Sulaiman Khatib is a co-founder and the current Managing Director of Combatants for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian nonviolent movement to end the occupation of the West Bank.
In this interview, Souli explains how he began to see Israelis as potential partners, rather than the enemy. He talks about the value of ex-combatants in the struggle to end the occupation, and addresses some of the the criticism that his organization has received from other activist groups.
This episode of Unsettled is hosted by Asaf Calderon. Original music by Nat Rosenzweig. Recorded in Brooklyn, New York on August 6, 2017, and edited for length and clarity by Asaf Calderon and Yoshi Fields.
Sulaiman Khatib is a leading nonviolence activist in Israel and Palestine. He was born in the West Bank and was imprisoned at the age of 14 for stabbing two Israeli soldiers. It was during his time in prison that he learned about nonviolent resistance and first encountered Jewish Israeli perspectives. In 2006, he and other Israeli and Palestinian ex-militants founded Combatants for Peace: a grassroots nonviolent movement with the goal of ending the occupation. As part of his work, he tours in the US, giving talks with other ex-combatants on nonviolent resistance to the occupation.
SOULI: I believe that if our people given like a good leadership with a vision that carry nonviolence and hope, I do believe that many Palestinians are happy to join. This takes time and energy. But I believe the majority of our people don’t want to live in bloody situation, of course. And if the Israelis given the opportunity to show their goodness of solidarity with the Palestinians to struggle together, I really believe also I have faith of the majority of the Israelis in this case also, they will behave differently.
ASAF: Welcome to Unsettled, a podcast about Israel-Palestine and the Jewish diaspora. We are here to provide a space for difficult conversations and diverse viewpoints that are all too rare in American Jewish communities.
My name is Asaf Calderon. I'm one of the producers of Unsettled and your host for today's episode.
Sulaiman Khatib, today's guest, grew up with his family in the West Bank under the Israeli occupation. At the age of 14, while trying to steal weapons, he stabbed two Israeli soldiers. Both soldiers survived, and Souli was sentenced by the military court to 15 years in prison.
Fast forward 30 years -- today, Souli is a co-founder and Managing Director of Combatants for Peace, an organization founded by ex-combatants from the Israeli military and the Palestinian armed resistance. They are dedicated to ending the occupation, using only nonviolent means.
How did Souli transform from a fighter who saw Israelis as the enemy, to a nonviolent activist committed to working in partnership with them? Why create an organization specifically with ex-militants? And how does he respond to the criticism he gets even from other anti-occupation activists?
With these questions in mind, I interviewed Souli while he was visiting the United States to work on his upcoming book. We met in his rented room in Brooklyn, on a Sunday -- so of course, you’re going to hear some background music. Sorry about that.
Another thing you may notice, is that we both have pretty strong accents. What you are about to hear is an Israeli interviewing a Palestinian, in English, which of course isn’t either of our first languages. So if you're having trouble understanding, please check out the transcript of this episode on our website, unsettledpod.com.
ASAF: So Souli, let’s start by you introducing yourself.
SOULI: My name is Sulaiman Khatib, so, people call me Souli -- some people -- and I was born in a village near Jerusalem, 10 minutes from Jerusalem, called Hizma. I grew up there, half of the time, and then I was in jail for a long time. I was one of the people that thought that the only way for freedom was joining the armed struggle. That was my mind when I was 14.
ASAF: Like other Palestinian prisoners, Souli faced particularly difficult conditions in prison. In his bio for Combatants for Peace, he explains: The use of torture was routine: beating prisoners, spraying tear gas into prison cells, and violently stripping prisoners were daily occurrences.
But, it was in these difficult conditions that Souli learned how nonviolent struggle can make a difference. With no civil rights and with their most basic human rights severely limited, Souli and the other prisoners resorted to hunger strikes.
SOULI: The prisoners were very organized, very smart, and represent all the factions in jail through committees that were elected, so we asked, for example, our demands were around having like water -- like in Hebron jail, we used to have a problem of water, especially like to clean ourselves, you know for showers -- to have access to books, education, and newspapers to bring them, and visiting our families -- it used to be half an hour, we demanded like 45 minutes.
