Yoni Ra’anan Kallai


 Childhood and Terrorism

I am a sixth generation Jerusalemite.  I live near the David Yellin College of Education, named after my paternal grandmother's grandfather, who was a reviver of the Hebrew language as well as one of the leaders of the Yishuv (the body of  Jews in the country before the establishment of the State of Israel).  My mother immigrated to Israel from the USA with her parents when she was 14, the year following the Six Day War, the war which her father was sure would be the last one. 

I was born 28 years ago in the refugee camp Kalandia, located between Jerusalem and Ramallah.  My mother decided to give birth to me there because during that time hospitals in Jerusalem did not allow a woman to stay   close to her baby immediately after the birth. 

Palestinian terrorism was part and parcel of most of my childhood.  In 1991, when I was 8-years-old and living in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, I woke up one morning to the sound of my mother's screams.  A Palestinian by the name of Abu-Sirkhan had stabbed and murdered three of the neighborhood residents.  One of them, Eli Altaretz, was murdered right in front of our window, and I even managed to see the murderer taking off.

A few years later the bombing attacks on buses began.  I would ride the bus to school, and as soon as an Arab got on, I would immediately try and see if he had something around his stomach.  One time I was so scared that I got off the bus.  I was afraid during many of the bus rides, but stayed on and hoped for the best.

At the beginning of 9th grade, three suicide bombers exploded in the pedestrian mall in Jerusalem.  Of the five Israelis killed, two were girls from my high school year in the Gymnasia Rehavia high school, Sivan Zarka and Smadar Elhanan.  Another girl from that class was badly injured.  At certain points in time, the city center was empty and nobody dared go out for fear of terror attacks.

Since the 7th grade, I have been a fan of Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, like most of the boys in my year, but I do not identify with the cries "Death to the Arabs" that are typical of some of Beitar's fans.  I grew up in a home which voted for the Meretz party.  My parents had some ties with Arabs, so I didn't view Arabs as the manifestation of all evil; on the other hand, I knew an Arab could be dangerous.  It was clear to me that I would enlist in the army and become a combat soldier in an elite unit.

 

The Sapper

In March of 2002, ten days before the first night of Passover, when the terror attack in the Park Hotel took place (a suicide bomber exploded in the hall where the Passover festive meal was taking place; 30 Israelis were killed), I was drafted into the army.  I served in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Unit, and our task was to diffuse explosive devices, ammunition of all types and unexploded ordnance of shells and rockets.  I had the opportunity of dealing with explosive devices along the Gaza Strip Barrier, and I once arrived at an explosives lab in Jenin, where we found explosive devices that were still underway.  

I have never served at a check point, but I have participated in arrests and in searches for warfare in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.  It was not pleasant entering homes of Palestinians in the middle of the night, but we knew we had to do it.  I took the IDF's Officers Course, and landed up serving for more than five years, which also included the Second Lebanon War. 

 

I walk next to a robot whilst checking a suspicious vehicle
at a checkpoint near Nablus.

 

I was released in April of 2007, and after a trip to China and Mongolia which lasted a few months, I came back to Israel.  I studied Computer Science and Applicable Physics in the university, but now I plan on becoming a construction worker, as I see great value in manual labor.  Besides, it will serve a great opportunity in improving my Arabic. 

Three years ago, my friend invited me to participate in an olive picking in Dir Abziya along with Palestinian friends whom he had met through the movement "Combatants for Peace".  It was really nice.  Through this friend, I became engaged in further activities with Palestinians, and in the summer of 2009 I became an active member of the "Bethlehem-Jerusalem Group" of "Combatants for Peace". 

This is an Israeli-Palestinian movement which was founded by people from both sides, who took part in combat and decided to take action for the purpose of terminating the occupation in non-violent ways.  I believe we must act for peace; simply sitting and complaining that things are not right is not an option for me.  I act with the feeling that the situation - both the fact that we are living under a security threat, as well as the militarization of society - does nothing good for us as Israelis.  I wish to change this. 

