One conversation in a coffee shop in Ramallah with a Palestinian who spent 10 years in an Israeli prison. Another in a coffee shop in Jerusalem with an Israeli who served in a special unit of the Israeli Defense Forces (the Sayeret Matkal). Both are members of Combatants for Peace which holds an alternative memorial ceremony each year where Israelis and Palestinians share their loss. This is what they have to say on going to the other side and the long road to non violence.
Q: How have you overcome prejudices or fears to reach dialogue?
Sulaiman Khatib: There are lots of things that can help - language, cultural exchange, personal experience and friendships. But the best way is meetings. And even if you don't meet, learning about the other side and being involved with them. For the first time I slept in an Israeli house I maybe didn't sleep even. Really, it's heavy. To eat together or sleep in the same house is not easy. We're in trauma. Even when I was in California at a summer camp there were barriers. Now I don't have this any more. There are lots of cultural issues also. I'm optimistic. Generally when I speak to Israelis I try to give a message of hope, but I also try to talk about the difficulties we face under the occupation. Generally I get a positive reaction, even from right wingers.
“Prejudices are not something you overcome.”
Avner Wishnitzer: I didn't overcome prejudices. Prejudices are not something you overcome. They're something you live with, manage, control and struggle against. They don't disappear. They're too deeply ingrained. Some I did overcome: Palestinians are murderers. Some of my friends were surprised to learn on different occasions I slept in Palestinian houses or with Palestinian room-mates in different workshops. It wasn't so simple in the beginning. We were as afraid of them as they were afraid of us in the initial meetings. “Who are these people? What do they really want?” This is always the thing. Ok, they say this and this, but what do they really want. And I think it's the same for the Palestinians. Maybe not the core activists, but people around the movement, people who we interact with in activities. “Ah yes, they say they want to end the occupation, but what do they really want?”(l-r) Sulamain Khatib and Avner Wishnitzer from Combatants for Peace
Q: How is the alternative memorial event part of that dialogue?
“Can you feel for somebody out there on the other side?”
Avner: Official ceremonies throughout the country basically talk about casualties, war, the sense of loss, sacrifice, without talking about the circumstances that caused these deaths - which is understandable and we don’t want to replace them, but we want to offer an alternative that makes us think harder and feel harder.
Can you feel for somebody out there on the other side? Can you do that? And if I told you that he can do the same for you would that change anything? Would that change anything also for tomorrow when we move on from Memorial Day to the rest of the year?
It [the CFP event] is an attempt to acknowledge the loss on the other side along with ours and to take responsibility for that loss because we are all victims of this conflict but we are also all responsible.
It's not just about sympathizing with the other, it’s about taking actions so that next year we won’t be standing in the same place mourning more casualties. And the responsibility is political. It's political action. This is what we are talking about and we are very clear about that. Political action to stop the occupation and violence, and in particular violence against civilians.
Sulaiman: They [standard memorial ceremonies] are more important for the Israeli side. They're systematic ones. Government run. And so I have nothing with it as a Palestinian. I have no link and can't relate to it. Because it's just for the Israelis.(l to r) Robi Damelin and Bushra Abu-Ayyash.
Even if they're soldiers or they killed people as well, they're still victims...ok, so I understand, their families and their society and their side ...but we want people, especially the Israelis, to think there are other people living here as well. And so with our event we unite people.
“They don't see the other side's victims as human, with normal feelings and family”
As an alternative organization we try to bring together respect to victims and families on both sides. There are some people who don't think the ones from the other side deserve life. That really exists here, unfortunately, on both sides. They don't see the other side's victims as human, with normal feelings and family and mum and kids and everything. In general, everyone thinks of their own victims.
We also to tell the stories of people's transformation. It's not just victims. The message is that dying and fighting is not destiny. The idea of CFP is that we take destiny into our own hands. Our destiny. We are not waiting for governments, or talks, or outside power, or God to make change here.
“It’s about taking actions so that next year we won't be standing in the same place mourning more casualties”
Q: What criticisms does it get?
Sulaiman: Some people will be against it and the majority will not be sure: “Our victims are not on the same level as their victims because we are right and they are wrong.” It's good that people start thinking just a little bit out of the box.
“How can you equalize the Israeli victims and the Palestinian terrorists?” That's what they say, mainly. And also some Palestinians would say: “How can you equalize the occupier and the occupied? And how can you put our victims with their victims?” But I think it's good to have critiques. I don't expect people to agree. It's not soft. It's a heavy thing. We're talking about the most heavy issue in the conflict: the life of people.
