Can we fight for peace?

Founders of the NGO Combatants for Peace discuss the challenges of grassroots peace work, and striving to understand the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Sulaiman Khatib (left) and Avner Wishnitzer, co-directors for the NGO Combatants for Peace, speak during an interview in 2006. (photo credit: COURTESY SULAIMAN KHATIB)
Sulaiman Khatib (left) and Avner Wishnitzer, co-directors for the NGO Combatants for Peace, speak during an interview in 2006.
Israelis very often confuse being orderly with being just, asserts Israeli peace activist Avner Wishnitzer, co-founder of the Combatants for Peace organization, started by Palestinians and former Israeli soldiers who have renounced violence for peaceful activism.
With the kidnappings of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, and the IDF’s Operation Brother’s Keeper to bring them home, Wishnitzer’s remarks come on the heels of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s statement that in the process of self-defense, there will occasionally be innocent victims.
“I agree that we don’t [intend to kill],” says Wishnitzer, crediting Netanyahu’s statement that the IDF has no intention of deliberately harming any innocent Palestinians.
But, Wishnitzer criticizes that “we intend to rule, and anyone who goes against this intention risks their life. The numbers speak for themselves.”
A former IDF officer who served in the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, as a reservist Wishnitzer refused to serve in the Palestinian territories. In Combatants for Peace, his Palestinian counterpart is Sulaiman Khatib, who was jailed in Israel at age 14 for trying to stab IDF soldiers, lightly injuring them, and after 10 and a half years of imprisonment, turned to nonviolent resistance and became a determined peace activist.
The kidnappings have brought up many issues surrounding the conflict – failures by the Israeli government, failures of the Palestinian Authority, the spectacular failure of the peace talks – and have the power to derail any progress made between the two sides towards coexistence and communication. While Israelis have launched the online #BringBackOurBoys campaign to gain world attention and support for the three yeshiva students, Palestinians launched a counter-campaign, using similar language to bring to light the number of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
The Jerusalem Post spoke with Wishnitzer and Khatib in an attempt to understand the challenges facing those who continue to search for peace, the inevitable setbacks and the issues to be confronted.
Khatib points out that while PA President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping and the PA is cooperating with Israeli security to find the three boys, Netanyahu has not apologized for the deaths of Palestinians who were killed in subsequent raids in the West Bank, nor for the deaths of two Palestinian teenagers prior to the kidnappings.
“Neither kid is more important that the other,” Khatib stresses. He notes that Palestinians see Israeli human rights groups taking a variety of steps that are sympathetic to the Palestinians, but it never comes from the government.
Wishnitzer, in referring to the Palestinian counter-social media campaign, says, “I think Israelis look at such claims with very little self-criticism, and I think it is among our roles to try to encourage more critical self-reflection.
“I don’t think it’s fully comparable, but I do understand where it comes from.”
He continues, “What has been washed out of the public agenda in Israel is the [issue of the] Palestinian hungerstrikers, who haven’t been tried or even court-martialed. They have just been arrested time and time again without charges. What is that?” he asks, musing, “It is kidnapping, in a way... The army comes to your house, takes you, accuses you of nothing and takes you to jail.”
Wishnitzer does, however, acknowledge that conditions are better for the Palestinians in Israeli jails, where they won’t be killed – in contrast with the conditions of the kidnapped boys, whose fate is unknown and whose lives are in danger.
Khatib says that while some Palestinians like himself can empathize with the Israeli side and understand the frustration and anger of the families of the kidnapped youths, it is difficult for Palestinians to sympathize when two teenagers were killed by the Israeli army on their side two months earlier, with no evidence they posed a threat to the soldiers.
“Many Palestinians would say: ‘We had two kids who were killed two months ago and they were just 16, too; no one condemned that. Who cares?’” Pointing to the inequality, he opines that most Palestinians are responding to the current situation with political reasoning rather than with emotion.
Campaigns on both sides strive to show who the bigger victim is and dehumanizes the other side, he adds, admitting it doesn’t help that there are false pictures circulating which portray the kidnapped boys as soldiers disrespecting Palestinians.
