Editor’s Note: In a conflict that dates back generations, Israelis and Palestinians rarely change their positions or their minds. NPR’s Emily Harris, who has reported from Jerusalem since 2013, explores what prompts a relative few to adopt a new perspective. This is one of several stories.
Bassam Aramin was not born hating Israel. But he learned young.
He was 5 or 6 years old the first time he saw Israeli soldiers. This was about a decade after the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank. Aramin’s large family lived an ancient lifestyle. Like many families in the area their home was in a cave in the south, near Hebron. They farmed for a living.
The soldiers arrived by helicopter — a strange creature to the young boy’s eyes — and crossed the valley to their home on foot, Aramin remembers. During a conversation he could not follow, one soldier, he says, slapped his older cousin.
“In his face,” Aramin remembers. “It’s like a shot.” He cowered beside his mother, watching his aunt yell at the armed Israelis.
Now 46, Aramin looks back on a fast track to hating and to fighting Israel that would be familiar to many Palestinians. But eventually he flipped — both his worldview and his ways.
He credits a very unexpected stir of empathy, that happened in an unexpected place.
In middle school, Aramin’s family moved to town. At a protest, he remembers being kicked and tear gassed by Israel troops. Another day, he watched as soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian teenager who was throwing rocks at them. The stones were flung from such a distance that Aramin believed the soldiers weren’t in danger when they shot.
This amplified his anger, and he swore to take revenge.
“Because,” he says of his motivation at that time, “you have this strong feeling that if you don’t fight them, they will kill you.”
By now, he was about 12 or 13. He and several buddies joined forces to harass and taunt Israeli soldiers. They threw rocks at patrols. They scrawled pro-Palestinian graffiti around their village, Sa’ir, and hung Palestinian flags sewn from old T-shirts in trees where soldiers would pass.
Aramin says he and his friends loved to get a rise out of the soldiers.
“We want to make them crazy,” he remembers. “This is how it started. As a game.”
But Aramin felt like a real Palestinian fighter. And soon the play grew serious. One day, the boys, now in their late teens, found old hand grenades and a rifle hidden in a cave. They used them to attack an Israeli army patrol.
All the weapons worked, but no one was injured, a fact Aramin credits only to inexperience. He was not directly involved in the attack. His friends had made him stay behind because a limp from childhood polio slows him down. Still, the whole group was arrested, including Aramin. He got the shortest sentence — seven years in Israeli prison. He was 17.
Until then, he had kept his fighting secret from his family. Aramin’s father wept when he visited his son in prison. But the tears only angered Aramin.
“I said, ‘Oh my God. Why you cry?’ And he said, ‘No, nothing.’ I said, ‘You must be proud of me. Because I’m in jail.’ “
A Prison Education
So many Palestinian boys have spent time in Israeli prisons that it’s almost like a rite of passage. And the community inside was organized. Older prisoners gave regular lectures on Palestinian history and politics. Others taught academic subjects, such as languages.
Aramin decided to learn Hebrew. He believed this would prove helpful in his fight.
“In jail very early I learn that if you know your enemy, you can defeat him,” he said. “Then directly I decide to study Hebrew. Because I want to know how to kill them, how to defeat them.”
One day, not far into his sentence, the prisoners settled in for a movie on Israeli TV. Aramin knew it was about Adolf Hitler. And he was looking forward to it.
“I want to enjoy seeing this movie,” he said. “You know, I’m in their jail. They occupied us. They beat me. So at least to see a movie. To see someone defeat them, kill them, torture them.”
But he did not enjoy what he saw at all. As he watched Jews stripped of their clothing, shot and killed, tears filled his eyes and smeared his cheeks.
“They fell down. They burned them alive. To see such atrocities. I cannot believe that there are human beings that can do such things to human beings in this way,” he said.
Aramin’s eyes grow distant as he tells this story now, almost 30 years later. This was his first glimmer of understanding the persecution Jews had suffered.
A New Perspective
It led him to view even throwing stones at Israeli troops in a different way. Most Palestinians say stones are no threat to heavily armed Israelis. Israelis disagree. They cite cases when stones have caused fatalities. Aramin grew to understand both views.
“A stone, against a gun or a tank, it’s a very civilized protest,” he maintains. “But it’s very violent for the Israelis. For them we prepare for another Holocaust, even by this stone.”
By the time he was released, Aramin was fluent in Hebrew and had made friends with a prison guard. Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders had agreed to a limited, interim peace deal — the 1993 Oslo Accords, which called for negotiations to end the conflict and create a Palestinian state.
Aramin married and had his first child, a son. He was not ready to give up the Palestinian struggle for independence. But he was ready to fight a different way. No guns. No rocks. No violence.
At this point, he says, he was thinking about the future of his young son.
“I don’t want him to go to jail. I don’t want him to be killed. And I don’t want him to throw stones. I will explain to him, if he has more tools, he can use the struggle in a different way,” he said.
Testing His Beliefs
Aramin took it upon himself to create those tools, even when the Oslo peace deal crumbled and deadly violence broke out again. In 2005, as the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began to fade, he helped start Combatants for Peace, a group that brings former Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian militants together.
Few Palestinians or Israelis were willing to do peace work at this time. Aramin’s dedication to his new beliefs would be severely tested.
One January morning in 2007, his 10-year-old daughter Abir saucily told him she would go to a friend’s after school. He told her to come straight home.
She never did. As Abir walked with friends near school after a math exam, Palestinian boys nearby were throwing stones at the Israeli forces. Abir was not involved. But a rubber-coated Israeli bullet struck her in the head. She died, in an Israeli hospital, three days later.
This was Aramin’s darkest hour.
“Sometimes you say, why me, especially me. I have no enemies,” he said. “I don’t hate anyone. Why this soldier shoot my daughter. Why? It’s an open question forever.”
But he did not seek retribution. It would not ease his pain, he said.
“It’s nothing to do with your pain, to kill the rest of the Jews. It’s ongoing pain, forever,” he said.
Persuading His Son
But his son Araab, then 13, wanted revenge. Soon teachers told Aramin the boy was skipping school and throwing stones at soldiers. Once he learned this, father confronted son.
“I say to him, ‘Do you think you are a hero? You are a warrior?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am a hero. Yes, I want to take revenge. Is it good for you to spend seven years in the Israeli jails and it’s not good for me? I am also a Palestinian and I love Palestine, and I want to fight the occupation.’ “
Araab, now 22, remembers that confrontation with his father well.
“He was screaming at me so bad. I think he pushed me a little bit,” he says. “I told him, ‘You don’t care about your daughter’s blood, you don’t care about the one who killed her, and you still making peace with people, with the Israelis.’ “
“It kills me now,” Araab says, that he said these things. But that night, his father made him swear on the Koran that he would tell his father if he went to throw rocks, or worse. That way, Aramin told his son, he could prepare himself to lose another child.
Araab did not throw rocks again. He has joined his father as an active member in the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian group of people who have lost loved ones to the violence. They work together for a future where the two sides live at peace.
But it took years, time living away from the conflict, and a visit to a Nazi death camp before Araab fully accepted his father’s conviction that violence is not the way to win.
Bassam Aramin says this is his proudest achievement — passing his change of mind on to a second generation.