“Before we are Israeli, Palestinian, whatever nationality [...] we are all in the first place human, and human life is the same.”
Before we are Israeli, Palestinian, whatever nationality or anything, personally I believe we are all in the first place human and human life is the same. I understand how suffering for some people is hard and they see each other as enemies but at the end of the day, suffering is suffering, pain is pain, mum is mum on both sides.
“Many of the dead Palestinians were not combatants of any type. They were civilians.”
Avner: We face different types of criticism. There's the vicious, aggressive type with a lot of swearing with sexual content because it expresses powerful anger...I'm not addressing this type. There's not a lot we can do about it. But on our Facebook page we try to respond to attacks – not these kind – but people disagreeing, we invite them to talk to us. One of the most serious criticisms we get is: “You sympathize with terrorists; you pollute the sacredness of Memorial Day when you commemorate dead terrorists along with our soldiers.” And once again I understand where it comes from and we have to address that, to explain...we say that Palestinians are opposing the occupation...in their eyes they're right. We also say many of the dead Palestinians were not combatants of any type. They were civilians.
Q: What stories from the other side have moved you the most?
Sulaiman: There are a few stories...ok, I'm not talking politically, honestly, I'm talking as a human. One of my friends - we founded together Combatants for Peace - he lost his sister. She was 16 years old in a bomb in Jerusalem, in a bomb in a supermarket. Because I know the family, it's really hard. We are friends and we founded Combatants together... He was in the army at that time and he refused to take revenge. So for me, I appreciate him a lot.
“Once you cross this and you become that close then I don't think you ever hate”
We grow up in different backgrounds and we're taught our side of the pain, and in this kind of event, we share these painful moments together, we show sympathy to each other, with less political stuff...this unites us somehow.
Talking to each other, meeting each other, looking into each other's eyes. You may say maybe this looks naïve, I don't know, but it's very important once you cross this and you become that close then I don't think you ever hate. You will not hate. And you will really feel the pain of the other people inside you. You will feel a really deep sympathy and understanding.
“How was it that we were willing to kill?”
Avner: Too many to remember. Even Sulaiman...it really shocked me at first. Actually, from time to time, it still shocks me. I saw documentation from the trials a few weeks ago. You know my oldest son is seven now. Sulaiman was 14, a child, and when I saw the description in the official military court records, I saw what I would have seen 10 years ago. It's the Israeli describing a Palestinian terrorist. I'm saying terrorist even though he attacked soldiers but to Israelis they're all terrorists. We've lost the differentiation between a civilian attack and an attack on soldiers. It's all the same today.
But then the guy showing it to me is Sulaiman. And I've known him by now 10 years almost. And I cannot...[he interlaces his fingers] there's this description, him trying to stab a soldier, an extremely violent act, very physical. It's more then shooting someone, it's a physical act of ...you know…and I just can't put the things together. Sulaiman is particularly gentle. How could he do that?
And this for me is one of the fundamental questions we're dealing with. How could we do this? All of us. How was it that we were willing to kill? Maybe not wanting to kill but willing to kill, some of us did kill, at least participated in acts that resulted in casualties, though not every soldier can say if it was his bullet...so I was asking myself the same questions...these stories from the other side...it was like your whole world...
As a sniper, when you practice...you have a target and of course it's two dimensional - cardboard cut in the shape of a human - and this you can shoot from afar. I was training to do that. But then you close the range and from the cardboard figure you see a person and you may even imagine him in my weapon sight...
“If I had been given the order to shoot Sulaiman [...] I would have taken a shot.”
I cannot do that any more. This option for me is unimaginable but 15 years ago, 20 years ago when I was in the army if I had been given the order to shoot Sulaiman, under certain conditions, chances are I would have taken a shot. Once you truly look...not look...go to the other side, it's very hard to go back, knowing or forgetting that there is that other side. And in a sense this is what we're trying to do.
Q: Sulaiman, what unique messages do you take from Islam about non violence?
Sulaiman: I'm not Muslim. But it exists a lot in Arab and Muslim culture. You find everything. Like in every religion. You find armed resistance: “you have to fight back against the enemy that comes to take your homeland.” Also there's lots of principles of forgiveness and mercy and respecting the enemy during the war and there are rules. Lots of rules.
