Violence fuels more violence. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s most enduring conflicts, beginning in the mid-20th century in 1948. Multiple efforts to resolve the conflict as part of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, alongside other efforts to resolve the broader Arab–Israeli conflict, are in work-in-progress. There is a radically different and better way to lower the temperature, heal the wounds, and find common ground. As a child, the Palestinian liberation fighter Sulaiman (Souli) Khatib developed a radically new and better way – inside his jail cell where he learned from global icons like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other freedom fighters, and after his release. Nonviolence became his new powerful weapon. He co-founded Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO and an egalitarian, bi-national, grassroots movement committed to non-violent action against the “Israeli occupation and all forms of violence” in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In this inspiring episode, Souli takes us through his transformation story of being a freedom fighter, a child prisoner where the walls in jail are strong (it’s easy to fall into the darkness), and a Combatant for Peace (a Nobel Peace Prize nominee). He shares the mental mindset that helped him and the lessons learned from our culture, wisdom from ancient traditions, navigating conflict, and heightening hope. A life-long quest to coexist in the Holy Land, planting olive trees for the next generation and beyond.
Listen to the podcast here.
Planting Olive Trees to Co-Exist Peacefully in the Holy Land with Sulaiman (Souli) Khatib
From Palestinian Freedom Fighter to Child Prisoner to Nobel Peace Prize Nominee
Souli, I have been fascinated by your story. You came from a background where you were a Palestinian liberation fighter. You then became a teenage prisoner. From there, you transformed into a peacemaker. You have been a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a remarkable story. What would be helpful is to share with us what that journey was about. What was the crucible from being a fighter to a prisoner to a peacemaker?
Thank you for having me here. It’s my honor. In shortcut (brief), I was born in a village in Jerusalem called Hizma, where my family lives. I joined the Palestinian resistance against the occupation when I was thirteen years. When I was fourteen and a half, I attacked two Israelis from my village whose family house was demolished by the Army. We stabbed two Israelis. That attack ended up slightly wounding the two Israelis. This was when the Israeli occupation was building a big new settlement that would cut the historical ties, the road, the cultural, and the spiritual business between my village and Jerusalem since my village historically belonged to Jerusalem. (Editor’s note: Hizma is a relatively large and lively village in a vexing location with a history of heightened conflict. Just 7km from Jerusalem’s Old City, the village borders four Israeli settlements and is cut off from Jerusalem by the separation wall built in 2005. Life goes on, however, and the center hums with life.)
I ended up in Israel as a political prisoner. I was the youngest prisoner among thousands of prisoners for a while. During my time in jail, the Israeli Army blocked my room and my family house with cement and iron for the next ten years. I was sentenced to fifteen years in jail. I spent ten years and five months in Israel. During my jail time, I was also active during the time I was part of the Fatah movement. When I was 13 or 14, I was drawn to the revolutionary spirit of Arafat and these folks.
(Editor’s note: Fatah (Arabic: فتح Fatḥ), formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, became a Palestinian nationalist social democratic political party and the largest faction of the confederated multi-party Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and second-largest party in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is a member of Fatah. Fatah was strongly involved in revolutionary struggles historically and maintained several militant groups. Fatah had been Since Arafat’s death, factionalism within the ideologically diverse movement has become more apparent.)
Also, I could resist and change the system by using what we call our “Narrative Armed Struggle.” During my jail time, after passing through a lot of physical and psychological torture as a young prisoner, because it’s important to mention here, I was sent to a military jail under military rule. It’s not normal living under Israeli Law or International Law. It doesn’t work there. It had its own rules and laws.
It’s a military court and a military jail. Age is not an issue. I was young when I was 14, 15, 16, or 17, all my teenage time. In the beginning, when I was 15, I participated in a hunger strike for 16 days. A food hunger strike means we don’t eat at all. We drank a lot of water and salt. This is an important term value in our culture, especially in the prisoners’ experience. Even it goes back beyond that in the culture here.
When you say significant, what does that mean?
