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opinion

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University

When it comes to violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does one side have a monopoly on its legitimate use? This question reared its head again last month around Israel's Memorial Day. Mira Awad, a singer-songwriter-actor (currently starring the hit sitcom Arab Labor) who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, had posted on her Facebook page about a parallel memorial service held in Tel Aviv by Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Supporting Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance. Both organizations count Israelis and Palestinians among their members.

Awad wrote, "It continues to puzzle me why so many Israelis protest against this event, and want it to be banned and prevented. The event does not aim to diminish the memory of the Israelis who died, but to also include the Palestinians who did – only this summer over 2000 Palestinians were added to the morbid count, and 72 Israelis. The fingers pointed at the event as if it is mourning 'terrorists' is just evil propaganda…. [These critics are] aiming to create a fog screen to divert people from the humane message being conveyed: seeing the human being!"

Both as an international relations scholar and as a long-time observer of the region, I sympathize with Awad's frustration. At the same time, I'm aware of the disconnect between how Israelis and Palestinians see violence. Unlike in many traditional interstate wars where the rules of engagement are much clearer, in the asymmetric conflict around Israel/Palestine, each side sees the violence of the other as fundamentally illegitimate.

Israelis see their military as defensive in nature, whereas Palestinians deeply resent the IDF for its role in carrying out the West Bank occupation. As a stateless nation without a military, Palestinians view their own violence – whether rock throwing, suicide bombing, or rocket-launching – as a means to oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Yet given that most Palestinian violence has targeted either civilians or occupying soldiers who are adopting a defensive posture (perhaps a contradiction to some, but not to most Israelis), Israelis see Palestinians as hateful and bloodthirsty, and as flouting the ethics of war which seek to protect civilians first and foremost.

I spoke to David Willner, a member of the Tel Aviv-Tulkarm chapter of Combatants for Peace (CfP). After serving his mandatory three years in the IDF, much of it in the occupied territories, he realized that "most of our work as soldiers is less protecting the interests and the safety of the Israeli civilians, and more defending political resolutions such as the continuation of the settlements." After attending a Combatants for Peace memorial service seven years ago, he joined the organization which now numbers around 600 members, roughly half Israelis and half Palestinians. As the group describes itself, "After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon sights, we have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace."

While many CfP members refuse to complete their reserve service on ideological or pacifist grounds, not all do. As Willner describes it, CfP members "believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, but it does not have the right to keep the Palestinian people under occupation, as they have a right to live as free people too. Violating their basic human rights certainty does not benefit the safety of the Israeli people."

About the Tel Aviv memorial ceremony where 3,200 attended – including 150 Palestinians brought by bus via special permits enabling them to spend the day in Tel Aviv, David says, "we also need to work together in making sure that the last war will be the last war."

It's an uphill battle. Not only is their ultimate goal – a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with a shared capital in Jerusalem – becoming increasingly elusive, but the group faces opposition from both sides: There are the Israelis who protest each year outside the doors of the Memorial Day ceremony, and the Samaria Settler Council which this year unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli Defense Ministry to deny travel permits to the group's Palestinian members. And there is what's known as the "anti-normalization" impulse among many Palestinians who oppose any co-operation with Israelis. Willner cites the example of a joint Israeli-Palestinian youth soccer match the group had planned in a large Palestinian village in the West Bank. Because of Palestinian opposition to "normalization," the event was ultimately cancelled.

While the achievement of the group's ultimate goal may be far off, and while the proper role of violence in this conflict may never be agreed upon, in the interim there are thousands of people who are able to see the humanity of the other, at least for one evening each year in Tel Aviv.