Three representatives of Combatants for Peace, a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis whose former lives saw them as active participants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told a crowd at Carnegie Mellon University last week about their new roles as partners for peace.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a professor of history at CMU, welcomed attendees with a sobering message that most events emanating from the conflict are “depressing,” nonetheless, the gathered speakers break that trope.
“Most voices are extremists, angry, political elite. Part of the mission at CMU is to educate, to hear voices that you might not hear,” explained Eisenberg. “[The speakers] represent a more grassroots organization, ordinary people who have become impatient with their leaders.”
Eisenberg then acknowledged an initially perceived bias. Whereas two Palestinians were slated to speak, only one Israeli was present.
“The other Israeli got sick,” she said.
Mohammed Owedah, a Palestinian member of the Management Forum, spoke first. He briefly shared the group’s decade-old origins and admitted that originally both sides were “very suspicious of each other.” A trust-based relationship was necessary.
“It took almost a year of meeting to create Combatants for Peace,” said Owedah.
While the group was initially open to only ex-soldiers and fighters, it now welcomes everyone.
More about the group, which advocates an end to what it calls the “occupation of Palestine” through highlighting the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians was learned from a video shown after Owedah’s comments. Filmed during the recent war in Gaza, the short film introduced members of the group, including Sulaiman Khatib, an unofficial past member of the ruling Palestinian political party Fatah.
Khatib shared his prior involvement in the conflict as well as his current desire for nonviolent solutions. Like others featured in the video, Khatib requested viewer support for Combatants for Peace.
Following the film, Khatib expounded upon his personal history.
“I was 13 when I started participating in the conflict,” he said. “At 14, I unofficially joined Fatah.”
Khatib explained how he began by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. Later, he and an older friend acquired weapons and became more active in militant life. Eventually, Khatib stabbed an Israeli soldier. Subsequently, Khatib was arrested, taken to Ramallah for investigation and later a military court where he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Khatib spent the first two years of his imprisonment in the children’s section of the Hebron jail. He was later transferred to the Janad jail, near Shechem. While at Janad, Khatib worked in the jail’s library. He spent his time reading, studying both Hebrew and English, and received an education. He was introduced to the philosophy of nonviolence and began implementing its approach, specifically through hunger strikes.
“We coordinated with other prisoners and jails to put pressure on Israeli police,” said Khatib. “We usually received most of the demands.”
During one hunger strike, Khatib refused to eat for 10 days. During his last hunger strike, he and 4,000 other prisoners participated in a hunger strike lasting 17 days.
After 10 years and five months, Khatib was released. He said that his early release was due to being young and a first-time offender.
Recognizing the success of his hunger strikes, Khatib believed that Palestinians needed to adopt a new method to achieve their chief political end: an independent Palestinian state.
“I believed that Palestinians needed to transform efforts through nonviolence,” he said.
So Khatib and others co-founded Combatants for Peace. This required the members to overcome their inherent suspicions.
“We had to cross psychological boundaries and challenge our narratives,” said Khatib.
Maya Katz, the lone Israeli speaker echoed this sentiment. She claimed that after having been raised as a fervent patriot and Zionist, she underwent a “transformation.”
Katz was born in Kibbutz Gesher in the Beit She’an Valley in northeastern Israel. Her grandparents had founded the kibbutz and inculcated Katz with a spirit of Zionism.
She said that growing up “everyone said the Palestinians need their rights, but nobody spoke about the actual people. It was a contradiction I was aware of only years later.”
Shortly before joining the Israel Defense Forces, Katz attended a rally at the then-called Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had attended the pro-Oslo Accords gathering. After the event, Rabin was assassinated by right wing extremist Yigal Amir.
“I was at Rabin’s speech when he was murdered. It was the first turning point in my transformation,” said Katz.
Despite reservations, she decided to join the IDF. She served near the border of Lebanon and observed live videos from drones of what she described as “violent pictures.”
“I couldn’t see a connection between the violence and a political solution,” she said.
After completing her service and attending university, she worked security for El Al Airlines in Paris. Katz profiled travelers, asking them what she termed “humiliating questions” in order to ensure each flight’s safety.
“I thought it was the only way to secure flights,” said Katz.
A year and a half later, she returned to Israel for graduate school. While speaking with a Palestinian colleague in Haifa, she described her work with El Al. She said that her colleague nearly went haywire in explaining how degrading Katz’s actions had been.
“I again realized the connection between politics and people,” said Katz, who soon after the dialogue in Haifa, joined Combatants for Peace.
During her second event with the group — an event to help Palestinians harvest olives — Katz said that she was beaten by Israelis.
“The Palestinians helped me during the clash,” she told the CMU crowd, “not Israelis.”
Afterward, Katz increased her involvement with Combatants for Peace. She is now coordinator of its Memorial Day Project, a joint memorial day for Palestinians and Israelis lost in the conflict.
Near the end of the CMU program, Katz shared a video taken from the recent Memorial Day. Clips of speeches and musical performances from both Israelis and Palestinians were shown.
For both Katz and Khatib, participation in Combatants for Peace has been difficult. Apart from being attacked physically, Katz has been chastised by family and friends representing both sides of Israeli politics.
“I have been called a traitor by Israelis,” she said, “and the far left has said you should only talk about Palestinians’ rights.”
Khatib said that he has encountered different hateful and violent threats, specifically those targeted through Facebook and online social media.
“Combatants for Peace has credibility because of its history,” he said, “but it’s not easy.”
When asked about the core of the conflict, Khatib said, “I think both people are looking for a homeland and it’s not easy; everyone has their own narrative. We should recognize the connection to the Holy Land on both sides and should share it. We have to learn how to share the power and resources. This is a missing piece of the narrative.”
Following the program, several attendees applauded the speakers’ remarks.
“It’s not that often we hear a Palestinian who has been in jail and been a part of the violence and works now for peace,” said Gwen Puza of Pittsburgh.
“It was very interesting,” said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CMU. “Very courageous, wonderful people like that are willing to take these steps.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.