The idea is steadfastness, which is called Sumud in Arabic. That’s how I learn nonviolence in our context and historical culture. One of the faces of the non-violence action that we do in jail is to do a food hunger strike. Usually, the goal is to improve the daily life in jail and the conditions. We always succeed. We always have solidarity among the different factions of the prisoners. Also, we coordinate the hunger strike with the outside families, the unions, student unions, and worker unions to show solidarity with the prisoners. That’s how we succeed. (Editor’s note: Sumud, “steadfastness” or “steadfast perseverance” is a Palestinian cultural value, an ideological theme, and a political strategy adopted initially by the Palestinian people through the oppression and resistance in the 1967 Six-Day War.)
We did a few hunger strikes. My last hunger strike was for 17 days, with 4,000 prisoners in many jails. This is part of my change and learning that non-violence works. I put this on a side note to convince people that non-violence work. It’s not an easy mission. Mainly people that are more privileged and in academia might be hard to convince people of nonviolent work. Also, people who live under an operating system want to see quick results; for example, using non-violence would take more courage, patience, and time. It’s a long journey. Choosing non-violence is not coming out of weakness rather than out of strength and a strong spiritual belief system.Nonviolence work takes more courage, patience, and time. It's a long journey and does not come from weakness. Rather, it comes out of strength and a very strong spiritual belief system. Click To Tweet
I have been there with other prisoners. Before I read books about Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, and other leaders to know about mindfulness or other practices, this is the practice we have been using in jail. From there, my experience expands. We studied other revolutions and experiences in the world. It’s important to say jail is not a peace academy. We try to use our time for the best to create leaders. We did a bunch of sessions every day. This was illegal.
We used to do a lot of sessions. There was also a time when the Israeli police would use tear gas to control the prisoners. For example, a few times a year because we do a national celebration. Singing a Palestinian anthem was illegal. We got tear gas for that. We used to do our part. As a representative of the Palestinian cause in front of the Israeli administration, we must recognize the power dynamic. We are the prisoners, and they are the police and the force.
The power of the spiritual force is important here. The belief of our cause that we are on the right side of history and that we have the right to defend our homeland is important. Aside from this, I’m not talking about the name of every prisoner, but some leaders and visionaries have to carry a lot of strength, hope, and vision to stay strong because the walls in jail are strong. It’s easy to fall into the darkness. I grew up in jail, where we sang songs like they could jail our bodies but can’t jail our souls.The visionary among us has to carry a lot of strength, hope, and vision. Click To Tweet
There is the suffering, the torture part, and the traumas. We are human. It’s important for me to humanize the experience of the prisoner’s community, which is a big community in our case. That’s connected to many families here. For us at the time, it used to be the prisoners who were the best boys of our people, showing readiness to sacrifice for the cause. That used to be the idea. The idea of the hero plays a role here in the narrative. During jail time, some people like myself also studied. I studied English and Hebrew in jail. To be honest, studying Hebrew was to learn the enemy’s language.
As we know, Nelson Mandela also studied his enemy’s language in prison in South Africa. He studied Afrikaans (the language of his oppressors). What was the significance of that for you studying your enemy’s language?
I started from there. Through a long journey and other reasons, I understood intellectually and created a space in my heart and soul to try to see multiple narratives of this place and conflict rather than one narrow view. For example, I tried to understand the connection between these people occupying our side of the land by asking critical questions: “What are they doing here? Is it a normal classical colonialist power, or are there other attachments?” These kinds of questions.
Whose version of the story and narrative are we reading? In a conflict, we read or know about each other through each other’s eyes, people that have already filtered and suffered. I used to read about the Jewish side of the story from Palestinian writers, which is a different story. This is what happened (differently) if I compare. Many Israelis read about us by Israeli writers that are biased. It’s different when reading about the other by their writers. This is one big lesson. Pragmatically, I became among some other people to believe that there is no military solution to our conflict.
I was thinking, like many other people, “How do we find the way forward to solve this conflict?” One thing that I thought and is still relevant until now is that there is no liberation for our people or the Israelis alone. It’s interconnected. The other thing for the strategy and the tools, I believed after the experience, after reading, the experience of hunger strikes, and other tools, that non-violence works.There is no liberation for the Palestinians alone or the Israelis alone. It's interconnected. Click To Tweet
That was a big mindset shift for you.