ASAF: The striking prisoners also had support from activists outside the prison walls.
SOULI: In the first few days, we used to communicate with the youth organizations, and universities, and so we were sure that people support us outside, so we don’t reach the point where we die or something, because this was not our goal. We had the hunger strike to live a little better conditions while we were in jail. And that’s how I learned there is another path. There is another way.
I did read about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela that was in jail at that time, and I was inspired by, you know, like all these people. We do study about Che Guevara and the Vietnam War, and the guerrilla wars. So, it’s not: you go to jail, you come out as a new Palestinian Gandhi. It’s not that way, the truth. So I don’t really represent the mainstream prisoners.
ASAF: Not only did Souli learn about other nonviolent movements, but he also began to explore Jewish narratives which he had never before heard. He recalled watching the Holocaust film Schindler’s List one day while he was in prison.
SOULI: During the film, we turned the light off, and then we watched the film --through the film, you can see that everybody is really moved. This was really the effect on our hearts, if you wish, because everyone was crying. And after the film, it's really a complex feeling, because we have to ask hot water to make tea from the Israeli police that his maybe ancestors were there, that we feel sympathy with them, and he’s putting us in jail.
Through the time I also read the history of the conflict from both eyes. I studied Hebrew also in jail and that made me realize there’s no either us or them. So I became beyond the typical narrative, and I became open for meeting Israelis after jail, and looking for partners on both sides to create a new narrative and new story for our peoples.
ASAF: In 2003, during the second Palestinian Intifada -- or uprising -- a group of Israeli reserve soldiers, from elite combat units, decided to refuse serving in the occupied territories, so as to not contribute to the occupation. Soon after going public, the Israeli group was contacted by a Palestinian group of ex-prisoners. Souli, who was recently released from prison, was one of them. They started a series of internal talks, that eventually led to the creation of Combatants for Peace in 2006. The details of the formation of Combatants for Peace are presented in a documentary about them that came out last year, Disturbing the Peace.
SOULI: Everything in Combatants For Peace is based on certain principles, that’s very important to say: that’s joint and nonviolent and bi-national work, and opposing the occupation and slash violence. We are a grassroots organization that have nine local groups and working “twins” -- for example, Tel Aviv-Ramallah, Hebron-Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem-Jericho, Jerusalem-Beit Lechem and so on. And there’s above all also two bi-national groups, which is the woman group of Combatants for Peace that established last year, and the Theater of the Oppressed.
Some of the activities are under the local groups -- from dialogue to personal story sharing to nonviolence demonstrations as well. And there is activities on the movement level, like the Palestinian-Israeli Memorial Day -- this is the highest activity every year -- the freedom marches, and we were also part of the initiative of the Freedom Sumud Camp.
ASAF: In Israel, we often hear the term “prisoners with blood on their hands.” Israelis are much less willing to work with and cooperate with people that have done what we call “terrorist activity.” Whatever it was, against soldiers or against citizens, this term “blood on their hands” is something that rings very powerfully in Israeli discourse. What do you think about it, as somebody that, you know, does have blood on your hands? Do you think that... why do you think that Israelis should be working with you?
SOULI: Firstly, all the terminologies, the language... it really exists more or less the same on both sides, that’s one thing, and it really depends where you came from and how you look at things, eh… I attacked two Israelis when I was 14, believing, "This is our enemy, I want to protect my homeland." So these kind of people, like myself, used to be like our good guys, that sacrifice for the homeland. It reminds me for Israeli discourse, when Israelis used violence before 48, for example, or the pre-Israeli organizations -- Etzel, Haganah, and all that -- were heroes.
ASAF: The Etzel and the Haganah were Jewish paramilitary organizations that worked before 1948 for the establishment of the Jewish state. Both used terrorism to promote their goals; for example, the King David Hotel bombing in which 91 people were killed, mostly civilians. But of course Souli is right: in Israel, most people consider them to be heroes.
