Brit Tzedek has sponsored a 22 city U.S. tour of the Israeli refusenik group, Combatants for Peace. Shimon Katz and Sulaiman al Hamri reached Seattle this past week for the tour’s final stop and spoke at Seattle University, Temple DeHirsch Sinai and the University of Washington Hillel. I was responsible for media outreach and alas I didn’t do a great job. Or I should say I did a pretty good job and the journalists I contacted didn’t do a very good job. (Note to self: next time don’t focus on radio show hosts, just their producers who shape the booking decisions–why didn’t I realize this?).
But there were a few notable exceptions. Dan Levisohn of the JTNews will be writing an article for the paper that should come out next Friday. Sara Lerner arranged for KUOW’s Speaker’s Forum to record their Seattle University appearance and it should air on there in the near future. Alas, the station’s Steve Scher did not see fit to interview our speakers. And perhaps the best media appearance of all was Dave Ross, whose producer, Tina Nole, asked to interview Shimon and Sulaiman for an entire hour on Ross’ KIRO talk radio show. Ross’ questions, while posed from the perspective of an interested bystander, delved into some of the especially thorny questions dividing the two sides–like the Right of Return. Here’s the audio for the hour (warning: this is a 35MB file). Thank you to Tina for providing the audio CD for us.
I found Shimon and Sulaiman to be quite engaging though of different temperaments. Shimon, perhaps reflecting his interest in Indian meditation, is the more serene one. He served in the IDF in counter-terror in southern Lebanon and entered the army as a fully patriotic Israeli recruit. But after army service he, along with many thousands of young Israelis each year, spent several months in India studying meditation. He found himself returning again and again to the concept of suffering–thinking about what it means to inflict suffering on your fellow human beings. By the time he returned to Israel and began his reserve duty, he felt he could no longer justify his role in fighting the Palestinians. His commanding officer understandingly transferred him to a logistic unit. But even here, he felt out of place and eventually fully renounced service in the Territories.
Sulaiman is a founding veteran of Combatants who attended the first furtive meeting in Beit Jalla. He had the very first Israeli contact which led to the group’s founding. He knew Hebrew University Prof. Hillel Cohen, a native of Afghanistan who told him that some Israeli refuseniks were interested in engaging with Palestinians resisting the Occupation who had turned from violent to non-violent resistance.
In planning their first meeting, the Israelis were afraid of being apprehended by an IDF patrol. So they took a taxi to the village near Bethlehem, which dropped them off in an olive orchard. As they waited in the dark for their Palestinian counterparts, thoughts ran through their head that this might be a trap–that the Palestinians might be trying to kidnap them.
For their part, the Palestinians were afraid that the Israelis were spies from the Shin Bet or military intelligence out to get them. Fear reigned on all sides. And their first attempts at talking were not easy either. When you’ve shot at, and hated your enemy long enough and endured great personal suffering seeing a family member or fighting comrade killed or wounded–the hostility engendered doesn’t evaporate overnight.
But eventually both sides developed rapport and began Combatants for Peace.
Sulaiman is a dark, intense man with a mustache and a flat top haircut. When he was 16, during the first Intifada, it was illegal to display a Palestinian flag in public. He would attend demonstrations and wave his flag proudly on behalf of Fatah. He was caught by Israeli police and thrown in jail for a year and a half.
After his release, he return to his resistance efforts. But this time, he helped a group who planned to stab and IDF soldier. Their attempt succeeded in wounding the soldier, but the participants in the plot were caught and imprisoned. Sulaiman served three years for this act. But during his imprisonment he learned Hebrew and decided he needed to take a new political direction. When he was released, he decided to pursue law and earned a foreign scholarship to study in Jordan. But the IDF refused to allow him to leave and he was forced to renounce the scholarship. Finally, he settled on American studies (of all things) and earned an MA, writing his thesis on American Jewish organizations and the impact they have on U.S. Mideast policy.
He is considering pursuing a PhD. During one of our chats, he turned to the Americans sitting around him, most of whom were Brit Tzedek members and said smilingly: “I may just write my PhD thesis on you–you’re the next level.” We hope so.