Combatants for Peace activist Sulaiman al-Khatib (far right) helps rebuild after demolitions in Umm el-Khair, near Hebron. (Photo/Tatyana Gitlits)
Combatants for Peace activist Sulaiman al-Khatib (far right) helps rebuild after demolitions in Umm el-Khair, near Hebron. (Photo/Tatyana Gitlits)

Veterans of Palestinian-Israeli conflict bring message of peace to Bay Area

A Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew soon will stand together in a dozen locations around Northern California and make their pleas for an end to the conflict between their peoples.

“I want people to hear my story, and see and hear that violence can’t bring peace,” said Mohamed Owedah, who will be taking part in the local talks scheduled for Nov. 2-10.

Owedah is the Palestinian coordinator of Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian group formed in 2006 by Israeli army veterans and Palestinians who fought against Israel in one or both intifadas.

The group’s members hope that by showing that fighters can change enough to work collaboratively, they can inspire others to do the same. “At the end of the day, it’s about forgiveness and love,” said Combatants for Peace co-founder Sulaiman al-Khatib.

In eight public and four private talks from Los Altos to Petaluma to Sacramento, Owedah will be joined on stage by Galia Galili, the speaker representing Israel on the tour. Galili sees the group’s mission as crucial for Israel. “It’s my country that we have to save, somehow, from this occupation that is destroying our values,” she said.

Combatants for Peace emerged when several Israelis and Palestinians, tired of the cycle of violence, decided to sit down together to discuss non-violent activism.“Out of hopelessness, some people got to the point they don’t believe in a military solution anymore,” Khatib said.

Those first meetings were secret and dangerous, Khatib said. Before trust had been established, each side suspected a trap being set by the other.

But from those small meetings, Combatants for Peace expanded into an organization that now runs a number of activities. It uses theater and storytelling to bring a message of nonviolence and reconciliation into Palestinian and Israeli communities and runs other projects, including building gardens together.

The group has also created a handful of “sister city” relationships between Israeli and Palestinian towns or areas, pairings such as Tel Aviv with Nablus, Jerusalem with Bethlehem and Beersheva with Hebron.

Galili is part of the Tel Aviv-Nablus group, which is planning an upcoming event: taking Jewish Israeli kids on a tour of their West Bank partner city. Israeli children hardly hear Arabic spoken or know what Palestinian children’s lives are like, Galili says. “Seeing that [will have] a lot of impact,” she said.

Besides the work of the sister city groups, once a month several hundred people come together for a “freedom march” along a major Israeli highway, complete with puppets and banners.

The group’s biggest event is an annual Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, for all victims of the conflict. This spring’s event at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds drew some 4,000 people — including far-right activists, who shouted curses and threats at attendees, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Owedah grew up in the Arab-majority town of Silwan, in eastern Jerusalem. For him, there was no way to escape the violence of the Israel-Palestine divide. “You’re born in the middle of the conflict,” he said.

He saw many people, including his own brothers, go to jail, and felt the toll that took on them. Owedah, a social worker, felt he had to do something. Looking for a group that had a vision he could agree with, he joined Combatants for Peace nine years ago, and now is the general coordinator for the Palestinian territories.

Through the group, he’s told his story hundreds of times, but is always ready to go over it again — because he feels he has to. “Like every time I’m doing this, sending a message, it’s a duty on my shoulder,” he said.

Galili has been involved with the group for three years. An architect by trade, she said the difference between Combatants for Peace and other groups is that they are not defined only by protest, but also by their positive vision. “It feels like we’re stepping forward,” she said.

For Galili, her work with Combatants for Peace is made all the more important by the fact that the eldest of her three children is due to enter the army next year — something that, now that she does not believe in military solutions, she says is “really, really tough. A year ago I could not talk about it, I would burst into tears.”

U.S.-based American Friends of Combatants for Peace is organizing the speaking tour, with sponsorship from J Street and the New Israel Fund.

According to the American Friends website, Combatants for Peace supports the two-state solution or “any solution that provides peace, freedom, security and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.” They were the subject of a 2016 documentary and were nominated for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, at least according to a press release put out by the group (the Nobel committee doesn’t make nominations public).

However, the group often finds itself in the hot seat, with some on the right saying they are traitors and some on the left accusing them of “normalization,” or accepting the situation without adequate resistance.

“We know this is a long journey,” Khatib said.

Combatants for Peace public events in Northern California: 6 p.m. Nov. 2 at Congregation Sherith Israel, S.F.; 3:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at UC Davis; 6:15 p.m. Nov. 6 at Stanford University; 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley; noon Nov. 8 at Berkeley Hillel; 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at B’nai Israel Jewish Center, Petaluma; 7 p.m. Nov. 9, Book Passage, Corte Madera; 5:45 p.m. Nov. 10 at Congregation Rodef Sholom, San Rafael. For details, visit AFCFP; for info on private events in Los Altos, Sacramento and San Francisco, email beth@afcfp.org.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.