The alternative memorial service organized by peace organizations in Israel/Palestine challenges the racist official memorial services of the State of Israel in which only Israeli casualties are remembered.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Mark Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Mark Steiner. Good to have you with us. On Monday, April 27th, 200,000 people participated in a memorial service. The tens of thousands of Palestinians and the thousands of Israelis who have been killed in the ongoing conflict or about the occupation. On this same day every year, the state of Israel holds an official memorial service known Yom Hazikaron, to commemorate the Israelis killed in war or killed by the Palestinian resistance.
What you just saw and what I refer to is the Israel Palestinian Memorial Service, that for the last 15 years, remember those killed on both sides, and hears from families of the fallen calling for peace. Each year it’s attacked and shackled by the judiciary and the Israeli Government. This year because of the corona pandemic, it was held virtually. It dwarfed the Israeli event, bringing together Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians to tell their stories of their loved ones, the ones they lost and their desires for peace. It was seen around the world.
Two organizations were key to making this event a reality. Combatants for Peace made up of Israeli and Palestinian veterans of war and those Palestinians imprisoned by Israelis, and Parents Circle Families Forum, a Palestinian and Israeli association of those who suffer the trauma of losing loved ones in these conflicts. Events were held in Tel Aviv, Israel and Ramallah, Palestine, and seen across the globe as I said. And here are two more segments from that Memorial service. Let’s watch together. One, a brief testimony by Yusra Mahfoud, about how she lost her son, Alaa and brief testimony about Tal Kfir Schurr who lost her sister Yael.
Yusra Mahfoud: [foreign language 00:02:24] Name of the merciful a law. I am [inaudible 00:02:28]. My family is from the village of near Yazur, near Jaffa, which was uprooted in 1948. I was born in ’61 in Nablus where I grew up.
[foreign language 00:02:43] As I sat on the porch, we heard shouts from the street and before we could understand what was happening, I saw the teacup that Alaa held shattering and blood began to splash all over. But the soldiers delayed the ambulance from going to the hospital and during this precious time, my son continued to lose blood. [foreign language 00:00:03:08].
Tal Kfir Schurr: [foreign language 00:03:16] Yael is my little sister. After she died, as the author, Uzi Weil wrote, “To wake up in the morning was like tearing apart iron.” I repeat the report in the official Memorial website, “Yael was murdered in a terrorist attack, in the year 2003. She was almost 22 years old and left her parents and sister behind.” [foreign language 00:03:46] I want us to see as well that around us, such disasters have happened and continue to happen. Our duty is to prevent them.
Mark Steiner: We are joined by two activists who were part of that Memorial and who helped start it. Sulaiman Khatib is a Palestinian peace and nonviolence spiritual activist from Ramallah, a former political prisoner who spent 10 years in jail in Israel from the age of 14 years old. And Chen Alon, is an Israeli peace activist from Tel Aviv. A former soldier, participated in suppressing the first Intifada and then refused during the second Intifada. And they both joined us today. Welcome both of you to The Real News.
Sulaiman Khatib: Thank you.
Chen Alon: Thank you.
Mark Steiner: Let me begin this way, with both of you telling your story here, I mean before we get into the Memorial Service that we just saw. I’m curious Sulaiman, what drew you to Combatants For Peace and how did that happen?
Sulaiman Khatib: Thank you Mark for having us here, me and my friend Chen Alon and as you can see, now we are close friends can and myself as co-founders of Combatants For Peace, among other friends from both sides that were part of the Israeli army or part of the Palestinian Resistance, ex prisoners and activists. So for me, joining and creating actually Combatants For Peace and activists circles that we try to create here, is a natural part of my path as a freedom seeker.
I started when I was 13, 14 years old. I’ve been active all my life, so I always grew up to be able to human with good values of protecting our homeland and the freedom of people and fairness and justice for everybody. It took from me long, long years of real experience on the ground, in jail, of hunger strikes and reading about Martin Luther King in the US, since we talk about the American and Nelson Mandela and other experiences. And even getting to know the narrative of the other, what we call, as I grew up with the Palestinian narrative, and I also studied the Israeli narrative. I studied Hebrew in jail.