 

I am in a circus demonstration in Al Masara.
Around me are Palestinians, Israeli activists and soldiers photographing (2011)  

 

Our group participates in all sorts of activities protesting the wrongs of occupation.  In a demonstration in Wadi Rachel, we were completely non-violent, but the army started throwing gas and stun grenades at us.  It was a Friday and that same evening my extended family got together at my grandparents' home and I related what had happened.  My uncle said, "Serves you right".  It was very unpleasant hearing this, but I will not sever ties with them because of it.  On the other hand, my mother joined a tour we had in the Bethlehem region. 

 

 I stand opposite the army
in a demonstration in Vadi Rachel (2011)

 

Lately we have been participating in demonstrations in the village Al-Ma'asara, lands of which are supposed to be expropriated due to the erection of a new fence.  After one of the demonstrations had ended, while making our way back to our vehicles, we suddenly saw a group of youngsters from the village throwing stones at soldiers.  In response, the soldiers threw a few gas grenades and stun grenades, but the response was still more moderate than I had expected.  The throwing of stones in a non-violent demonstration infuriated me.  When leaving the village, I apologized to the regiment commander.  And yet, there are those in "Combatants for Peace" who would ask who gave me the right to apologize on behalf of the village, and whether an apology is at all necessary because, after all, the soldiers are supposedly there to prevent the disruption of order.  There are those who would say that the soldiers themselves are the ones disrupting the order, in their very presence there. 

The Palestinians in the movement are required not to take part in violent activity of any kind, and the Israelis are required not to serve in the territories.  I continue serving in reserve duty, and I do not believe that I will be serving in the territories as part of the activity of my reserve unit; however, if I were required to serve there, I have no idea how I would react.  In Cast Lead Operation (the IDF's invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008 in wake of the shooting of missiles into Israel) I almost found myself inside Gaza.  I was called to duty under the IDF's emergency recruitment order (Order 8) and I had no dilemmas: they called for me and I reported for duty.  At the end, we were only there on standby, and were not sent into Gaza. 

 

Me and Yosri Slamin in a Combattans for Peace
workshop for non violence (2011)
 

 

The narratives - Love and Trust

The Parents Circle Families Forum held a workshop on narratives for the "Bethlehem-Jerusalem Group" of "Combatants for Peace".  During the second meeting, out of the four we attended, we were supposed to visit the Yad Vashem Museum as well as Lifta village.  However, quite a few of the Palestinians were unable to receive entrance permits, and so we ended up meeting in Beit Jala.  An elderly Palestinian from Nahlin village arrived and told us of the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, literally "disaster") from his point of view.  He told of activities in which Jews would enter the villages and slaughter people.  For us, as Israelis, it was not easy hearing his story.  Followed by him, was Rami Elchanan, father of Smadar from my high school year, who was killed in the terror attack.  Rami spoke of his father, the Holocaust survivor, about his daughter Smadar and about his son, who would be drafted soon, and about the dilemmas the son was facing in this regard. 

We later held a discussion concerning the differences between the Holocaust and the Nakba, and people on both sides were high-strung and emotional.  We Israelis find it very difficult to accept   the Palestinian comparison of the Holocaust to the Nakba. My understanding was that the purpose of the Parents Circle Families Forum was to present two central events in the lives of both nations.  At the end, each person was asked to sum up the meeting with one word.  Despite the harsh disputes that had taken place beforehand, people chose words like "love" and "trust".  The fact that the group had survived despite our touching upon very loaded subjects made a strong impact on me. 

During the third meeting, we heard the narratives of both nations with respect to central historical events up until the establishment of the State, from both a Jewish and a Palestinian historian.  It was then that I understood the Palestinian perception of events - that we had taken away half their home.  Till that point in time, I was completely involved in our own story:  We came, bought lands, dried up swamps and developed the country; members of my own family had built neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City; we were doing only good and coming in peace and the Palestinians were only attacking and killing and not willing to accept a solution. 

Now, I am not saying that the State of Israel must cease to exist, absolutely not, but at least I now understand how they see things. 

It is clear to me that some Palestinians want the entire State of Israel for themselves, but I believe I still remained optimistic after the workshop.  I believe we can reach a solution.  By understanding the other side, I can be more effective, so that when I do meet Palestinians, I will be able to listen to them and understand them better and, in turn, I will be able to speak in such a manner that they will listen better to me. 

 

*  Yoni Kalai participated in the " Combattans for Peace" group.

* Upper photo by Uri Leshem

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