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We keep one leg in reality and one leg in the dream

Interview with Palestinian nonviolent activist Sulaiman Khatib

For many years now, the forumZFD works together with the "Combatants for Peace". In April of this year, Sulaiman Khatib published his book "In This Place Together: A Palestinian's Journey to Collective Liberation". As one of the founders of the Palestinian-Israeli peace organization, he writes about him becoming a nonviolent activist and about the spiritual power of nonviolence.
Sulaiman Khatib
© Combatants for Peace

You are one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, a movement started by a few Palestinians and Israelis who decided they do not want to be part of the violent conflict any more, but rather achieve change through nonviolent action.

I'm an ex-Palestinian prisoner. From the age of 14, I spent 10 years and 5 months in Israeli jail. Before that, I used to participate in what we call “Harm resistance”.

In jail I participated in different non-violent actions aiming to improve the conditions of the prisoners. When I was 15, we organized a hunger strike with other prisoners for 16 days. It means you don't eat at all, just water and salt. That's why we call it “Mayomi” in Arabic, “salt and water”, that’s how we survived. And usually we succeeded to improve our conditions.

Can you name a special experience that made you believe in the power of nonviolence?

During my journey in jail, my change didn't happen in a second. Jail was not a nice place at all, but I turned this challenge into an opportunity to educate myself. I read about other conflicts, about our history from both the Palestinian and Israeli side, and I learned Hebrew as well as English in jail. We used to call it a “revolutionary university”. That's how I grew up. Through the experience I learned that there is no military solution to our conflict.

Moreover, I became a believer in non-violence as an ideology, not just as a strategy to solve conflicts. I studied other cases like South Africa, the African American struggle, Martin Luther King...

How did the study of nonviolence change you?

After I was released from jail, during the second Intifada around 2000, I became more open to reach out to what we call the enemy. I understood that the liberation of our people, the freedom for both sides, despite the power dynamics, is really connected. We are connected to the same stones, the same homeland.

So my next step was to reach out to some Israelis. And during the second Intifada we found out about some Israelis, high officers in the army including pilots and members of special units, who had reached the same conclusion: There is no military solution to our conflict and both sides are here to stay.

How could you, a Palestinian who had recently been released from an Israeli prison, get in contact with Israeli soldiers in this time of growing tensions and violence?

It was in the middle of the second Intifada, when many of my friends have been either killed or jailed, there were soldiers and checkpoints almost everywhere. So this was not a romantic thing or easy at all. There was and mostly is until today no trust between the sides. At the beginning we managed to communicate with each other through a common friend.

How did you find courage to reach out to the enemy in this situation?

So you need a huge spiritual power to think out of the box and dream of a different reality. I strongly believe that the system that controls all of us here, from the river to the sea, it's neither good for the Israelis, nor for the Palestinians, without comparing who is suffering more. I don't think the occupation is a sustainable system. It's not going to stay and it's not good for any side.

From there, we let this journey happen with our Israeli partners and over the time we built trust. This was key. It helped me that I knew Hebrew.

Why did you decide to tell your story as in a book?

As co-founders of Combatants for Peace, my now very close friend Chen Alon and I were the first ones to share our personal stories in 2006. And this was very, very hard. Since then giving talks about personal stories of transformation is one of the main activities of Combatants for Peace. We use them to inspire others. So I have been told by a few people: your story is important. Since I'm not a writer myself I asked a friend of mine, Penina Eilberg. I needed somebody I feel comfortable with, somebody who can push me to speak about hard memories as well.

What kept you going during these five years working on the book?

To be honest, I did not expect how tough it would be in some moments to confront myself with the bad experiences I made. When I was released from jail, I tried to focus on my survival needs, to just keep going. So I put all the painful memories aside, the torture, the psychological and physical violence. Now I feel much easier, actually. And I would say the book was like a healing process for me personally.

You mentioned earlier that nonviolence is more than a strategy for you. What do you mean?

First of all, it's really hard to convince people that nonviolence works, although a lot of research shows that nonviolence did work in hundreds of places in history, much more than violence. And the second thing that I want to say: nonviolence is really coming out of strength. Choosing this path is not out of weakness. It doesn't mean you don't do anything at all.