I also read from the indigenous culture where my family comes from things like, “Turn your enemy into a friend and don’t turn your friend into an enemy,” said in Islamic schools and others. Also, learning what Jesus said, “Embrace your enemy and turn the other into a brother.” All of these ideas. This is not like you read in a sentence or a day. You became a Jesus person. You go through a hell of a journey because you have your narrative, your mindset. It’s easier to stay in the comfort zone of your group and loyal to your group and your principles.
It’s not easy to open your eyes and humanize the other side of the story while you don’t agree with their system. It’s a tense gray area. You go through this. It’s not just intellectual conversation. It has to go through a spiritual and a deeper level to reconnect with your sense of humanity, nature, and everything we believe. Aside from the global experiences that we learned from Mandela and others in history, our own local culture gave us many tools and principles that can be used to solve this conflict.
Could you share more about that? It’s a powerful statement about the power of culture and tradition. It’s about how it’s relevant for you and our leadership now.
It is used in South Africa, but it has a different name. Also, in our Middle East culture, which has also been used by Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other groups in the Middle East for over 1,000 years. It’s something that’s called Sulha, which means reconciliation. We don’t need to send everybody from the Middle East to study at Harvard for conflict resolution, we have it. We need to build a bridge and activate this value of Sulha or reconciliation. That’s still in place. It’s still used in our culture nowadays. I come from an indigenous family in the area that practices that. People respect this as a religion. (Editor’s note: Sulha derives from the word “Sulh,” meaning “to make peace” or “reconciliation” in Arabic. A traditional method for resolving conflicts before the dawn of Islam was found in early Semitic writings and later Christian records dating from the first century A.D. It is typical of Arab desert culture, and literature and generations have passed the practice down over thousands of years. Sulha endured given a) it’s based on common principles and collective wisdom typical of pluralistic communities and b) its practice was formed across religious, political, and ethnic differences in the Middle East.)
This is one example of many other things we could use from the locals. Also, using other techniques, nature, our experiences, and the ancient wisdom provided to us. After jail time, I came out after ten and a half years. I was released. I was active in two Palestinian groups that called for non-violence, intifada and the second intifada. The conversation about using arms struggle or non-violence is never-ending in every conflict and ours. (Editor’s note: Intifada is the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, beginning in 1987.)
I became more open to having Israeli alliances despite obviously the system of the operation and the occupation still in place. My family is still suffering, like myself and our community. With that said, I’m an optimistic person. I’m always optimistic by my nature. Maybe I’m lucky. I always thought it would be important to struggle together for the benefit of a win-win situation for both people, let’s call it that way.
What fuels that hope for you?
I gave credit more to my mom. Her name is Sarah. She is a simple woman that lived in our village all her life. She’s more of the generation carrying our traditions, customs, and good heart. I get a lot of her DNA to me. In jail time, we used laughing and joking as a survival strategy. A while after I was out of jail, I started to be open to meeting some Israelis. This is illegal, the logistic challenges, the political challenges. Meeting the other side is criticized. It’s not a mainstream idea here.
How do you deal with that? That’s where bravery, courage, and boldness come in. How have you navigated that and dealt with the threats of engaging across? This is real now in many conflicts worldwide, including in America.
The context of meeting the other side of the conflict or working with each other, like Mandela spoke, “If you want to tell your enemy, work with them,” is an easy statement. In real life, that’s a complex situation because you are coming from a group where you have been seen as one of the heroes of your people in one way or another in front of your family, your group, your history, their reputation, which is important here in our culture.
You are falling into categories for some people that called normalization to be with the other. I know about this. Even in Ireland, both are White Christians, but you find the same term. It’s not exclusive to Palestinian. I’m aware of that. I’m aware that you have to pay the price for this change. The ideas I’m talking about are not popular or not mainstream. I come from a place where I never follow the mainstream socially, politically, and personally. As an ex-prisoner and ex-fighter, this gives you some credibility to cross the lines.