SOULI: If we go ahead in the list of around the world, same thing in the Irish conflict and Mandela party, and everywhere else. It’s like two sides of the coin: the one called terrorist by Israelis mainly called hero by Palestinians, generally speaking. I’m generalizing now because there are many opinions. There's no one Israeli opinion or one Palestinian opinion. It’s a question of narratives, and how we see things.
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. You know, like you can always find like more soft stories to work with, in both sides, people that never been in jail or the army or any involvement, but I think this community is very crucial, important, and we know that from Mandela story, he was in jail. And from North Ireland -- we work with Irish organizations that both sides were also involved in violence and were in jail, and they worked together and we work with them to learn from their experience and this is very exceptional role for ex-fighters to play.
ASAF: And on the other side, how do you feel about working with people that have Palestinian blood on their hands, and why do you think it’s important to work with them?
SOULI: Yeah, it’s basically really the same question. First, I admit this is heavy and hard for people on both sides and I understand that, and if I remember the first few meetings of Combatants for Peace, we did meet people that have Palestinian blood on their hands -- much more than us, because they used to be in the Israeli Air Force, like pilots, and F16. Obviously, the Israelis never went to the court, or any legal thing. In the Palestinian case you got your punishment, or like over-punishing, because you are living under military rule. So let’s say my case: what I did, if it was Israeli person did the same, would go to rehabilitation center. I was 14. But I am not citizen of anywhere, so I go to military court.
So basically, not to legitimize any violence of course, but to say we do have to see the human behind these terms, and in the case of Israelis I... this is heavy but somehow we reach the point to see the human behind the uniform. This take long time, it’s a very deep hard process to see, to look in the eyes of these people and meet somewhere on some level.
ASAF: Many people in the Palestinian struggle and also in solidarity movements in the United States see the kind of work that you do as the term "normalization" with Israel, and they see that as wrong. What do you have to answer to that?
SOULI: Firstly, we got a lot of criticism in both sides. And I am really fine with that, I have to say. I understand why many people worry and criticize the joint work. But I believe in my experience -- in our experience from Combatants for Peace and other organizations -- the meetings of the other, what's so-called the other, is essential. I don't know also any Israeli that born and, you know, came directly from Tel Aviv to Bil’in. Firstly, they meet Palestinians and to trust and to build relations, and then they became like more activist. That's the one I know the majority of the Israelis that really show solidarity with the Palestinians.
And -- we are not normalizing the occupation. We do a lot of activities to fight the status quo, and we are not happy with the status quo. Of course, it's controversial, always, to work with what's so-called the enemy. I personally don't think there is one way to end the conflict, or the occupation, whatever you want to say. But we are not part of the BDS movement, we have a neutral position about the BDS. This is a nonviolence legitimate tool, but we are not there. We are a bi-national organization, and I am not going to boycott my partner Chen Alon, that is teaching in Tel Aviv. He is very active to our cause together, and his daughter was just left the jail recently. And I am struggling for her, as for my sister. So I can't think in the principle of boycotting them.
ASAF: Chen Alon is one of the Israeli founders of Combatants for Peace. Tamar Alon, his daughter, was one of a handful of Israeli youth who publicly refused to serve in the military for ideological reasons. While many Israeli members of Combatants for Peace don’t serve anymore, the organization doesn’t call for complete refusal.
ASAF: In the movie, I remember that one of the Israeli Combatants for Peace activists, she says she's serving, she's still serving in the army in reserves, but she is not serving in the West Bank. But, I mean obviously the role that she does outside of the West Bank is affecting the army as a whole. So, how… how can you accept that?
SOULI: I’m talking like as like formally Combatants For Peace. In general, when we started Combatants for Peace, was a clear condition that Israelis don’t serve beyond the 1967 borders. And on the Palestinian side you don’t, you can’t join Combatants for Peace if you support violence, for example. So there is a refusing in both sides to the mainstream.
