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As Gaza Plunges into Darkness, Israeli and Palestinian Fighters-Turned-Peace-Activists Speak Out

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The United Nations is accusing Israel of collectively punishing the Palestinian population in Gaza by cutting off fuel supplies as part of a blockade of the Gaza Strip. In the midst of the deepening crisis, we speak with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists Yonatan Shapira and Bassam Aramin. They are from a group called Combatants for Peace that is made up of former fighters from both Israel and the Occupied Territories. Shapira is a former captain in the Israeli Air Force and Black Hawk pilot squadron. Aramin was an armed member of Fatah and spent seven years in an Israeli prison. His ten-year-old daughter Abir was shot dead by an Israeli soldier last year. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Following widespread international criticism, Israel has agreed to allow some food, medicine and fuel into the besieged Gaza Strip that depends on Israel for fuel and electricity. The move comes after three days of air strikes last week that killed thirty Palestinians and four days of total closure and almost no electricity. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the temporary easing of restrictions is not a long-term solution.

    SAMI ABU ZUHRI: [translated] The Israeli announcement of supplying Gaza with more fuel does not mean solving the crisis in Gaza. The real crisis of our Palestinian people is the continuation of siege on the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli officials agreed to temporarily lift the blockade after protests around the world and censure from the European Union. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed his party on Monday and denied exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

    PRIME MINISTER EHUD OLMERT: [translated] We will not allow a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but we have no intention of making their lives easy. As long as these hardships are greater, providing there are no humanitarian blows, not in hospitals, not in clinics, not with young children, not with helpless people, we will not allow it. But in no way will we let them live comfortable and pleasant lives. As far as I’m concerned, all the residents of Gaza can go on foot and have no fuel for cars, because they have a murderous terrorist regime that doesn’t allow people in the south of Israel to live in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: In the midst of this deepening crisis, I spoke to an Israeli and Palestinian peace activist: Yonatan Shapira and Bassam Aramin. They are from a group called Combatants for Peace that’s made up of former fighters from both Israel and Palestine. Bassam Aramin spent seven years in an Israeli prison, was an armed member of Fatah, the Palestinian political faction once led by Yasser Arafat. Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter Abir died one year ago after being shot by Israeli soldiers while she was on her way home from school. Yonatan Shapira is a captain in the Israeli Air Force and Black Hawk pilot squadron —- well, he was. In 2003, he authored the “Pilots’ Letter,” refusing to participate in attacks against Palestinians.

I spoke to the two former fighters on Thursday about their efforts for peace and their thoughts on attacks in Gaza. I started by asking Yonatan Shapira how he went from being a pilot in the Israeli military to a peace activist.

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: I was a captain in the Israeli Air Force and flew Black Hawk, which is mostly rescue helicopter in the Israeli Air Force. And after a long, long process of becoming aware of the world they live in and mostly the occupation and the war crimes that my government and my army is part of, I decided to refuse to be part of this circle of revenge. The reason for that were many. I think especially the assassinations that started to happen during the Sharon government, especially one assassination that caused the loss of many innocents, fifteen innocent, including nine children and babies, that led me and many of my friends -—

    AMY GOODMAN: What was your involvement in that?

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: Oh, I was not involved in any shooting directly on anyone, because I flew rescue missions and I landed commando forces. But I felt that it doesn’t matter. If you shoot yourself or you land soldiers that are shooting someone or your friend in the other squadron is dropping bombs on innocents, once you are part of it, once you are part of a society even, once you are part of the world, you have responsibility, especially if you’re part of an air force that is being sent on a daily basis to kill. And most of the people who died there are innocents, just like happened in the last days.

    And I found other people in the air force that agree with me and were willing to sign the letter that I authored saying that we are no longer willing to follow illegal and immoral orders. That was called the “Pilots’ Letter.” We published it in September 2003.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how unusual was that letter?

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: We were not the first Israeli refusers. We were not the first Israelis to say we are not going to be part of these war crimes anymore. But it’s the first time that a pilot organized and did something like that. And in Israel, which, as you know, it’s a very militaristic society, when the pilots are saying something like that, it broke a lot of — people were pissed off. People saw it as a rebellion. That was more than four years ago.