Are you saying you use that credibility of having been a fighter and a prisoner to help navigate this new path you have chosen? That this prisoner credibility has helped people perhaps see your perspective and point of view?
To some level, yeah. Still, you have to be ready for some criticism and sometimes threat. Maybe it could happen. I’m not an afraid type of person. I do what I believe as much as possible with sensitivity to the reality and situation. You must also be grounded while dreaming and trying to create a new future and story. Creating a new story requires much effort and fighting your battles and fears.
I work for a long journey. There is no shortcut, unfortunately, to make this change happen. What we say is something I learned in jail, how to make a revolution. We used to study a lot about how to make a revolution. One of the lessons learned is that a revolution and a victory are small steps. I am part of a bigger scene. I don’t have the responsibility by myself. I’m one of the bigger mosaics. I believe many good people are trying their best to change this reality. People are afraid of change.
You’ve gone through this amazing journey, this crucible, with a new purpose. How would you explain what is your purpose now?
Now, I’m in a different place after the journey. I’m still learning and keep learning. Nobody knows the ultimate truth. I have my journey and story, which may be relevant to me and some people. We, as a human family, despite all the challenges, conflicts, and differences, have to struggle to save nature in the wider sense, including humans, animals, and the environment, by going back to connecting to the community consciousness.
I don’t see survival by every individual alone, in our part of the world, in the West, or anywhere. Especially nowadays, when we look at the Corona and the fires that are happening around us everywhere, we can see how we are destroying the world. The occupation is a strong face of this corrupted system. This is not serving anyone but rather the opposite. It’s not stable. It’s not going to stay. The Earth change. It will also teach us how to care for our true nature and ourselves.
Do you think this is your purpose in life? Do you think this is part of your big gift to help humanity take this deep faith and find this new way of connecting?
I feel I’m part of this bigger revolution. That would include a struggle for fairness than for justice, dignity, freedom, and safety for people and nature. I’m aware of the power dynamic here. That’s important always to keep in mind the needs of people everywhere. I want to share an example. When the fire was burning in Turkey, Greece, Algeria, and Jerusalem across the Mediterranean, there was a big lesson to learn.
Many people are now writing about it. I hope we learn from it. The trees burned quickly around Jerusalem Mountain. I’m born in Jerusalem Mountain. I belong to this area. I know from nature and my family that indigenous trees can grow and live in harmony with each other in that area. Unfortunately, the trees planted in these mountains for the last few decades are imported. They are not indigenous to the place.
They burned quickly. After burning the land, we saw the older system that the local people created over their experiences over centuries. People take it into a political statement to say, “That was the Palestinian system until ’48.” The Palestinian Catastrophe, the Nakba where Israel was created and the Palestinian refugee issue created at the time. Some people said, “This is 400 years ago.” Some said, “This is from the Temple era 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.” This is not my purpose here in this conversation rather than to say there is local ancient wisdom in the place. We must learn from that as humans to save ourselves and nature.
In terms of that local ancient wisdom, in essence, what would you say that local ancient wisdom says? What is it?
The big thing is to decentralize the governance of the world, the system. We don’t have to be the same, like the same colors and the same food. Go to the mall, and capitalism is everywhere. It’s the same thing. I am personally opposed to this. I would love to see more. I know more movements worldwide are now trying to create local food and culture because it’s more in harmony with nature, our health, and everything.
That’s how my mom’s generation lived. We don’t need to import things from South America to send them to the end of the world from the other side. I think rather the opposite. We must celebrate and appreciate what we have in nature and human experiences worldwide. At the end of the day, it hasn’t a lot of things in common because it’s similar experiences. That’s what we learn from our ancestors.
You have also said that you think COVID is a gift to humanity. Can you briefly share with us what your thoughts are about that?
