by Justine Berg
“The occupation will have to end, maybe not soon, but sometime. At Combatants for Peace we are both working to make that end sooner, and also demonstrating how we will live after that happens. We have to dismantle one society while building a new one at the same time.”
– A Combatant for Peace
“I want you all to listen for the transformational moments in Maya and Sulaiman’s stories” Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding asked the audience, introducing the two representatives from Combatants for Peace who came on October 7th to raise awareness about the organization at a time when the media is once again filled with largely de-contextualized images of violence from the region.
Combatants for Peace was founded in 2006 with the mission of building the “social infrastructure necessary for ending the occupation and conflict.” All members of Combatants for Peace are ex-combatants, either ex-Israeli military personnel or ex-members of the Palestinian armed resistance against the Israeli occupation. All of the organization’s members have decided to forgo arms and instead work together toward an end to the Israeli occupation and a just resolution.
Sulaiman Khatib, the Palestinian co-director and co-founder of Combatants for Peace, began the evening telling his story. Suli (as his companions called him) grew up in Jerusalem and went to an Israeli school in which even the word “Palestine” was forbidden. At the age of 14 he was imprisoned by Israeli authorities with a fifteen-year sentence, though he would end up serving a total of ten years. “Palestinian political prisoners are very organized,” he told the audience, describing how they were able to orchestrate a hunger strike to being on the same day across many Israeli prisons involving some 4,000 Palestinian prisoners. “This hunger strike was my introduction to nonviolent resistance,” he said. Suli also made an effort to learn Hebrew while in prison so he would be able to communicate with Israelis.
After his release, Sulaiman took part in a trip to the Antarctic with a small group of Palestinians and Israelis who were on a “search for common ground.” After this trip, the group maintained contact by sneaking the Israelis into Bethlehem, where it had become illegal, under Israeli law, for Israeli citizens to go. “It took a long time to build trust,” he said, but eventually they decided to create an organization together. “You see this slogan?” Suli said, referencing the name ‘Combatants for Peace,’ “even just this took us one year of discussion!” The audience laughed. This was the beginning of Combatants for Peace.
Maya Katz, the Israeli representative, said that her grandparents were from Poland and Germany, and that she grew up on a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. “Everybody on the kibbutz said there should be a Palestinian state,” she began, “and yet, nobody talked about the small Palestinian village that was very near our kibbutz. It was a sort of contradiction, which I only realized later.” She continued, “Growing up, there was a strong emphasis on the idea of ‘giving back’ to my country, and so, like most Israelis, I wanted to join the Israeli Defense Forces.”
Maya said that even when she began working for the high security Israeli airline El Al, “interrogating people and asking all sorts of humiliating questions” she still “never saw the contradiction between what I was doing and my belief in a Palestinian state.”
It was not until she told an Israeli friend about her job, and witnessed her friend’s reaction, that she began to interrogate her own lack of knowledge. “My friend stood up and I could see that she was very angry at me. And after this experience I realized that I actually did not know any Palestinians, and had never been to the Palestinian West Bank.”
Maya learned about Combatants for Peace in 2011 from an Israeli friend. Curious about the organization, Maya joined a Combatants event harvesting olives with Palestinians in the West Bank. During the harvest a group of ideological Israeli settlers came out and started beating the participants. “And they were not just beating the Palestinians, which, ok, maybe I could understand because they hate them or whatever, but then they began beating me.” This experience, Maya said, cemented her desire to join Combatants for Peace because, she explained, “when the settlers were beating me, I realized that wherever I went there would continue to be violence,” and Combatants for Peace offered an alterative.
Members of Combatants for Peace engage in a wide variety of actions. Maya and Sulaiman showed a video of a march that Combatants for Peace organized in partnership with Bread & Puppet in the West Bank. Other actions, like accompanying Palestinians at moments when they are most vulnerable to the violence of Israeli military or settler forces, are good examples of how Combatants for Peace members engage in meaningful non-violent resistance to the occupation.
Sulaiman noted that while there are a variety of other Israeli organizations, like Breaking the Silence, that are doing important work, Combatants for Peace is unique because every one of its branches has Israeli and a Palestinian leadership. Many of the other organizations that ostensibly work for Palestinian rights are nonetheless led almost exclusively by Israelis. The importance placed on bi-national leadership makes Combatants for Peace unique within its context. Paula Green also pointed out that the bi-national aspect in tandem with the fact that the organization is active during an ongoing “conflict” makes Combatants for Peace unique in the world.
The evening ended with an audience member asking about the role of the United States government in perpetuating the occupation through its annual $3 billion of military assistance to the Israeli government. “Yes!” Sulaiman said, excitedly, “this is exactly why we are here, touring in the US. Because we are all,” and he motioned around the room, with Maya nodding emphatically beside him, “involved in the cycle of violence, and it is each of our responsibility to break that chain.”