Tomorrow is September 20th, a day billed with controversy as the Palestinians seek a statehood via the United Nations. Those in favor recognize that the Palestinians need a state of their own and are frustrated by the lack of negotiations with Israel. Those against say that a sustainable solution has to come from negotiations between the two sides.
It all looks very depressing as both sides dig in and intransigence seems the order of the day. Perhaps it is best to focus on those organizations that are trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in dialog and the creation of relationships. I have already written about One Voice, still one of the most outstanding examples in my opinion.
So it was encouraging to see this article by Dan Goldberg about co-founder and director of the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, Sulaiman Khatib who went to Australia with Tami Hay, director of the Sport Department of Israel’s Peres Center for Peace. They led a team of 24 Israelis and Palestinians in a unique bridge-building exercise: to compete in an international competition of Australian-rules football. We shall leave the intricacies of the game, a mix of soccer, rugby, with Gaelic roots, for another time.
Khatib has an amazing personal story. He was born in the West Bank near Jerusalem, and grew up “throwing stones and preparing Molotov cocktails” at the Israeli army.
In 1986, at the age of just 14, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for stabbing an Israeli soldier. While in prison, Khatib was exposed to the writings of the Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. He learned both Hebrew and English and studied history, in particular other conflicts around the world. This provided Khatib with the basis for what became his philosophy.
“I believe there is no military solution to the conflict,” Khatib, 39, said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an interview with JTA while still in Melbourne. “I believe nonviolence is the best way for our struggle, for our freedom and for peace on both sides.”
For the story of how the team came together and became a cooperative group, I would suggest reading the article. The Palestinians who participated were admonished and even threatened, with many seeing them as collaborators. The bravery of these people should be applauded.
One Palestinian participant said: “Many people I know are opposed to my participation in activities with the Israeli side. They do not believe that it can improve the situation or lead to peace. I try to portray the positive things as much as possible.”
Nimrod Vromen, an Israeli player, told one media agency: “For me it’s easy. For the Palestinians, they actually have their lives threatened playing in this team.”
Tanya Oziel, Executive Director of the Australian branch of the Peres Center for Peace, knew there would be massive hurdles when she conceived of the idea of a joint team in 2007. A Sephardic Jew with Iraqi origins, Oziel knew that the Peres Center already had an Israeli-Palestinian soccer team, so she adapted the idea for Australian football and first brought a joint team to Australia in 2008.
“I think because of the power of the story and the impossibility of the story it actually gave me more motivation to make it happen,” Oziel said.
Some of the Palestinian team members are still worried about a backlash once they return home, but Sulaiman Khatib hopes his life experience will help his friends and himself weather such opposition.
“I’ve been in an Israeli jail for 10 years. I do things I believe in and I’m ready to risk my life,” he said. “So I’m not really worried about me.”
During a week when all eyes are on the United Nations, it helps to know that seeds of real peace are still being sown in the Middle East and the real heroes don’t make meaningless speeches but follow a dream. Sulaiman Khatib and his team are heroes.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).