From Khatib and Wishnitzer’s accounts, the dominant feelings that seem to be pervading the grassroots peace camps are frustration and concern. “First the kidnapping, then the army’s response,” Wishnitzer says.
Combatants for Peace works all year long against violence, particularly violence against civilians, and the latest events have perpetuated a new cycle of violence. “It is very disturbing what’s happened with these young boys, and we hope they return safely to their families. We believe targeting civilians is wrong and counterproductive, and we discourage both sides from doing it... We can try to educate both societies that this only perpetuates the cycle of violence,” he states.
“At the moment there is a lot of pressure on the Palestinian side by the [Israeli] military, and this is also something that we have to publicly denounce – collective punishment. It is not the way to bring the boys back, as the army itself acknowledges. This mostly happens on the level of intelligence. The goal is to threaten Hamas and to break them – and this is what the army says – but the result, as always, is just an increase in hatred and feelings of revenge.”
He says raiding thousands of Palestinian houses in the middle of the night will only have negative consequences, and regrets that the majority of Israelis don’t even attempt to visualize what the Palestinians experience during these raids. “It’s just one manifestation of almost 50 years of military rule.”
Khatib believes that since Israeli and Palestinian security are already cooperating so closely, the PA should be responsible for looking for the boys in the Palestinian areas – without the presence of Israeli troops. “I see the Israeli army every night next to my home [in Ramallah],” he tells the Post. “It’s not easy not to be angry.”
Four Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops since the kidnappings, and hundreds have been arrested; Khatib says the security cooperation has caused a lot of anger on the Palestinian side, as they feel it is only serving the Israelis. “I wish the coordination would benefit both sides,” he says, explaining that Palestinians feel that their dignity has been stolen.
Palestinians don’t feel protected from “price tag” attacks by Jewish settlers on Arab property, Khatib elaborates. He notes that many are also angry about the issue of the hunger strikers, and suggests they either be released or taken to court.
No matter what the political climate, be it wartime, an intifada or the current situation, Combatants for Peace persevere with their activities, adamant in their view that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “My wish is that organizations like ours will keep fighting for nonviolence, and will recruit more people to see that this is right way,” says Khatib.
The Combatants for Peace movement states that it seeks “to end the cycle of violence, the bloodshed and the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people,” through a two-state solution reached via dialogue and reconciliation. “For sure, Palestinian opposition to Zionism preceded occupation and for sure, Palestinian opposition to Israel is going to continue even if the occupation ends,” Wishnitzer posits. “But it will be diminished because it is the occupation that fuels it.”
He opines that the end of the occupation would significantly reduce violence, and would open the way for a long process of recovery and building. “A peace treaty isn’t the end, its just the beginning.” Wishnitzer says.
He expresses a sentiment similar to that of Khatib, as to the way civilians can help achieve this end goal. “I think that what people should do is join movements that promote a two-state solution. We have to see the big picture, this is a very unfortunate incident and for parents and families, this is the whole world at the moment.” He notes that he is also a father and can only imagine the hell that the parents of the kidnapped boys are going through.
However, Wishnitzer says, as a society we cannot let one incident fundamentally distort the way we analyze the bigger picture, which involved decades of Israeli rule and expanded settlement activity. “And in their opposition to the occupation, there are Palestinians who are willing to take appalling measures, but the fact that I think they are appalling does not change it. Only offering an alternative horizon can change it.”
Wishnitzer also dismisses as ridiculous attempts to blame the kidnapping on the new Palestinian unity government, pointing to data by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) which states there have been dozens of attempts to kidnap Israelis in the past couple of years.
He relates that he and his colleagues work with groups of former combatants in Ireland, and learn from their experiences. Though he says the situation is complicated and questions whether they truly have peace [in Ireland], Wishnitzer concludes: “But at least they’re not killing each other; at least there are no more mothers like these mothers sitting in their houses helpless. That’s a good start.”