Roni Segoly served in the Israeli Secret Service for 25 years before deciding to take a “different path.”
Last week, in County Donegal, after hearing a Palestinian woman talk about how she was hours away from a suicide-bombing mission, Segoly said he could “barely keep myself from crying.”
The Palestinian woman, Shifa Alqudsi, had told her daughter the night before the mission that she should soon look in the sky for a star when she wanted to speak to her mother.
(Her mission was prevented because of an informer. She spent six years in an Israeli jail.)
“She was so close to despair because of the situation the Palestinians were in,” Segoly explained to IrishCentral over the phone from Israel. “But when we were in Ireland, she was always laughing and talking. If a person can go through such an experience and come out that way, it gives you hope.”
They also heard from an Israeli soldier, who told the Palestinians about how he once took part in an operation in which several Palestinian policemen were killed.
These were just some of the stories told last week at a peace center, called An Teach Ban — the White House — in Downings, Donegal, when the most unlikely of meetings took place: 15 former Palestinian militants and 15 former members of the Israeli defense forces.
The two sides were in Northern Ireland to talk to each other and to learn the lessons from the Northern Ireland experience.
According to Paddy Logue, the co-ordinator at the peace center, the trip was partly funded by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. One of the highlights of the trip, said Logue, was a visit to Derry, where the group got a tour of the city's famous walls - which has an Israeli flag on Fountain Street, and a Palestinian flag at Free Derry Wall - as well as the Bogside District, the site of famous riots during the early days of the Troubles.
The trip was organized by Combatants for Peace, an organization whose Web site says, “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.”
Combatants for Peace was founded by a former Fatah militant leader, Noor Aldin Shehada, and Chen Alon, a former reservist in the Israeli military. Alon has served a prison sentence in Israel for refusing to enter the occupied territories.
“We wanted to talk to people who had been through similar experiences,” Segoly said.
And they did just that. Over the course of the group’s eight-day stay, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, and a former IRA leader, called in to speak. So did Billy Hutchinson, who served a life sentence for murdering two Catholics and who was a prominent member of the Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
The trip to Ireland was the first time many of the two sides had met each other, even though they all belong to the same organization. At home, Segoly said, even though the two sides were living a couple of kilometers apart, meeting each other was difficult, because of the various security barriers that are in place.
Segoly said that he didn’t know much about Ireland prior to going there. “We knew there were Catholics and Protestants, and that the Protestants wanted to remain part of Britain,” he explained. “And we knew that there was a peace process.”
Neta Osnet, who is 32 and who once produced films for the Israeli air force, said that there are comparisons between the conflicts in Northern Ireland and in Israel and Palestine, but that both are also very complex, and have their own unique factors.
She said that while it was useful to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland, by simply being free to talk to one another – the two sides in Combatants for Peace only get to meet for around three hours by a security barrier every three weeks or so – they were both able to learn from one another.
“It wasn’t just about Ireland,” Osnet told IrishCentral. “The majority of the time we devoted to ourselves, because we have such serious practical problems in trying to arrange meetings at home.”
“It was an opportunity to meet with what some refer to as former freedom fighters and some refer to as former terrorists, and hear their line of thought. And everyone has a different story.”
Segoly said he learned a lot from Ireland over the week. “Martin McGuinness was very open,” he explained. “He gave us a very clear message when he said that there would be no peace without negotiation.”
However, the path to peace is not an easy one, as Segoly knows. Combatants for Peace, he said, has come under criticism for its political stances. The group protested against the recent war in Gaza, a very unpopular move when the Israeli public overwhelmingly supported the war.