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http://rockymountainnews.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,DRMN_86_414439,00.html

From torture to understanding: an Israeli soldier comes to terms

By Holger Jensen, Rockey Mountain News, 05/05/2001


Ami Ayalon headed Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service for four years and admits to authorizing torture -- what he calls "physical pressure" -- to coerce information from Palestinian prisoners.

Until he left the service last year he was one of the most hated men in the West Bank and Gaza.

Thus, he caused quite a stir this week when he appeared on television urging Israelis to understand the pain of Palestinians, who have endured 34 years of military occupation, and give them a state.

"Until we understand what a Palestinian child draws when he looks at an Israeli, what is the meaning of an Israeli soldier, what is the meaning of an Israeli checkpoint, what is the meaning of humiliation, we won't truly understand what they are going through," said Ayalon in a wide-ranging interview aired by Israel's Channel Two.

"We never understood their pain just as they, to a very great extent, don't understand our pain. We speak of our fears, we speak of our fear of being thrown into the sea, but we don't understand their fears.

"We don't understand that all the Palestinians are afraid of being thrown across the Jordan River."

The Palestinians never had a country but they had a land, once administered by British mandate until part of it was lost in what they call the "Naqba" or "Great Catastrophe" of the creation of Israel in 1948. Those who fled or were forced out of their homes ended up in U.N.-administered refugee camps.

After Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, the Palestinians feared a repeat of that catastrophe. But the 1993 Oslo accords gave them hope. Ayalon pointed out that the Palestinian Authority was so eager to win statehood that it arrested thousands of Islamic militants, even torturing and killing some of them, to ensure Israel's security.

But again, Palestinian hopes faded as the negotiations dragged on for seven long years while successive Israeli governments eroded the future Palestinian state with continued Jewish settlement building. Eventually, all hope was lost and the Palestinians resorted to violence, saying "we will achieve our aim in another way," said Ayalon.

"They haven't given up on that aim and we have no choice but to give them a state," he said. "We are so strong from a security standpoint -- and, I personally believe, also from a societal standpoint -- that we can live with the reality of there being a Palestinian state beside us."

Ayalon's sympathy for the Palestinians' plight and his admission that Israel is at least partly to blame for their uprising is rare for a senior member of the security establishment. But, after seven months of bloodshed and nearly 500 lost lives, a growing number of Israelis are beginning to look at the causes, as well as the symptoms, of what is commonly called "Palestinian terrorism."

After all, one of their former prime ministers, Ehud Barak, once admitted he, too, would have been a terrorist if he had to live under military occupation by a foreign power. And more than one Israeli general has called Israel's settlement policy a terrible mistake.

While such critics are still in the minority, their views are getting increasing play in the Israeli media and causing a spirited debate. Not so in the United States, where Jewish critics of Israel's policies are dismissed as "left-wing kooks" or members of the "lunatic fringe," while those who publish their views are branded "Israel haters" or, worse yet, "anti-Semitic."

Yet Ayalon is neither a kook nor an Israel-hater. He has served his country well and come to the conclusion that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances.

In this there is hope.

If the Palestinians stop regarding every Israeli Jew as a soldier or settler, they will perhaps learn that most Israelis want nothing more than a secure homeland, even if it means giving up the settlements. If Israelis stop regarding every Palestinian as a terrorist or suicide bomber, they will, perhaps, learn that most Palestinians want nothing more than peace without a foreign occupier.

Sure, terrorism may persist by extremists on both sides. But it would be dramatically diminished.

Holger Jensen is international editor. E-mail: [email protected]


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