End The Occupation - and Get Justice For Its Victims
This month, President Bush visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah and declared that the occupation must end. These were no doubt welcome words to Palestinians and Israelis alike. They provide hope for peace; for without occupation, peace is truly possible.
Unfortunately, for many, including my 10-year-old daughter Abir, it is too late.
One year ago, Abir was shot in the head by Israeli border police as she left school. The soldiers allege that they were fighting with children who were throwing rocks.
Although the soldiers claimed Abir had been attacking them, witnesses and an independent autopsy demonstrate clearly that she was shot in the back of the head while running away.
The pain that these lies caused my wife and me is hard to express. Our baby never made it home from school. She was killed; why must her name and innocence be killed as well?
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to the Israeli human rights group Btselem, 864 Palestinian minors have been killed since 2000, and not one case has been brought to justice. But these are statistics, and Abir was my daughter. She was my life.
It would be very easy for me to hate - to find my gun and kill soldiers in the name of my daughter. That is how the cycle of violence is perpetuated. Every child killed is used to justify more killing.
I was once part of the cycle. I began fighting the occupation at age 13 and spent seven years in an Israeli jail for helping to plan an attack on Israeli soldiers. My only regret then was that no soldier was hurt or killed.
However, during my time in prison, I talked with many guards. I learned about their families, their lives and their history, as well as their pain and loss. I saw each as a human being and not just as a soldier, guard or occupier. Eventually, I came to understand how both sides have become instruments of war and victims of the occupation.
After I left prison, I began working to end the occupation in a peaceful manner. In 2005, we established Combatants for Peace, former Israeli and Palestinian fighters who now refuse to take part in the bloodshed. Instead, we work together using nonviolent means to end the occupation. Through the telling of our stories, we've begun to understand each other, and we've learned there is more that unites us than divides us.
The death of my daughter almost finished Combatants for Peace. I had to choose between anger and hate, and my vision of peace. I chose peace, and the organization continues working for it today in memory of Abir. But justice is an essential component of peace. So I am also seeking justice for Abir.
Despite his acknowledging the occupation, Mr. Bush's commitment falls short in many ways. He spoke of "illegal outposts" but ignored the 200 or so illegal Israeli settlements spread out across the West Bank. All of these settlements are built on stolen Palestinian land and are connected by a maze of roads that dissect Palestinian communities and upon which only Israelis can drive.
Until the U.S. government is willing to move beyond rhetoric, embrace international law and act to end the occupation, it is hard to envision an end to the violence.
We who have been touched by the violence have become partners for peace, and though we can try to make the violence stop, we can't do it alone. Israelis and their government - and Americans and their government - should be ashamed at the travesty in Gaza today; my neighbors are in darkness, without food and medicine, just days after President Bush delivered his promising words.
The rest of the world, including Mr. Bush, needs to recognize its responsibility to make the occupation end. We know that peace is possible when justice prevails.
© 2008 The Baltimore Sun