Actually, I have a lot of critiques against political Islam today and they don't really follow this and we can see this in Syria now. They don't really care about human rights at all.
“It's nothing to do with Mohammed or religion. It's about freedom”
But our national struggle had nothing to do with Islam, historically. It's nothing to do with Mohammed or religion. It's about freedom and struggle on land issues. That's what my motive was and the people I know.
If I take the older generation that maybe never studied in Harvard, so they don't know about theories of non violent struggle and Gandhi...They knew by their heart, by culture, by tradition, by heritage that everyone can stand against the force of the colonialist, and power, and government by staying strong and not using violence. I'm not saying all the Palestinian struggle was like this. But a big part of it was. But of course the violence got more attention and more media and that's the deal.
In our culture and heritage you find lots of principles that can support you spiritually. This principle, al somood, it came from this. Like steadfastness, steadfast in your place in your land, whether they use violence against you or not. And this is totally non violent. And people connect themselves. Like olive trees. They are saying: “We stand here like olive trees.”
“Violence is much easier. You just get angry.”
I think to practice non violence you have to be really strong and patient. It's not easy because violence is much easier. You just get angry. For non violence you need lots of deep processing. It's a big deal. You can be non violent in any situation and that doesn't mean you will be safe. You might pay the price or get killed or injured. But this is very strong message not to react with violence because obviously the stronger power wants you to get violent. Because they can crush you easily.
But for me this is a lifestyle. It's not just about the Israelis even. And I hope it will spread more in the Palestinian society. What would be best is if non violence is built together with the Israelis who want to see a different life here, changing the Middle East. I've seen in the last years there are more Palestinian non violent groups. More than before.
Q: Avner, what unique messages do you take from Judaism about non violence?
Avner: I don't think they're unique. Because I think every culture has its humanistic trends. For me the most important saying belongs to a very wise Jewish scholar, Hillel HaZaken, Hillel the Elder, and he said once that if you want to know the whole Torah shortened, it all comes to: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others”.
I think it's an extremely important stream within Judaism that of course includes many other streams...such humanistic approaches are important within it but it's a vast world and you can find the most nationalist, ultra nationalist, chauvinistic approaches as well. I choose what I connect to.
“This is the basic teaching for me. If this is something that I don't want, I should not be involved in a system that does it to others.”
This is the basic teaching for me. If this is something that I don't want, I should not be involved in a system that does it to others. Moreover, I have to fight that system. I have to fight the occupation. It's my duty, as a human being, more than as a Jew. Yes, I'm Jewish but it's more basic. It's my duty as a human being to fight that.
Q: What gives you hope to keep moving forwards?
Avner: Uh [breaths and looks around] now I'm thinking: do I have hope? [pause] I guess I do because I'm still doing it. [pause] I'm not sure it's hope that keeps me going. It's that feeling of duty. I don't know if there's hope. I want to believe there is...but I don't know about hope.
“To work together against so many things which I find stupid, vicious, completely absurd”
I can tell you what gives me power to do it, first of all the people that are doing it. So to interact with Sulaiman and to be able to understand each other in ways that for us wouldn't have been even remotely possible ten years ago, and even 5 years ago, because it's not something like ok, now we know each other [wipes hands together] I know Palestinians now. It's a never ending process. I go on learning and learning and learning in a very complex process which involves criticism and self criticism, being able to openly criticize. This is what gives me power, this experience of being able to work together against so many things which I find stupid, vicious, completely absurd...once again, on both sides.
It's going between and going between in a very, very difficult task that [sighs] it's hard to do as I said before. But it's the fact that we have people on the other side who are doing it with us. So it is possible. And if it's possible for us who have been involved for a long time in different types of violence, then it's possible for everybody. But it takes tremendous effort and at the moment, it's hard to find hope. You want me to give you hope? [laughs]
“You, by yourself, can be a model of change.”
Sulaiman: There is no one way, but you, by yourself, can be a model of change. And this gives hope for many other people. And that's what I try to do - even if they are not influenced, they see a human in front of them, and I don't want to prove that I'm a human or not, this is shit. But I talk about my family and my society and our land and our trees and the olive trees.
Like they say, history is a story. His story that you never heard. Basically, when you hear the stories of other people, other narratives, it's harder than being in a normal life, in your own bubble; it's really not easy. But your system changes. And this takes lots of courage and time.
But what gives me hope is because I do something and I see people change and I believe in humans in the first place and I don't see any other option. The other option is just frustration and pain.