Photography by Dubi Roman

Zohar Shapira, 40, is a teacher living in Tel Aviv. He served 15 years in the Israeli military, and for some of this time was a member of Israel’s top commando unit. During a night-raid on a Palestinian village, he saw the damage being done to children caught up in the conflict, and realised he could play no further part in the endless cycles of revenge.

I don’t think anyone needs to ask me for forgiveness, but I may need to ask forgiveness from others.   But even if I did receive forgiveness, I would still hold myself responsible for everything that I have done. Forgiveness is very important because it releases you from the lower emotions of being human.

Once the anger ceases, the heart opens and understanding is possible.

I was brought up in a Zionist family, raised with the notion that we had to defend our country or else there would be another Holocaust. The image I was given was of a soldier holding a weapon in one hand with the other hand extended in peace. The idea was that once the violence was over our enemy would view me as a peacemaker. But it doesn’t work like that. You are either a man who uses violence, or you are a peaceful man: a man who believes peace can only come through dialogue and trust.

Even as a young soldier I felt this contradiction. On leave at weekends I was being asked to put down my gun and suddenly become this normal, sensitive human being again. This creates a lot of internal conflict and after years of being in the army it becomes almost impossible to switch back to the person you once were.

During those years I took part in hundreds of military operations, dozens in the West Bank. I was told I was defending my people and in the beginning I believed it. However, in time I saw that instead of defending my country I was in fact oppressing the Palestinian people, and therefore weakening security inside the Israeli state.

At the start of the Second Intifada suicide bombings increased. On one occasion I was in Jerusalem when a suicide bomb exploded just one hundred metres from where I stood. There was blood everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of burnt organs. As I was also an army medic I helped to treat a religious child who was severely wounded with a screw in his head. That explosion affected me deeply. Then, a week later, there was another big terror attack in a hotel which left many people dead. As a result, the very next day the Israeli Government launched a military operation called ‘Shield of Defence’. But what was perceived as self-defence by the Israelis became known, to the Palestinians, as the ‘War on Jenin’. I knew this action would not bring peace. I knew that it would just trigger another cycle of revenge.

The turning point for me came when I took my platoon to a small village near Nablus at three in the morning. We were there to arrest a man suspected of being a suicide bomber. Everyone was forced out of the man’s house, including a young woman carrying a baby followed by her seven-year-old daughter. Then suddenly this young girl started running towards me. I had seconds in which to decide whether she was about to blow herself up, or whether she was just a child who was terrified of soldiers.  Even when I shouted at her to stop she kept running, and so I started shooting above her head. At this point she froze and there was a moment in which we made eye contact. It was an extraordinary moment – not a soldier confronting his enemy, but two human beings looking at each other.

I knew then that although this young girl hadn’t been hurt physically, I had committed a terrible crime because I had wounded her spirit forever. I thought then, how can I continue to justify the kind of action which kills and maims children? If I don’t stop now I will be sucked into the cycle of revenge.

The first time I met with Combatants for Peace, I was very suspicious. As I passed the green line into Palestinian territory without a military jeep as backup, I feared for my life. I had, after all, been taught that all Palestinians spend their time making bombs. I soon realised, however, that the Palestinians I was about to meet were also afraid of me. They told me later that they thought I was from the secret service.

There was much mistrust to begin with and I was afraid to admit to what I’d done as a soldier. But slowly we began to form a dialogue, and we soon realised that we all wanted to live peacefully and recognise each other as human. Nowadays both sides acknowledge that while this might not be the ultimate solution, revenge is getting us nowhere. We are a little ray of light in the darkness, but I believe that one day that light will brighten and we’ll be able to see another part of the sky.

For more information, see Combatants for Peace.