Angered by the Israeli occupation and all the bloodshed, a Palestinian mother decided to strap on a bomb and kill as many Israelis as she could. Wary of possible Palestinian terrorists, a man in the Israeli air force helped plan how to drop bombs on them.
Both people shared the same homeland, one of the most contested parts of the planet. Both saw violence and grief and fear as an inevitable fact of their lives.
Until both became fed up with the conflict. And the would-be Palestinian terrorist and the Israeli military man dedicated themselves to a peace group composed of other former combatants just like them.
A documentary about these and other stories — called “Disturbing the Peace” — will show at 7 tonight at Film Streams, followed by a question-and-answer session with the director. About 200 middle and high schoolers from the Omaha area will see the film Wednesday. Promoters of the film hope that watching two historically incompatible sides come together and make peace offers a lesson that might ripple beyond the north downtown theater and beyond the Israel-Palestine question.
You can’t help but think that if these Palestinians and Israelis could find a way forward together, then there must be a way for deeply red and deeply blue Americans to overcome our less violent political divisions. There exists the potential to change — a way out of what can seem like a tired script.
“Maybe we had to get to this place where there is this despair and divide, waking people up,” said Stephen Apkon, who made this film in collaboration with Andrew Young. “The film is a model for how to respond to these situations here. And there.”
The documentary opens in 2005 as the first members of Combatants for Peace are driving to their first meet-up in a Palestinian neighborhood.
They express misgivings and downright fear about each other. Nonetheless, they view the effort as their only hope.
“They could kill us,” says Jamel Qassas in a voiceover. The Palestinian man is from a family that can trace its personal loss to Israeli statehood in 1948 — which he calls “our catastrophe.” The creation of a Jewish state meant the uprooting of Palestinians, including Jamel’s relatives. His grandfather refused to budge and was killed. Later on, when Jamel was 16, Israeli soldiers killed his 14-year-old brother. He’d been out past curfew.
Driving to this meeting, Jamel says he’s on his way to “meet our enemy.”
Chen Alon shares the same anxiety. In his voiceover, this former member of the Israeli army describes leaving a checkpoint warning that he was about to enter Palestinian territory, a dangerous place to be for someone like him. He has no weapons, nothing.
“It might be a trap,” he says.
Chen owes his very existence to a Polish grandfather — “the crazy Zionist of the family” who left Poland for what was then Palestine, escaping the Holocaust. To Chen, Israel was a refuge, a shelter for the Jewish people.
The rest of this compelling documentary is told in three parts. Part 1 provides an introduction to Jamel, Chen and other members of Combatants for Peace. We get their back stories and points of view, along with often grim news footage from as far back as World War II. In black and white, we see the bodies of people who perished in the Holocaust. In color, we see the bodies of people killed by Israeli warplanes or Palestinian bombs.
We hear Jamel explain how he didn’t think he could bear his brother’s death, and we hear Chen say, somewhat baffled, that he couldn’t understand Palestinian anger.
One of the most compelling stories comes from Shifa al-Qudsi, the Palestinian woman who planned to blow herself up. She describes the feeling of helplessness that drove her to that point, and relates the conversation she has with her daughter the day before the planned bombing. But before she could carry out the act, she was arrested and jailed. She spent six years in prison, and the respectful treatment of an Israeli guard helped her see the conflict differently.
Those turning points are outlined in Part 2 of the film, when the combatants look beyond their own suffering and place themselves in the experiences of their enemy.
Jamel, for example, is shaken “to the core” when he sees how bereft his Palestinian mother becomes after hearing about Jews killed in a bus bombing.
“Blood is blood,” she tells him, explaining that mothers suffer unbearably when they lose a child.
Part 3 involves these transformed Palestinians and Israelis coming together to form Combatants for Peace. They share their stories and collaborate on forms of nonviolent action, drawing from the examples of peacemakers like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
It’s not all kumbaya. We hear the entrenched positions from both sides. And outside the circle of these new peacemakers are doubters. Jamel’s wife isn’t so sure this effort is a good idea and presses him hard about his involvement, saying he ought to remember his brother and all that the Palestinians have lost.
Some Israelis, too, see the group as a threat. “Traitors of Israel!” hollers one man.
But the Combatants for Peace remain undaunted. Jamel tells a crowd that peace will bring security. And Chen acknowledges that their goal won’t happen overnight but is, instead, “a long-distance run.”
Apkon said in an interview that for peace to work, each side has to break out of the cycle of victim and perpetrator, hero and villain. Recognizing our capacity for evil and others’ capacity for good, he said, helps us humanize the other. And when you humanize the enemy, he said, you humanize yourself.