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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January 2004, 21:26 GMT
Palestinian militant turned peacemaker

By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online

Walid Shoebat vividly remembers the tumultuous days of June, 1967, when Israel and its Arab neighbours were at war.

For six days and six nights, Walid and his family hid in the bathroom of their home in Jericho, as fighting raged outside.

Walid as a teenager in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
Walid was taught to hate Jews
"On the sixth day, everything went quiet," Walid told BBC News Online. "My father was listening to Arab radio and the news said: 'We cleansed Jerusalem of the Jews'. Then we opened the door and there was this Israeli tank with the Star of David flag standing in our street!"

Less than a week after the war began, Jordan had been repelled from the West Bank, Israel had taken over and the map of the modern Middle East had been redrawn.

A humiliating defeat for the Arabs, the Israeli victory spawned a new generation of young nationalists determined to restore lost pride, vanquish the enemy and establish a Palestinian state.

"From kindergarten we were taught that Jews were dogs," said Walid. "We were taught that Jews were the converts of monkeys, that Jews were Sabbath breakers and prophet killers. We even considered Arabs in pre-1967 Israel traitors because we could not understand how they could co-exist with Jews."

'To die as a martyr'

As a teenager in the mid-1970s, Walid joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and became a local activist - printing fliers, organising demonstrations and confronting Israeli troops.

I started thinking, really the Jews didn't do us any harm
Walid Shoebat
"My whole dream was to die as a shaheed [martyr]. At demonstrations I would open my shirt hoping to be shot - but the Israelis would never shoot at the body, so I never succeeded," he said.

One day, in the middle of a riot, Walid was part of a group which snatched an Israeli soldier who was trying to quell the violence.

They beat him senseless and tried to lynch him, before he was rescued by troops and the group fled.

"We ran to a monastery where the nuns protected us - even they hated the Jews!"

Walid was eventually caught and imprisoned in the Muscovite Prison in Jerusalem, but was released after a few weeks.

He returned to violence straight away, bombing an Israeli bank in Bethlehem.

'How do you explain this?'

The course of Walid's life took a turn when his parents sent him to the United States to get a better education.

Walid and family
Walid says it will take a generation for attitudes to change
Walid enrolled in Loop College in Chicago, where he became president of the Palestinian Students' Association, raising funds for the PLO and recruiting volunteers to fight in Lebanon.

He eventually moved to California, where he met his current wife, a Catholic from Mexico.

"I wanted her to convert to Islam," he said. "I told her Jews had corrupted the Bible and she asked me to show her some examples of this corruption. At this point I had to go and buy a Bible and I started reading it and I saw the word 'Israel' all over it. I had to be brutally honest - the very word I hated the most was throughout this book!

"I thought: 'How do you explain this?' Then I started thinking, really the Jews didn't do us any harm but we hated them and accused them of all this horrible stuff. I began to think more openly."

In the mid-1990s, Walid went to a family reunion in southern California where a row broke out after he defended the biblical matriarch Rachel, whom his uncle had called a "Jewish whore".

" 'You deserve to be spat at'," my uncle said, "and they threw me out the house".

"I realised they knew nothing about history, all they knew was the same propaganda that I had been taught."

Speaking out

Walid's convictions led him to renounce violence and convert to Christianity but it was at a price: his family disowned him and his own brother threatened to kill him for abandoning Islam.

I hope that by speaking the truth I will open other people's eyes
Walid Shoebat
His disappointment with his own family's ideology and remorse at the folly of his youth strengthened Walid's resolve to speak out against militancy as a way of solving the Palestinian problem.

"Yes, there is personal risk to myself. If I went back to my village of Beit Sahour I would live five minutes, I can guarantee it. But I hope that by speaking the truth I will open other people's eyes."

"I chose to speak out because I was a victim, as a child I was a victim of this horror. Now I see other victims, millions of them, kids.

"I was taught songs about killing Jews. You need to get rid of the education system where they are teaching this type of thing and get rid of the terrorist groups. It will take a generation, but until then, there's not going to be peace, it doesn't matter what kind of land settlement you have."

A militant-turned-peacemaker, Walid wants to meet the Israel soldier he tried to kill almost 30 years ago.

His voice cracking with emotion, Walid said he would offer the soldier his hand and say to him: "'Please understand, we were just children, brainwashed to kill you, to hate you.' I would seek his forgiveness."

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