Sitting at the front of the theater, slouching slightly in a crisp purple dress shirt and a pair of brown dress pants with swampy green pin strips, kaffiyah draped around his neck, Sulaiman Khatib doesn’t look like all that much.
Of slight build and speaking halting English, Khatib lacks some of Nelson Mandella or Martin Luther King Jr.’s charisma. But for anyone who cares about Israel or Palestine, ignore him at your own peril.
This week marks the first time I’ve set out to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a journalist (specifically I’m exploring why the issue is so big on college campuses for The Ubyssey). Leading up to the panel discussion where I heard Khatib speak, I was ready to curl up in the fetal position and never think about the conflict again.
During the first day of Israel Apartheid Week at UBC, I listened as Palestinian and Israeli students shouted past each others, arguing on completely different wavelengths. Across the world in Israel, some say a third intifadah is brewing; thousands of Palestinian prisoners are on a hunger strike.
But in a conflict with such a massive leadership vacuum, Khatib’s message—heavy Middle Eastern accent excepted—comes through with unbelievable clarity.
A practical resolution
One of the most intractable issues in the conflict is the “right of return.” This is the idea that the descendants of Palestinians who lived within Israel before 1948 should be allowed to return. Morality aside, this is widely understood to be a non-starter in peace negotiations, as millions of Palestinians flooding into Israel would cause it to cease being a Jewish state. Despite this, no Palestinian leaders have been willing to tell their people the truth: the quickest path to a stable peace and higher quality of life involves accepting that some things must be given up.
That is, no leader until Khatib.
“I don’t think that history will bring justice back,” Khatib said. “We lost a big part of our land and this is a fact—but I don’t see justice, I see forgiveness.”
Khatib made clear that living in the past—trying to return to a time before Israel existed—does not serve Palestinian interests.
Khatib was speaking on a panel of other peace activists and another Palestinian, an activist and political figure from Hebron, said that anyone who forgave the nakba, the founding of Israel, was crossing a “red line” and betraying the Palestinian people. Khatib disagreed.
“I talk with some Palestinians that don’t agree with me,” Khatib said. “I tell them, ‘What do you want? To take the Jews back to Poland?’”
“I just don’t want to see Palestinian refugees in refugee camps, and to keep this ‘cause’ forever will create more problems for us,” Khatib said.
Khatib knows that whatever the eventual resolution to the conflict, both sides will feel deeply wronged. But he also knows it is possible to find a solution that will make everyone far happier in the longrun than they are today.
“Two states, five states, it’s not a big deal,” Khatib said. “We have to find the way to have real reconciliation.”
But it’s less Khatib’s words, however on point they may, that is so inspiring. It’s that given his past, he is able to preach such an enlightened message.
Khatib’s fellow Palestinian on the panel said he couldn’t guarantee he’d remain on the path of nonviolence cooperation with Israelis.
“But I don’t know what I’d do if my cousin was killed, or if my house was demolished,” the activist said.
But for Khatib, the conflict did hit home—and he rose above it.
Khatib joined Fatah, part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as a young teenager. He recruited other kids from his school to join him in throwing rocks and eventually “cocktail molotov” at Israeli soldiers.
By 15, Khatib and a friend had been arrested for stabbing two Israeli soldiers. Brought before an Israeli military court, Khatib was sentenced to 15 years in jail and his 18-year-old friend to 18.
“It was a joke in jail!” Khatib said with a grin. “We were like, ‘Hey they gave us each our ages.”
Behind the prison walls Khatib stayed engaged in politics. He and his fellow prisoners would often participate in hunger strikes over poor prison conditions. The longest he went without food was 17 days of sustaining himself on copious amounts of water and small amounts of salt.
Khatib said that today he knows almost all the major actors in West Bank politics, including those behind some of the violent protests, from his time in prison.
Khatib has come to embrace strange bedfellows for a man still active in Fatah politics. Khatib recounted a story of an Israeli settler who lived in a settlement a few kilometers away from Khatib’s home. Through a mutual friend they arranged to meet, and the settler showed up with a handgun strapped to his hip.
“I told him, ‘Habibi, you got to cover that up,’” Khatib recalled with a laugh.
Khatib started meeting with the right-wing settler regularly, exchanging world views and explaining life under occupation was like.
A year later, Khatib said he got a call from the settler, an American transplant who had been volunteering at IDF checkpoints around the West Bank.
“Sulaiman, I have great news! I stopped working at the checkpoints,” Khatib remembered him saying, letting out a slight laugh.
In his work with various organizations, Khatib interfaces with lots of Israelis. He refuses to submit to the rigid ideology that perpetuates the conflict. But none of this should suggest he has sold out. Khatib mentioned severing ties with an Israeli-led, Israeli/Palestinian peace organization after realizing that the token stipend the organization paid coordinators was going only to the Israeli staffers.
“It was hardly any money, but just about the principle,” Khatib said.
The Palestinian Rabin?
Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin was almost able to make peace in large part because he was trusted by many Israelis due to his background as a military man. The peace Rabin wanted to make wasn’t naive or about giving up the Zionist dream and tearing apart the Jewish homeland—it was about preserving and stabilizing the dream by taking the necessary action.
Likewise, Khatib has not abandoned the Palestinian cause, far from it. What Khatib realizes, however, is that waging an ideological battle against Zionism writ large and making ideological demands—like the right of return—will do much less to improve Palestinian lives than accepting the facts as they are and moving forward toward peace.
Internal West Bank politics aren’t looking especially pretty at the moment. Islamists including Hamas—a group pretty unlikely to embrace Khatib’s pragmatic approach—are on the rise and Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed leader of the Palestinian Authority, has been widely discredited as corrupt and ineffective by the Palestinian public.
For the time being, Khatib is doing unquestionably important work outside of the explicitly political sphere. He is the General Director of the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, which works on establishing democratic values and civil society in the West Bank. He also founded Combatants for Peace, which, as its name suggests, is a group of former Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers advocating for peace and he also works on various other peace initiatives.
But Khatib offers a larger hope in this seemingly intractable conflict. One of the last things left to believe in for those of us who wish to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict is that a strong leader may make all the difference.
Even without an eager peacemaker on the Israeli side, Khatib’s genuine desire for coexistence, understanding of historical context and credibility with a Palestinian public wary of politicians who appease the Israelis, would be hard to ignore.
Khatib could be the Rabin of Palestine, and in doing so he would give both sides a way out of a conflict that will otherwise only continue to fester.
“This land has had problems for the last few thousand years,” Khatib said. “I don’t mind national things or ethic things—if you’re Israeli or whatever. We need to struggle for a real change in Israel and Palestine, because these current arrangements” aren’t working.
“People say, ‘You were in jail, you should want to kill!’” Khatib said.
But he doesn’t want to kill.
“I’d rather unite,” Khatib said. “I think we need a lot of love. Nobody has the magical solution.”