We can call it whatever, but for some people, this was like a reminder to slow down personally and for other communities to rethink how we live our life and which world we want to live in. I see a lot of people. Their consciousness is awakening. I have been going through personal change a lot during the Coronavirus (Covid) because I cannot move and travel outside the restriction. Also, with Corona, there is more restriction. It’s a good opportunity to be with myself and to slow down with everything. I know many people now doing good things, yoga, agriculture, returning to the land, using more healthy food, and using fewer chemicals.
Also, recognize the importance of the local community around us. I used to travel a lot myself, even though I’m Palestinian and I need a visa everywhere and complexities. I don’t have time to sit with my family or local friends here. Many people are the same. The importance of seasons and nature it’s important. I see this among my family and friends trying to eat healthily and live a bit healthier. I don’t think we learned the lesson fully, but we are going there. It seems like a journey.
It leads to a bigger question. If we look at the world and its complexity, what are the big challenges for leaders today and tomorrow? What keeps you awake at night? What concerns you about the leadership of this time?
I see our goals here, like the Palestinian-Israeli situation conflict and the bigger Middle East. It’s this part of this world. Unfortunately, it’s based on competition or “either us or them.” There’s a lot of fear and trauma, unfortunately. In balance and power, the power dynamic, if we look at what’s called the first world problems, Champagne Problems, some people call it. We look at the other side of the world where people don’t have food. This is a concern for any human. As a person who cares, our cause could be an example. It could be helpful for the world base to create.
For example, in the region that you are talking about.
Jerusalem has huge importance in the Abrahamic family. It affects West-East relations, Islamic-West relations, and families, among other conversations. Changing the system here could help create a more healthy system worldwide that builds on trust, collaboration, and localization. (Editor’s note: denoting any or all religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that revere Abraham, the Biblical patriarch, or the monotheistic faiths that grew out of the Abrahamic heritage.)
What do you think is unique about this time in the world?
I feel the energy is moving in the world. I don’t necessarily believe in right or wrong, black and white. It’s a journey as a mix of energies. There’s a lot of awakening. That’s what I see. Even in areas, let’s say, where I live, in some conservative restricted local communities, I see a lot of awakening among the younger generation. We must also consider the whole communication and the internet with all the negative impacts. It does have a lot of impacts on to fast passing down of information. I feel this awakening energy around the world.
The urgency of saving the Earth. It’s not just saving the Amazon forest, which is centrally important like other areas in the world. I see a lot of people want to save unconnected tribal communities in India and Amazon and everywhere, going back to their land than nature and how they lived in harmony with nature. I see more people waking up now not to destroy what’s left but rather save it and respect it.
I may be optimistic, but that’s how I feel. The danger is there from big corporations and companies, unfortunately, everywhere. The Palestinian-Israeli part is not separate from this. It’s something you can see if I told you about the settlement. It’s a big corporation or big business that destroyed nature in the first place. It destroyed the lives of many Palestinians, including the village where I grew up.
There are four settlements around my village, and the water system in nature that we used to use for swimming, drinking, and agriculture, it’s not there anymore, or we can’t use it anymore. There are no animals that we used to see there, unfortunately. The destruction has gone to every side. If your neighbor is not happy, you will not be happy.
You co-authored a book with Penina Eilberg-Schwartz called In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation. Can you share with us briefly what is the key message and what are the key takeaways?
The book is written by my friend, writer, and activist, to give credit for the book we did together for many years. He lived in the US, and I live here. We have to travel sometimes. We work on Zoom. The idea came because of some of my friends. I do a lot of lectures and talks to share using my personal story as we do in competence and other organizations.
We do share personal stories of transformation. A few people told me I had to write my story so it could reach more people. That’s one of the ideas. We end up also bringing multiple narratives to this conflict. That’s why we call it In This Place Together. We are in this place together, not in a healthy way. I try throughout the book to humanize and not agree on all sides of the story, not through political arguments but through personal and family stories. To share that, which is exposing yourself and your stories to many people and bring to me maybe the idea that you have Latin Arabic.
I believe in other cultures about the message and the messenger. It’s a challenge because I don’t want to be able to focus on myself rather than on the bigger cause, on the message, and on the people that have no voice. I have a voice. I have a lot of platforms and networks. I’m trying to use it to separate and spread the hope and message of accepting each other’s narratives.