We work in Israel-Palestine: means we are also pragmatic, means we do thousands of lectures -- last year we met around 4,000 people at lectures. It’s all joint, always there are two speakers -- one Israeli, one Palestinian -- we share our personal stories of the narrative and the transformation and this always inspire people. We find this tool as very deep impact, and we don’t tell the people what to do, especially talking to youngsters, Israeli pre-army mechinot.
ASAF: A mechina, or mechinot in plural, is a program that some Israelis go to before the army, where you study and volunteer in the community.
SOULI: So in order to, to play in this space we need to be also careful with the language we use, or to tell them what to do exactly, but I believe that this model stay in the head of many of the youngsters as the only meeting maybe they ever meet a Palestinian before the army, before they go to the army.
ASAF: Another thing that I noticed in the film is that you use a language of equivalency. A few times you mention dual responsibility. You’re saying, "We are both victims and we are both perpetrators." But as an Israeli, it’s difficult for me to accept the idea that you know, we are both equal in this. I feel like I am the perpetrator and you are the victim.
SOULI: In Combatants for Peace, actually, after years of discussion, we recognized the imbalance in power. Of course, the Israelis are in charge. Of course. We know that. But in order to make change, we did decide to take our destiny in our hands, together as activists from both sides. And the... the truth is, usually the Palestinian come with this idea: we are the victims, Israelis they are in charge and they are criminal and... But we don’t want to stuck there. We want our peoples together to take responsibility of our life, our present, and to create a new future. A new story together.
I don’t want to see more of feeding of the Palestinian victimhood, which exists deeply. Of course, the Jewish slash Israelis have the same unfortunately story of victimhood, and this is really like a very deep negative energy that will not take us anywhere. No, we can change our lives, and I believe Palestinians, as a Palestinian, if we are united, if we had a vision, if we have the right conditions, we do have responsibility, and we do can make change, together with our neighbors basically, because it will never be good to do it alone, either side. We basically in a non-divorce marriage, we have to manage. That’s what I believe.
ASAF: This I can totally understand, that you’re saying that you know, just because you’re victims doesn’t mean you don’t have agency, and doesn’t mean you can’t change your own lives. But like you said, in Israel, for Israelis we also have this victimhood complex, and I think in a way, it makes it very easy for Israelis to feel connected to, or, it resonates with us, because we...we get to still be a victim.
SOULI: Just to make myself clear, we do talk all the time about the imbalance in power, that’s clear, it’s the reality, nobody denying the reality as it is, first of all. And, but recognizing that, it doesn’t feed the Palestinian victimhood. So I can talk about it until tomorrow because it’s a list of suffering. You know, in October, my mom, to go to the olive harvest next to my village, for my family land, she needs Israeli permit -- which is five minutes away from our home, because there is the wall. You know, when I drive to see my mom, 20 minutes, I have a checkpoint, of course. I’m a little privileged Palestinian compared to other people, but still: when I travel, I have complexes that my Israeli partner doesn’t. You know even with Americans, with the international community, with visa, with the logistics. It's complicated, of course, to live under the military regime. And when I talk to Palestinians I don’t deny the suffering of this person or our people.
But I don’t really believe in this competition that exists always in dialogue groups, that the Palestinian comes with full desire to share their suffering and story, which is legitimate, but to recognize the suffering of the other side, or the pain, it doesn’t take away our suffering. To recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian connection to the land, or the jewish connection to the land, it doesn’t take the other connection to the land. That’s where I am now. I know this is complex for even my family when I say these things. I got criticism. Hard arguments. It’s not easy. Because you know what we learn in nonviolence communication, you meet people where they are.
I believe we can play a model that cross all these cliches about our conflict. And I understand the Palestinian anger, of course, but we want this energy of anger, to use it instead of going into violence and like really hopeless action like the stabbing, to come join our nonviolence action. And I see this happens, actually. Some people come, youngsters come through Facebook, we don’t know them, not from our circles. So I believe that if our people given like a good leadership with a vision that carry nonviolence and hope, I do believe that many Palestinians are happy to join. This takes time and energy. But I believe the majority of our people don’t want to live in bloody situation, of course. And if the Israelis given the opportunity to show their goodness of solidarity with the Palestinians to struggle together, I really believe also, I have faith of the majority of the Israelis in this case also, they will behave differently.
