A recent photo essay by Karim Ben Khelifa profiles soldiers on either side of three long-running conflicts. He asks the soldiers who the enemy is and why they fight. Their answers don’t give me hope that ordinary people are willing to lay down arms themselves or encourage their leaders to broker peace.
First up is the conflict in Gaza. Here are three voices from the Israeli side:
(1) “My name is Adi; I’m 22 years old, and I’m an officer in the Israeli army. Anyone who tries to cross the border illegally to do bad things is an enemy. The reason that I am doing what I am doing is to protect my country, first and foremost against terrorism and secondly there is also a lot of drugs and other illegal things that have been smuggled across the border, just things that corrupt society. I have never met face to face with an enemy in my entire three years in the army. I think mostly my fears [are] that something happened to one of my soldiers. Freedom should be global, and I think once there is no more wars between people and no more violence, that is when people will be truly free. Terrorism is one of the worst things invented by humanity. It is just an insult to everything that separates us from animals; it is an insult to democracy and an insult to everything we try to be. I want to educate people; I want to be a big part of a change. I hope that being a teacher will be able to make people think differently, be more honest, be nicer to each other, and to be more respectful.”
(2) “My name is Tomer Brok; I’m 19 years old. I’m a sergeant in the Israeli army. My enemy is anybody that threatens the country, the safety of its civilians, and the free life we lead. I never encountered my enemy face to face, and therefore I never killed one of them. My biggest fear is that people here will stop thinking it’s important to get to the army and that will slowly lead to our destruction and the disappearance of our freedom. Freedom to me is each individual being able to live his life with dignity as he wishes and without fear. Terrorism for me is wanting to take away the freedom of others. At the end it’s taking away the right to choose and the liberty that everyone should have just for being a person. My goal in life is first of all to do in the army all I can to protect my country and in the future to go ahead and build a family and to stay in Israel to never leave it; this is where my roots are. And to continue to give to the country as a civilian.”
(3) “My name is Amram Shpigel. I’m 23 years old, and I’m a staff sergeant in the Israeli army. It doesn’t matter if my enemy is here in the state or this enemy is outside the state in Iran or in remote countries. Anyone who wants bad for the state of Israel is my enemy. My reasons to engage with my enemy are to ensure that people in this country will be able to survive and maintain normal way of life, without fear, without worry; people will be able to walk down the street knowing and being sure that by the end of the day they will come home to their wives and children when nothing [bad] happen[s] to them on their way by an enemy of any kind. In the last Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead, we met the enemy several times. A fighter going to war against an enemy must not think about what will happen; he must concentrate and accomplish his mission, the one he was sent for by his nation. It is very natural that a fighter has worries. I also get married a week before the operation, so I had a wife waiting for me at home, so of course that makes it hard to fight in the sense that you know there is a woman you just wed, and she cares and wait for you.
I didn’t kill an enemy. As long as we, as a nation, are unite[d] and strong, I don’t fear anything, because I know we will overcome any enemy. When I saw the draft of the reservists, when the guys came back from overseas to fight, there was a feeling of unity, that everyone [was] participating in defending the country. Freedom for me is that a family could grow in this country like any normal family in the world is raising children. In this country there still isn’t freedom. As long as the enemy has power, the residents of the state of Israel cannot live peaceful life. I don’t distinguish terror against civilians from terror against soldiers. Any strike against a resident of the state of Israel, no matter if they are soldiers or civilians, any strike that doesn’t follow an offensive action, but is a strike of a terror organization, is terrorism. The member[s] of my family are teaching me and brought me up to love this country even when things are not good.”
And here are three voices from the Palestinian side:
(1) “My name is Abu Mohamed; I’m 45 years old. I am a member of the Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades. My enemy is the state of Israel and anyone who supports them. I joined the resistance when I was 16 years old. The Israelis stole our land; they took our country; they killed our children, wives, and families. The reason I am fighting is because Islam orders us to do so. I’ve seen a lot of my enemies; we continuously face them. I am not afraid; I feel honored and proud because I am Muslim and a Palestinian mujahid. I’m recovering part of my dignity, so all is good for me. We have very basic and simple weapons, yet we are facing one of the strongest armies in the world. Just being on your feet facing this army is already a victory, and we will never give up. In 20 years we will have absolute freedom for the Palestinians. Freedom is something very, very important for me; it is a dream in my life to see my country, a land free of our enemies and ruled by Islam.”
(2) “My name is Abu Yasser; I’m 32 years old and I’m a commander in the Al Aqsa Brigade, Jihad al-Amarin branch. My enemy is Israel. I started to fight when I was 15 years old. It was during the first Intifada. It wasn’t like today, with weapons; back then, it was about throwing stones. Later I was sentenced to seven years in an Israeli prison. After three and a half years, I was released. Then I started working for the Palestinian Authorities, and then I joined the resistance. I met my enemy many times, not just once. There were regular clashes between us and them. Today, all the Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, inside Israel, and abroad are looking at us because our cause was a lost one. What happened in Gaza shook them up. Who would hate to kill an enemy? An enemy who has killed our kids, our sons. I was born in this country; where would I go? It is forbidden to go here or there. Like now, the Egyptians forbid us to cross the border because we are part of the resistance. And Israel? How would I go to there? I’m wanted by them. Palestine will have many other battles, long ones; Israel will keep fighting back, and they will keep trying to destroy us. Until when we will live, we do not know; this is in Allah’s hands, not in anyone else’s. We are fighting with poor tools, and why do we fight? For our freedom. This is what we are asking, nothing else.”
(3) “My name is Abu Obaidah; I’m 28 years old. I’m responsible for the central part of the Gaza Strip for the al-Qods Brigade. My enemies are the people who took our land. Six or seven years ago, I joined the fight. I think of dying for God and to reach God’s heaven. For security reason, I can’t tell if I killed an enemy, but I am not taking anyone’s life; I am taking my right back. There is no other 20 years for me because the whole matter will be finish[ed] soon, meaning God is coming very soon, inshallah. Terrorism for me is to take something that is not yours or that you do not deserve. I wish that God accept what I’m doing right now.”
None of the Israeli fighters mention God or Judaism or religion. They all present themselves a defending Israel and hoping for a broad-based freedom. The Palestinian fighters see the conflict stemming from their land being taken from them, and their freedom and dignity too. All make explicit references to Islam, either as consolation for the worries of war or as motivation for continuing to fight. The general age discrepancy between the two sides’ soldiers is also interesting.
Readers? What do you hear in the statements above?