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“There Is an Alternative”: Meet the Israeli & Palestinian “Combatants for Peace” Urging Nonviolence

StoryNovember 27, 2023
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With Israel and Palestine experiencing the worst violence in decades, we speak with two co-founders of Combatants for Peace, a group composed of people from both sides of the conflict who have committed to nonviolence and peaceful coexistence. Avner Wishnitzer is a former member of Sayeret Matkal, one of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite commando units, and Sulaiman Khatib spent more than 10 years in prison after being arrested as a teenager for an attack on Israeli soldiers. The two recently co-authored a piece for The New York Review of Books on modeling a nonviolent path toward peace. “We are offering a different direction that’s based on partnership and common interest and common values,” says Khatib. Wishnitzer adds that only a political solution can bring lasting peace. “When people are fed with the idea that there is no choice but violence, they respond with violence to each other,” he says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue to cover the truce in Gaza and prisoner-hostage releases, we’re joined by two of the founders of the group Combatants for Peace. Avner Wishnitzer is a member of one of the Israeli military’s elite commando units. He’s joining us from Jerusalem. And in Ramallah, we’re joined by Sulaiman Khatib, who spent more than 10 years in prison after an altercation with two Israeli soldiers. They recently co-wrote an article for The New York Review of Books headlined “Combatants for Peace.”

Sulaiman, let’s begin with you. As you see Palestinians released from prison in exchange for the Israeli hostages and those of other nationalities who have been released, can you talk about your thoughts as a former man imprisoned yourself?

SULAIMAN KHATIB: Firstly, thank you, Amy, for having us, myself and my partner and brother, Avner in Jerusalem.

And as I heard your interview with the colleagues, speakers before us, that explain in details about the prisoners and the hostages exchange, as ex-prisoner, I definitely feel a lot of empathy to the prisoners, especially when talking about kids, actually, women and kids. That makes me feel optimistic. And that shows also, unfortunately, where the dehumanization and the multi standards — double standards that exist in this place.

And definitely as an ex-prisoner personally and Combatants for Peace, in our organization, that includes Palestinians and Israelis, that we live with a more multiple, complex narrative, we would like, really, both the Israeli government and the Hamas in Gaza to release the prisoners, the civilians that were taken hostages in Gaza and the Palestinian prisoners that we are talking about thousands of them, and some of them without charge even, in jail. All these prisoners and hostages have families, have rights. And as we see, unfortunately, their rights by international law were not granted, as myself experienced that. I’ve been in jail when I was actually 14, under a military court. So I know the meaning of separating from your family and being without rights, basically. I know the meaning of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what inspired you now to commit your life to peace as a co-founder of Combatants for Peace?

SULAIMAN KHATIB: So, as a ex-political prisoner, and I participated — I am a very active person since my childhood, very committed to the liberation and freedom of our people. I participated in different hunger strikes, food hunger strikes in jail, and that was my first introduction and transformation to nonviolence and the power of nonviolence.

Through my experience and learning about the history of the conflict and learning — I also know Hebrew very well, and I’m coming from an Indigenous Palestinian family that has been living around here, outside of Jerusalem, almost more than 500 years. I have been opening my heart and my soul and my mind to find partners on the Israeli side that reach the same conclusion, which is basically as simple as no military solution for this conflict.

And it’s beyond that, because, for us, nonviolence is ideology. We advocate for nonviolence. And we advocate for liberation that’s collectively connected, both Palestinians — despite, of course, the power dynamic and the occupation, which we challenge, and we talk about it clearly. I believe that, as I said, our freedom and our needs for freedom and for dignity and for human rights, both Palestinians and Israeli, is legitimate.

The strategies that has been taking place not just lately, since October 7, but, of course, like over decades of occupation and apartheid system and the violence and the ideology of violence, whether it’s coming from settler violence or it’s coming from religious violence from Hamas side, we are opposing this clearly and publicly. We are offering a different direction that’s based on partnership and common interests and common values, based actually on an old story that we, Jewish and Palestinian Arab, we could live in coexistence next to each other, and our identities can really be safe and practiced in the land where we belong. And it doesn’t have to be either/or. We’ve been — myself, Avner and other friends — we’ve been in the place where is it about us or them, eliminate them, and the army force options. We don’t believe in this anymore.

And definitely, after I was released from jail, I committed my life to bridge the gap among our people with other activists. And the road is long. I know this is a long journey. It’s not necessarily even for our generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Avner Wishnitzer into the conversation. You are a former member of one of the IDF’s elite commando units. What inspired you to help found Combatants for Peace?

AVNER WISHNITZER: Hi, and thanks for having us.

For me, it was the gap between the way I was raised to believe that Israel is a safe haven for the Jews and that it’s essentially liberal democracy, and the reality of the occupation, which I learned to really know up close only after my service. I was at that time in my early twenties and still a reserve soldier in that same unit. And what I saw in the early 2000s around the South Hebron Hills and around Nablus and different places around the West Bank really brought me face to face with the systematic oppression, of which I was only vaguely aware. And it exposed, it created a dissonance: the declared values of Israel as a democracy and its backyard, in which none of these values are valid. And I felt that I can no longer talk the talk and act as if this backyard did not exist. And I refused to serve in the Occupied Territories in late 2004. And then, thinking that it’s not enough to just refuse and absolve yourself from this systematic violence, it is crucial also to struggle against it actively, because you can only refuse once.

And at that point, it was early 2005. We were approached by a group of Palestinians who were curious about this refusenik phenomenon, and then we started meeting. And these meetings later led to the formation of Combatants for Peace. And we have been saying for almost two decades what we are still saying now, and we insist even more, as Sulai said, there is no military solution. It’s a fantasy, but a very dangerous fantasy.

And we see now the horror and the fear and the hatred in Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza. What happened on the 7th of October, the atrocities are unprecedented, and then Israeli attack on Gaza and settler violence in the West Bank, again, unprecedented. The levels of violence keep rising, and the circle of violence just goes on, because we are unable to undo the driving forces of this conflict — first and foremost, the occupation. It’s not the only reason, but we believe it’s the most important reason for perpetuating this conflict. And this is why we’ve been struggling against it for so long. We believe there is —

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think —

AVNER WISHNITZER: There is an alternative, and this is what we are trying to push forward.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what I want to ask you about: What is the alternative at this point? You have this truce that could end today, unless Hamas releases 10 prisoners a day, but Israel has said only up to 10 days and that they are going to wipe out Hamas in Gaza. What is the alternative, Avner?

AVNER WISHNITZER: So, the alternative is not in this microtactic level. I mean, sure, we are for the release of all hostages. We are for the release of prisoners. You talked about the prisoners a lot during this program. We are talking about something far more fundamental, a sea change, which means the renewal of talks that would lead to a political — a just political solution, that is agreed on both sides and not imposed unilaterally, and to support that political process, that is so crucial, because right now there is no alternative. It’s just brute force. And when people are fed with the idea —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds left, but then we’re going to continue the conversation.

AVNER WISHNITZER: OK, just one point. When people are fed with the idea that there is no choice but violence, there is only violence, to each other. We need to open an alternative, a political process to end the violence.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 and post it online. Avner Wishnitzer, former Israeli commando, and Sulaiman Khatib with Combatants for Peace, thanks for joining us.

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