Some people think our narratives can’t exist and live together. It’s either/or us or them. I have been in this conversation and this experience. Multiple narratives can exist here in the Holy Land. I’m also trying to show the beauty of many aspects of the local culture that we spoke about briefly here that can be used to transform this conflict into a different thing.Multiple narratives can co-exist here in the Holy Land. Click To Tweet
It’s part of my struggle to liberate our people from the British system. When I say this, I mean our people, Israelis or Palestinians. There is a more urgent need to free the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation. Mandela said, “Freedom and liberation for people, whether they are the oppressed or the oppressor.”
Turning to Mandela, I know that Mandela had a big impact, and you studied Mandela in prison. Is there a particular Mandela Moment, a moment where the light bulb came on, an a-ha moment where rarely his message, his life, and his legacy spoke to you, struck a chord, inspired or shaped you in some way? What was that moment? What was the revelation?
Firstly, I have to say because of my background, and for many Palestinians here, Mandela was a big supporter of the Palestinian force and a friend of Yasser Arafat. He was in jail himself. There is a natural connection here. He is an anti-colonialist revolutionary person with a big heart. There is a deeper sense and connection. His experiences, legacy, and wisdom inspired and touched me personally and many others. When I have doubts or feel not fine, I always remember what he said when he left jail.
He said, “If I do not leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I will still be in jail.” I remember this all the time. Also, many otherwise examples of him and his relation to the police that put him in jail were with him in jail. I saw the movie. I visited Johannesburg in 2010. I visited Victor, the jail where he was there. I looked at the menu of the food and compared.
What did you think?
One person there told me, “Compare the Israeli jails with the South African jails. Your jail is not so bad.” I told him, “I don’t compare. I am refusing the idea of punishment and jail anyway.” I believe his ability to hold his African belonging and caring to his people and his goals while keep opening his heart and love to the White people in Africa and giving them some recognition, and talking about their fears it’s inspiring to me because this is a leadership that we need in the world.
Back to your question, “What do we need now?” We need to change the system and have real leaders with visions for the world. Mandela is one of the biggest examples that I can remember. We need his model. His roots, culture, land, and tribes inspired me. He is open-minded to world issues and injustices around the world. As a Palestinian, he spoke about the liberation is not complete until the freedom of Palestinians happens. If Mandela were alive, he would greatly create more peaceful energy among Israelis and Palestinians.
You touch on an important point. That was a question that went through my mind. What would he say to Israelis and Palestinians if he were alive now?
As a messenger, it’s important that he gets a lot of trust, specifically among the Palestinians. His status in Ramallah here where I live and his name everywhere. For Palestinians, he’s a natural ally. Some Israelis also feel so much respect for Nelson Mandela. He has the ability, among a few, the ability to speak to the sites and bring them together using his wisdom and experience in South Africa.
Whether we like it or not, I don’t like comparing, I know it’s different, but there is a lot of common ground here. Every groups and conflict say, “Ours is different because God hands us there. It will never be sold. God gave this land to us. We were the first ones to be here. The question was who was first and all of these questions.”
There are a lot of readers from South Africa to be learned, especially around the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” This is a big thing. I like that they use the local culture in the process, which has not happened here. If we think pragmatically about the oust liberalist, that’s supposed to end up in a two-state and peaceful relationship between the two sides. They don’t use the local culture at all even.
Can you give us an example of a cultural aspect you remember or what stood out?
Let’s be honest, with my respect, the negotiation part, led by some elite Palestinian and Israeli, and Western experts in conflict resolution, without considering the local culture that could be used among Palestinian Israelis and the wider Middle East. Religion was not even a thing to think about while we lived in our religious community, for example. There are a lot of aspects.
You are talking about the panel members that are set on the commission.
We have two issues here. The leadership and the culture, and the strategies they used. I mentioned before the idea of Sulha in our culture. There is a term in South African culture, but I can’t remember it.
Exactly. That’s Sulha in our culture.