ASAF: You’ve been, Combatants For Peace have existed for about what 15 years now?
SOULI: 11 years.
ASAF: 11 years. In these 11 years, what do you think has changed in Israeli-Palestinian politics and how did you adapt to those changes?
SOULI: First of all, we… Combatants for Peace is not just a community of ex-fighters, these are the founders, so Combatants for Peace through the years became open to everybody. We started Combatants for Peace -- the meetings, before we call it Combatants For Peace -- started in 2005 secretly, illegally around Beit Lechem [Bethlehem] area. It was the Second Intifada and the political environment, of course, and the social economical situation changed a lot since then. One of the changes, the truth: at that time, the idea of two-state was the only solution people talk about. It's not anymore; it's one of the options. And the second: like, there are many changes, good and bad. I don't see things just black-white, the truth.
Last year we did "Ten Years of Combatants for Peace" and we screened our film, Disturbing the Peace -- the film about us, Disturbing the Peace -- at the wall of of Beit Jala. We got a few hundred Palestinians, Israelis to watch it together, under full moon it was beautiful. And we did the Freedom March with 800 Palestinians, Israelis -- this was last year during the, what you call the Knife Intifada -- like really among violent situation. And we got the two Irish ex-prisoners to speak to us there. It was a beautiful feeling of successful, I have to say.
And Avner, one of our wise founders, is my close friend, and he speak Arabic fluently, I speak Hebrew, and we are really close after years we are... and Avner told me -- because that time I brought my mom to see the film, and he brought his mom, and they met for the first time -- and his mom told him, “This is exceptional work that you do, the history will write you, and…” Avner was really, for the first time I see him super emotional and we hugged and he said, “Remember, ten years ago when we start?” It was hard to talk about the principle of nonviolence. And ten years later, we are talking not just about nonviolence, we are talking about joint nonviolence, and it’s accepted to a certain level.
ASAF: So just one more question, and that’s something I want to ask everybody that we will be interviewing here. How do you think that we, as Jews that live in the United States, can and should help the struggle from a place here in the United States?
SOULI: Yeah. As we talked before, the American Jewish community have a very important role to play to help our peoples out. And when I talk about our peoples, I mean Palestinians slash Israelis. I don’t see a way for one of the two sides to be happy with this cake, piece of land, that we all love and belong to, without the other side. Is really like a marriage.
So the American Jewish part of it is really highly important for us, and from the perspective of media awareness, among the Americans generally and American Jews specifically. So, also we call all the American Jews that come to visit Israel also to visit the Palestinian territory, and meet with our people and see the reality in their eyes and not to believe really the mainstream media.
The American Jewish involvement is like deep, historical exist there, in all directions. You know, most, I would say Jewish community in the U.S. of course for a reason or another they care about Israel, that's the truth. And if I look at the extreme settlers, they’re basically American Jewish. They are not even Israelis.
ASAF: Well, not all of the settlers. But according to an Oxford University research from two years ago, while Americans make only about 2% of all Israeli citizens, they make up about 15% of the settlers.
SOULI: The American involvement there is so deep. So, instead of being part of the problem, I wish to see more Jewish slash Palestinians that are working together -- with all the imbalance in power and the rights the Jewish have that our diaspora don’t have to go back and all that -- but still to work together in order to change the story and to see, to create a new reality, a new story.
ASAF: To learn more about Souli and Combatants for Peace, visit their website cfpeace.org. You can find the documentary Disturbing the Peace on Netflix.
Unsettled is produced by Yoshi Fields, Max Freedman, Emily Bell, Ilana Levinson, and me. Yoshi and I edited this episode. Original music by Nat Rosenzweig. Special thanks to Mark Winston Griffith and Brooklyn Deep.
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