    Later on, we decided that it’s important to refuse, but just refusing to be part of something illegal and immoral and just refusing to be part of war crimes is not enough. You have to try to fix the wrongdoing that you were part of. And then, with many other people who refused to military service and to be part of the occupation in the Israeli side and Palestinian ex-fighters in the Palestinian side, people who were many years in Israeli prisons, we formed this group, which we called “Combatants for Peace.” In Arabic, it’s [Arabic translation]; and in Hebrew, [Hebrew translation]. I know the name is a bit militaristic itself, but the idea is that we are going to have a joint struggle this time. And, in a way, the Israelis who woke up, the ex-fighters, are joining the Palestinian nonviolent struggle for liberation. And this is something that didn’t happen before. We have a lot of organizations of Israelis and Palestinians that are struggling together against the occupation, but not as former fighters.

    AMY GOODMAN: Bassam Aramin, talk about how you came to Combatants for Peace. You were in Israeli prison for seven years. Talk about your family and how it has dealt with the occupation, your daughter.

    BASSAM ARAMIN: Well, actually, I arrested in 1985 for seven years in the Israeli jails.

    AMY GOODMAN: As a Fatah fighter.

    BASSAM ARAMIN: As a Fatah member, yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: I was seventeen years.

    AMY GOODMAN: Where did you live?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: In Hebron, Sayer village, with a group of six children. Then, after the jail, briefly, we start to think that we are more than sixty years fighting one each other, and no result. Israel is not safe, and Palestine is not free. And the majority from the both sides know that the final solution could be two states. And the big question is, why we are dying now if we know the solution even.

    We must be very courage when we take our weapons, to be courage also to speak loudly what we believe. We know that this conflict cannot be solved in a military solution. It means we must find another way to fight against the occupation. We will never accept the occupation anyway. The Israelis must be responsible for their occupation. From this point came the idea of Combatants for Peace. We established this organization in 2005 by four Palestinians and seven Israelis. Now we are around 400 ex-combatants from both sides.

    Personally, I paid the price for one year exactly, the 16th of January. Abir, this day, must be alive. One Israeli soldier shot and killed her in Anata in her school — in front of her school. She was —-

    AMY GOODMAN: What is your daughter’s name?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: She was ten years old, Abir.

    AMY GOODMAN: Abir.

    BASSAM ARAMIN: Abir means the smell of the flower. Abir, she wasn’t a fighter. She don’t belong to Fatah or Hamas. She was just a child. And all the times our message that in Combatants for Peace, we want to protect our children.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: It was a normal day. When Israeli soldier came, Israeli [inaudible] and shoot her from a distance of fifteen meters in her head without any demonstrations. It’s a quiet day. And they look at her when she fell down and still going without any help or -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Was in the morning or afternoon?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: Yes, it’s in the morning, 9:30, after she finished her examination with her sister and two friends, after she bought a candy. Yeah, very [inaudible].

    AMY GOODMAN: Where were you at the time?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: I was on my way to work in Ramallah. And her school told me that Abir was fell down, they want her mom. They don’t told me that someone shot her. And when I asked the — called home back to tell her mom to go to the school, I found her sister Arin crying and shouting, and her sister — her friend also told me that Abir was shot in her head by an Israeli soldier. And this is by — it was a shock. And when I called back the school, they told me that they bring her to the Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem. She spent two days in Israeli — I bring her to Hadassah Hospital in Israel. After two days, she died. And I still continue asking myself forever why, and there is no answer.

    AMY GOODMAN: Has this case been investigated?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: Actually, yeah. To be honest, they opened an investigation after three days, and they closed it after three weeks, because they haven’t any evidence that they are involved in this incident. And before they declared that they closed the file, I have interview with Israeli Channel Two. I told them that they will close the file, like the 971 Palestinian kids which have been killed since 2000. It’s not a unique case. But because it’s my life aim, I will bring this killer to the justice. It’s not political. My daughter go to school, and someone came to kill her and escaped. I want the criminal to stand in front of the justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Bassam Aramin is a former Fatah fighter, spent seven years in an Israeli prison. Yonatan Shapira, former captain in the Israel Air Force and Black Hawk pilot. This is Democracy Now! We’ll come back to this conversation, then we’ll be joined in Detroit by Grace Lee Boggs. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We go back to the discussion with Yonatan Shapira, former captain in the Israeli Air Force and Blacks Hawk pilot squadron, author of the “Pilots’ Letter.” Bassam Aramin is a former Fatah fighter, spent seven years in an Israeli jail. Last year, his daughter Abir was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. I asked Bassam to talk about how Palestinians respond to his now working with the Israelis.