It means I Am Because You Are.” It’s our interconnection, our shared humanity.
It has processes and arrangements. After you’ve gone through a process, it’s a win-win situation for the two divided sides of the conflict, whether it’s a political conflict, national conflict, or a family, even like a dispute on land. It’s a tribal system. The tribal system has been in South Africa and the Palestinian community. We come from a big tribal system and must use it. In that one Sulha example, if we use our elders’ wisdom, they have enough experience in solving bloody tribal conflicts over land or big things.
This can also be used in conflict. Many people wrote about this. It ended up with a win-win situation with a clean heart where we ended up the ceremonies. There’s no time to speak about it now. The ceremonies end up with coffee. It’s called Arabic coffee. Once we drink Arabic coffee with our elders from both sides of any conflict, we eat together, and that’s it. We are together again. This is a strong experience.
What do you think, in summary, Mandela would say to Israelis and Palestinians now?
Mandela supported the freedom of Palestinians and a real peace agreement for both sides. I believe that he would support justice.
What would he say to each side to work towards that? What do you think he would say each side needs to do differently now to get to that point?
I would imagine, in my words, that he would ask the leadership on both sides to take unpopular steps and use a lot of courage for that. This is almost the only way to move forward.
If there was one courageous step that the Palestinians and the Israelis could take, what would that be?
It’s important for me to mention that we are not talking about two normal equal sides. With that said, I believe we are responsible for creating this change together and not getting stuck with victimhood while we have to recognize the broad dynamic. The main challenge that we can touch on both sides as one step to building that trust to start a journey for the Palestinian need is to hear the words of recognition from the Israelis of our suffering and catastrophe. We have been suffering since the creation of the State of Israel.We have a responsibility to create this change together. Click To Tweet
The loss of the Palestinian people, their property, life, land, and belonging, and not to be afraid of that. Recognizing history to heal and move forward. On the other side, I am aware that Israelis need to hear recognition from us, the Palestinians, of their legitimate belonging to the land without legitimizing the system. It’s simple. It’s possible. It’s challenging. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of trauma and suffering. It’s a key to start.
If I think back to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process, as you would know from the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), that was a big part of each side, telling the truth without defending or acknowledging it. That began the healing process. If you were speaking to a fourteen-year-old self, what would you say to Souli’s fourteen-year-old self?
(Editor’s note: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid. Authorised by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission invited witnesses, victims of gross human rights violations during the apartheid regime, to give statements about their experiences, and selected some for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution, granted only if the entire truth was told. It was a crucial component of South Africa’s transformation from a brutal autocracy to a modern, stable democracy. Despite its’ imperfections, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was established in 2000 as the successor organization of the TRC.)
I’m the same person. I have to say, with a colorful journey. I’m at peace with my best and with my ancestors, with myself. I’m in a different place now, but it’s all connected. I feel it’s all connected. The same person in different journeys, learning, fixing, developing, and growing.
How would you acknowledge your fourteen-year-old self?
I’m the same person usually, and optimistic, as I said. Honestly, I’m confident and believe in myself without being snobby. I’m a simple person and grounded in the land. I’m doing my part to make this change happen here and trying to change myself over and over.
Is there anything you miss about prison?
It’s strange because there are moments when I miss that time in my life in jail or before or after. The community aspect, the solidarity among the mates in the room, was an important feeling, how we care about each other. We are like a family. We support each other. This is something I carry in my heart always. This is part of my life. This is who I am. Many people know me as an ex-prisoner. I am more than that, but this is an important identity. Nobody wants to suffer generally, but I am in a place where I have acceptance and gratitude for my experiences.
Albert Einstein once said that imagination is a preview of coming attractions in the world. If you could imagine the world in the future, what is your big-picture imagination for the world?
I believe, as many people say, “Keep one leg in reality, grounded and localized, and one leg in the dream and the vision.” As we are working towards there, we have to enjoy the journey. I’m excited about this journey. I’m not searching for an end goal in my lifetime. We are not working for our generation. I learned this in the first place in my own culture.
