the spring Combatants for Peace are planning to co-host as they have in recent years, a  Joint Memorial Ceremony where Israelis and Palestinians can grieve together for those they have lost to the conflict. This year after such catastrophic levels of loss, “it will be very significant to hold the ceremony this year … we are still grieving.”  Grieving – and angry. 

Past years have seen noisy right-wing demonstrations outside the event and protests in the run up to it. 

“It won’t be an easy task, but it will be more meaningful,” perhaps more than ever before, says Rana.

Dina Kraft

Writer and Journalist

Dina Kraft is a writer and journalist based in Tel Aviv.  She is the Opinion Editor for Haaretz English and co-author of My Friend Anne Frank. She has written from the region for over two decades for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times, reporting on Israeli and Palestinian politics, culture and society.

Dina is drawn to stories featuring unlikely connections, dual narratives and the impact of conflict and crisis on ordinary lives. She hosts the podcast “Groundwork” and previously “The Branch”, which tell the stories of relationships between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

Dina is a long-time foreign correspondent who began her overseas career in the Jerusalem bureau of The Associated Press. She was later posted to AP’s Johannesburg bureau where she covered southern Africa. She’s also reported from Senegal, Kenya, Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Russia, and Ukraine