Unfortunately, we grow up in a culture of using violence. Just think of Hollywood movies: it's all about a hero with a weapon. The majority of historically famous persons we honor are violent heroes.

So we really need to give attention to heroes, who used nonviolence in history and succeeded. Actually the second most important Muslim scholar, Ali ibn Abi Talib, wrote many books about nonviolence. And when I was 15, I read about Jesus, who was born here. So there is a connection even though I am Muslim and I'm not a religious person, but I like what he said: Love your enemy. That was a very challenging statement to read when I was in jail, but with the years I understood the meaning of it.

Have you ever been doubtful about your path of non-violent activism?

My nature is more optimistic, I would say. Optimism and even laughing is a strategy for survival. We also used it in jail. Right now it gives me hope when I see the younger generation engaging in the political arena and in activism both within the Palestinian community and across borders. Now in Combatants for Peace we try to build a youth group with the support of forumZFD.

In 2017, the Combatants for Peace were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Why is it so important to involve the younger generation?

Most of the Palestinian people belong to a younger generation. That's very different than in Germany. Therefore, it's crucial for us to reach out to and involve the youth.

Palestinian teenagers, who grow up in area A, controlled by the Palestinian authority, have no interaction with normal Israeli civilians at all. Their only interaction with Israelis is with soldiers when they leave the town. Or even worse, they meet settlers on the road.

When one hears “Combatants for Peace”, most people think of men and how most of the founding members were men. How about women’s involvement in your movement?

That’s right, Combatants for Peace was started by mostly by men. And in the last years we have been working hard to engage with our sisters. Today we have a woman as Palestinian Co-Director.  And we have more women taking leading roles in the movement. I'm really proud to be part of this change within the organization, to show role models and to engage both youth and women.

Do you have a political vision, a solution for the conflict?

The truth is I'm generally not busy with this conversation about the outcome in the end of this process, be it a one state, two state, or three state solution. We advocate for certain values some of which are respecting people’s right for self-determination or the right of people to live in freedom and dignity.

We can accept the belonging of both people to this land without agreeing on the current system. Palestinian families have a very clear connection to the land. My family has a record from the Ottoman Empire, we lived here generation after generation. And my cousins in Jordan, South America and other parts in the world, they have this connection as well. The case of the Israelis is very different honestly, but the connection is there. It's a spiritual, cultural, religious connection. I can accept their connection, but I do criticize how this connection expresses itself by a system that serves one side only.

You regularly go on speaking tours with Combatants for Peace to the U.S. and Europe. What is your message to the Germans?

Germany has a very special role, due to both the strong position it has within the EU and internationally, but also because of its history Germany is very connected to this conflict, as we all know.

We really want the German civil society and if possible, the parliament to support our voices of nonviolence. This kind of international support gives us more local attention and support.

The political situation in Palestine and Israel has been quite intense just looking at the events of the last two months: we had the escalation of violence, a new Israeli government after the fourth elections within two years and we saw protests in the West Bank, because elections had been postponed once again. What worries you most looking at the political dynamics?

What takes away my hope is the political system that controls our life. The people in power on the Israeli side want to keep the status quo and that's our main challenge. The postponement of elections on the Palestinian side was really disappointing. We need elections every few years for Palestinians! The political system between the river and sea includes a lot of separation, a lot of injustice, and ongoing occupation with a lot of settlements and powerful forces.

What makes you be optimistic then?

Back in 2005, when we started to talk about joint non-violence there was only little acceptance. During the years this changed. To name an example: In the last few months, in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan, Palestinian houses and families have been threatened with expulsion. Not only there but also in other areas, some Israelis joined the local Palestinians in their struggle and protests.

Recently we organized a demonstration against the war in Gaza and the expulsion in Sheikh Jarrah in Beit Jala (West Bank). To be honest, we were scared to have Israelis joining the protest, because people were very angry during the war in Gaza. But I was positively surprised that it went fine.

More generally speaking, I keep one leg in reality and one leg in the dream. That’s how I manage to move on.

Interview by Luis Flórez Cote and Christoph Bongard

Information on ordering the book you can find here.


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