A former Israeli Air Force Captain and a Palestinian liberation fighter talked to CSUN students Monday about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and showed that enemies can be allies in the struggle for peace.
Yonatan Shapira and Suliman al-Chatib are members of Combatants for Peace, a group that was created in 2005 and is comprised of former soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinians who have committed acts of violence for the cause of liberation. The former adversaries now choose the path of peace in order to stop the bloodshed and oppression in the war-torn region by using dialogue and understanding instead of weapons.
“The best way to stop your enemy from fighting you is to struggle with him,” al-Chatib said, paraphrasing Nelson Mandela, who fought for an end to apartheid in South Africa.
While speaking to the class of approximately 30 students, faculty and other observers, Shapira likened the occupation of Palestine to apartheid in South Africa by using the example of racism and its perpetual nature to cause people to violate the human rights of others.
He shared an experience he had in which he had flown an Israeli family to a hospital after they had been shot in their own home by a Palestinian fighter during the Second Intifada, which means “uprising” in Arabic, in 2002. A few weeks after that tragedy, another event took place that changed Shapira’s life. The commander of the Israeli Air Force, in collusion with the Israeli government, decided to assassinate Salah Shahade, the leader of the Palestinian political and military party Hamas.
“They ordered an F-16 with a one-ton bomb, that shot – that dropped this bomb on the house of the Hamas leader in Gaza Strip, killing with him 14 innocent civilians, 14 innocent people, including nine babies,” he said. “And although I didn’t drop this bomb and I didn’t shoot ? anyone, I felt that this, me being part of this system that is causing this harm and this suffering and this killing to innocent people, it’s just the same like being a terrorist in another organization. And those kids who were killed by my fellow pilots and these kids that were killed by this Palestinian fighter are just the same.”
After this epiphany, Shapira decided to refuse his services to the Israeli Air Force and in 2003 organized a petition that was eventually signed by more than 100 pilots who also refused to fly attack missions in Palestine. Israeli media, such as the Tel Aviv daily newspaper Ynet, has targeted them by framing them as traitors and deserters. These soldiers dubbed themselves Refuseniks and began looking for a means for peace rather than looking through a firing scope.
Al-Chatib has also foregone a personal voyage toward the path of peace. After joining the Fatah political and military party of Palestine at the age of 12, he began to actively participate in acts of civil disobedience. Protesting soon turned to violence, such as throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, doing political graffiti and preparing Molotov cocktail bombs.
By the time al-Chatib was 14, he was already sentenced to 15 years in an Israeli prison for stabbing an Israeli soldier with one of his comrades. It was during this formative time while incarcerated that al-Chatib began develop his world view. Both the brutality from the prison guards and nurturing from his fellow political prisoners taught him the meanings of struggle and revolution. Through the routine beatings and violence the prisoners were subjected to by the guards, al-Chatib was able to see the correct path of righteousness in peace rather than violence.
After he was released in 1997, al-Chatib and other former inmates who were ex-combatants established the Abu Sukar Center for Peace. This eventually led them to make ties with the Refuseniks, which led to the creation of Combatants for Peace.
The two stopped by CSUN on their American tour, which is focusing on visiting universities throughout the country to raise awareness and the call for peace. They have presented at Yale, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Brandeis and Boston College. They will be heading to UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, University of Nebraska, Iowa State and Loyola University in Chicago for the last few stops of their visit.
When asked what he wants American students to take from Combatants for Peace, Shapira answered, “First know the facts and learn reality. Feel responsible and committed to change just not in Israel and Palestine, but also here.”