    BASSAM ARAMIN: You know, there is some difficults. Palestinian people, under the military direct occupation — and just the other day, they killed more than twenty-four Palestinian innocent. But we try to convince the people that there is no choice. We must, in spite of our patterns of pain, we must talk together. We must fight together against the occupation, Israelis and Palestinians. This is the only way that we can create peace for our kids.

    AMY GOODMAN: Yonatan Shapira, with the latest news — and every day something else is breaking —- as we record this interview, Israel continuing the latest assault on the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian militants intensify rocket fire, three Palestinian civilians, including a thirteen-year-old, were killed Wednesday when an Israeli missile hit their car. Israel called the attack an “error.” The killings came one day after nineteen Palestinians lost their lives, the highest single-day Palestinian death toll in more than a year.

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, now they use more drones and unmanned planes to do these crimes. They don’t need anymore to convince the pilots to shoot in Gaza, although there are many attacks by attack helicopters like Apache and stuff like that. But I think that many of the missions are done by the commander, that he can sit far away in a closed room in a commander ship in Tel Aviv or something like that and just press a button, and people are getting killed. And this distance between the decision to the result is what I think in the history calls the most horrible crimes ever. And -—

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that the drones release the missiles, the bombs.

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: I don’t know in that specific case, but in many cases now and during the last years, they use drones, yeah. At the beginning, they tried to collaborate, and it was kind of a secret. But now anyone — everyone knows. And Israel is selling these drones to other countries. It’s one of our top products in the military industry that is blooming in a way. You know, the occupation is not so bad for some people in my society and in your society. It’s actually benefiting many people.

    AMY GOODMAN: You mean the military contractors?

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: Exactly, and the weapons industry. And I don’t think that you have to be a military expert or have a Ph.D. in political science and to be one of these fancy scholars in Washington institutions to know that the results of this scientific experiment that we have in Gaza, for example, locking millions of people — million-and-a-half people without food, electricity, medicine — no one can go out, no one can go in — that’s a military — you don’t have to know anything about history. It’s obvious that you’re going to have people that are going to resist. And I grew up, you know, learning the history of my people and how they resisted in Warsaw Ghetto, where they didn’t have any choice.

    AMY GOODMAN: In the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II in Poland.

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yeah, they knew that they are going to be killed sooner or later.

    AMY GOODMAN: By the Nazis.

    YONATAN SHAPIRA: And the last thing that they could do is to fight back. And I’m against what the Hamas is doing. I’m completely against the Kassam rocket. And people are getting killed sometime and harmed in the Israeli side. I’m aware of that, and I’m against that. And all of us in our group, in our organization, are against that. But what can you expect from people when you treat them like that, in such a brutal occupation, such a brutal situation? What do you want them to do?

    AMY GOODMAN: Bassam, what do you tell other teenagers who, like you at seventeen, took up arms against Israel, see that only as the answer, see a lot of people in their community, young people, being killed and injured? How do you say to them, “The answer is not what I did”?

    BASSAM ARAMIN: Actually, I was their age, and I know how they are thinking. If you give them hope or another direction, they will have something to choose. But in our case, there is nothing to choose, just to resist. The create from us fighters, in spite we are children. We start to make like education, peace education or nonviolence education with all these teenagers, that they must to learn now, to complete their education, to give them an alternative way with the Israelis. We started to make groups from young people with the Israelis to know something about the other side.

AMY GOODMAN: Bassam Aramin, former Fatah fighter, Yonatan Shapira, former captain in the Israeli Air Force, they are both part of a group called Combatants for Peace. We will link to their website at

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