They teach us in school and our families something from the olive trees. They say the ones that plant the olive trees are not the ones going to eat the olives from them. That’s how I grow up. That’s my ancestors and my culture. I’m excited to participate in making a better world for humans, the next generations, the environment, and our nature because we are part of it.
I see more awakening. I’m excited about this journey. It’s a long way. As a civil right movement leader said, “This struggle is not for a short-term. It’s not for a month, a year, or a strategy for a few years. It’s a long-life strategy.” I’m excited to continue a struggle and widen my heart beyond our specific immediate cause to the bigger human family and nature.This struggle is not for the short term. It's not for a month or a year. It's a long-life strategy. Click To Tweet
I feel connected to people trying to do the same around the world from across the continents while trying to stay grounded in reality because there are immediate needs here. I believe that the awakening happening now and the energy around the globe will shorten the journey. That’s my belief.
Keep planting those olive trees. Let us celebrate the awakening that’s happening. Thank you so much for joining us from Ramallah. We bless you. We bless the Holy Land. We pray for peace. Shukran.
Thank you. Thanks a lot, Anne.
That’s Souli Khatib, who went from being a Palestinian liberation fighter, a fourteen-year-old child prisoner, to a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. You, too, can find the key that will unlock the door to the prison of your mind. Instead, change your perspective, shut your mindset, and old coalitions with the former enemy and become a combatant for peace.
Listening to Souli awakens the trauma and the possibility of deep divisions and conflicts, whether in Palestine, Israel, Apartheid South Africa, the women of Iran, or the Divided States of America. History and the world today remind us there are no winners in a game of winners and losers, where the winner takes all. It is a zero-sum game. It is not sustainable. Instead, we have to dig deep and dig within, learning from the lessons of our elders or the rich culture of our heritage. Start with the question, “What part do I play in this current mess?”
We can all exercise leadership and galvanize and energize thousands, if not millions, across national borders for a common cause, from inside or outside of a prison cell, but do so using non-violent means. Change is hard. Change is slow. It always looks like a mighty mess in the middle. Like Nelson Mandela showed South Africa in the world, the leadership excellence to ignite and unite and give everybody a seat at the table always ‘seems impossible until it is done.’
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices; it is bigger and better thinking. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, just one small step at a time. One small step for you, but together, one giant step for humanity. Come back soon. Share with your friends, and join this global Mandela Leadership Movement for Change. Because if not you, then who? And if not now, then when? Take care and take thoughtful, bold actions.
- Souli Khatib
- In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation
About Sulaiman (Souli) Khatib
Sulaiman Khatib Co-founder of Combatants for Peace Sulaiman Khatib is a Co-Founder of Combatants for Peace and was nominated for the 2017 & ’18 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Combatants for Peace. He is a Board Member of ‘The Middle East Initiative’ and a local organizer who has been recognized internationally for his contributions to promoting peace, social justice, and equality for all. He is a renowned speaker and lecturer worldwide.
In 2006, Khatib was the co-founder and General Director of the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue. The program works with youth to create effective and sustainable projects and programs that promote peace, democracy, and civic participation in the Palestinian Territories. In 2008, he co-founded the People’s, Peace Fund. In 2010, he became the director of Alquds, an organization that organized joint Israeli-Palestinian sports teams for youth.
At 14, Khatib was sentenced to fifteen years in prison and served a term of ten and a half years, where he spent his time learning about history, Hebrew, English, and other world conflicts and peace activists such as Gandhi and Mandela. He acquired his entire education and worldview in jail. This is when he started to have new thoughts about the conflict and the means for resolving it. As a result, he is today a committed advocate for peace in the Middle East. He has been an active member of various programs aiming to promote a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the last twenty years. During the second Intifada, he was one of the main voices calling for non-violent resistance.
In 2004, he went on a mission to Antarctica with a joint group of Israelis and Palestinians. Their team consisted of eight members: four Israeli and four Palestinian – many of whom were former fighters from both sides. They sailed over 100 km in the world’s most dangerous waters and climbed a previously unclimbed peak. The objective: is “to find common ground.”