On a sunny January day, dozens of Israelis and Palestinians crowded into a small house in a town outside Bethlehem, as their compatriots fought in the Gaza Strip, to talk about a subject that has become nearly taboo in their cities and towns:
How to build a lasting peace.
“This thing is not appropriate in the community we live in,” said Aya Sbeih, a Palestinian member of the group that was meeting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Combatants for Peace. “So I keep it a secret.”
Many peace groups have been struggling since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which have hardened the positions of many Israelis and Palestinians. But some activists, including those in Combatants for Peace, have quietly started to resume their work.
Ms. Sbeih, a member of the group for seven years, said she had come to several recent meetings with newfound doubts about peace activism, at least in the current climate. And some attendees said they now feel uncomfortable speaking publicly about their work. But Ms. Sbeih said the meetings “always give me hope that something will happen.”
Founded by former fighters from both sides of the conflict, Combatants for Peace drew a range of people to its January meeting, including young students just returned from reserve duty in Gaza and longtime peace activists. Some said they were fed up with despair and wanted to latch onto a glimmer of hope.
But they face intense opposition in their communities, where grief and anger dominate over the Oct. 7 attacks, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people, and over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to Gazan health officials.
Since the war began, support has increased “for hard-line positions of violence, and you can see that in both Israeli and Palestinian society,” said John Lyndon, the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an organization of peace groups.
Alongside the growing hawkish sentiment, he said, there was a rise in “opposition, eye-rolling and disagreements with organizations and individuals who are urging for nonviolence, diplomacy and partnership.”
Chen Alon, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, encountered that early one day when a neighbor stopped to ask, “Have you finally sobered up?” That is an expression that, since Oct. 7, some Israelis have been using to describe their abandonment of the political left.
Mr. Alon, a former Israeli military officer who refused to serve in 2002 over his objections to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, suggested they get coffee to talk it over. But questions have also come from within activists’ homes.
Jamil Qassas, the president of the Palestinian side of the organization, said a relative had recently challenged him about the group. “What’s the role of the organization right now?” he was asked. “Are the Israeli members participating in the war?”
Mr. Qassas led Palestinians in clashes with Israeli forces during the first intifada, but renounced violence after he began working in Israel and came to conclude that not all Israelis were enemies. He assured his relative that Combatants for Peace maintains its antiwar stance, and that nonviolence remains a basic principle, including for Israeli members.
“I know there are lots of people who don’t accept what I do,” he acknowledged.
Amid a pervasive atmosphere of distrust in which each side accuses the other of having no real interest in peace, the meetings at the group’s office in the town of Beit Jala offer refuge for new members and veteran volunteers alike.
For Hila Lernau, an Israeli who attended an event for the first time last month, the gathering was a respite from a drawn-out argument at home. Ms. Lernau had been urging her daughter to resist joining the military as a conscientious objector. But shortly before the meeting, Ms. Lernau learned that she had lost her fight. Her daughter was going into the service.
Feeling as if her efforts had been futile, Ms. Lernau asked, “How do you stop your children from becoming fighters?”
Mr. Qassas replied that it was essential to teach children long before fighting became an option, saying they should learn “the depth of the problem, and the needs of each side.”
Secrecy and isolation are nothing new for the organization, which was born out of clandestine meetings in 2005, during a Palestinian uprising called the second intifada.
Mr. Alon still recalls the fear he felt at early meetings in Beit Jala, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, when a handful of former Israeli soldiers, conscientious objectors to the occupation of the West Bank, met with Palestinians who had also renounced violence.
“It was my first time in the West Bank without a gun,” Mr. Alon said of those meetings, which took place amid fears of violence and kidnapping.
Nearly 20 years later, he is not immune to the passion aroused by the Oct. 7 attack. “When I saw the atrocities done to my people,” Mr. Alon said, “of course I experienced difficult emotions of vengeance.”
When Mr. Qassas called him on Oct. 7 to ask after his safety, Mr. Alon felt grounded again. Then, as the war progressed and the death toll in Gaza rose, Mr. Alon tried to support Palestinians in the organization, some of whom have lost dozens of relatives.
“We would talk about the most difficult things,” Mr. Qassas said, “but at least we stayed together and kept going.”
Both activists, despite the resistance they face, cling to hope that when the conflict finally ends, “we will be the infrastructure, the community upon which our joint life will be built,” Mr. Alon said.
“If I have sobered up,” he said, “it’s in knowing that violence won’t solve anything.”