So I just want to mention that jail, in my personal experience, in our community experience is a very important part of our life. So I’ve been active also in jail as a political prisoner, even I was a teenager and in jail. So my transformation happened through years in jail and experience and I just want to say it’s not easy. We talk a lot about it, Chen and myself, how hard emotionally and spiritually and mentally to start doubting one side narrative, especially if you come from the oppressed side, where you believe you are just the victim, which is the comfortable belief to be.
So moving from this comfortable space to questioning and to be open to the other, supposedly the enemy, as Chen mentioned before when we started this conversation about the radical intimacy, is a huge step that takes a long, long journey. So for me, I came out of jail and believe that there is no military solution for our conflict, and also a big believer of nonviolence and a joint nonviolence as path for freedom and dignity for our peoples in both sides. And at the end also, there is no freedom for this side or that side alone. It’s integrated like the liberation of both sides. I believe in this in my heart and the fact that we have partners in both sides give me more hope when we try to create a space, a new narrative to write a new narrative by our actions in the ground.
Mark Steiner: And Chen, talk a bit about why you became a member? How that started? What moved you to do this?
Chen Alon: My story is actually a mirror picture of Suli’s story as he mentioned that we are in this path, in this journey for more than 15 years now. So as a child who grew up to third generation of the Holocaust, it was not a question for me that I want to join the army, that I want to protect the only shelter that the Jews have around the world. So I just waited to join the army, and when I joined the army, it was the beginning of the first Intifada. So my fantasy or my dream or my wish to protect my state and the shelter was actually police missions in the first Intifada, the first Palestinian uprising.
So that was the first clash that I had, but still the fuel of the Holocaust was so strong, I mean, from my father to his father, my grandfather. So I became an officer. I volunteered for an additional year in the army, but these were the four years of the first Intifada. Then 10 years in reserve duty, I became a major of a tank, I was a commander of a tank platoon and most of the activities that we did along these years were actually occupation. And there was a crack inside me that, this is not the protection of Israel occupying three million Palestinians, and I couldn’t integrate these two ideas of wanting to protect my people and occupying other people and preventing human rights for so many years.
So then I decided to refuse to serve the occupation. It was 2002, and after campaigning to the Israeli society addressing the message of the occupation as the destruction of Israel, we heard about the Suli’s group, about the group of ex prisoners, and we realized that we cannot bring an end to the occupation alone or by ourselves. We have who to cross the line and actually become allies with these refuseniks, with these people who are refused to the suicide attacks, to the violence struggle, the armed struggle. People who are credited as Suli was 10 years in jail for resisting the occupation. And now we joined forces in 2005, and we’ve decided to go along these two paths. One is the peace and the dialogue and the reconciliation and the re-humanization, and the other one is the path of developing a community which struggles non-violently against the occupation.
Mark Steiner: So this leads me to a couple of personal questions, but let me ask you something else first. I want to come back to the Memorial, but I want to come back to both of your stories. So I’m curious with the alternative Memorial service is held, it’s the 15th year that it’s been held. 200,000 people were watching, as I said earlier, across the globe and numerous Jewish organizations in the US and Palestinian American organizations supported this effort. People watching it everywhere. So I mean, from the beginning of this 15 years ago to now, what has this Memorial service meant? What do you think comes of it? Sulaiman you can start then we’ll go to Chen.
Sulaiman Khatib: Thank you. Firstly I want to highlight that Chen, my friend, is more involved even in organizing the Memorial Day. For me, I see this sacred event that we organize once a year, which started 15 years ago by having 50 people just as a dream, is part of the philosophy that in one side we refuse and resist the current system. In the other side we try to create a new reality and a new narrative by making different events through the year actually, and one of the main events that so important and so challenging and so controversial in all our communities is a joint Memorial Day, the Palestinian Israeli Memorial Day. And it’s very challenging for many people because of the board dynamic, because we recognize that while we are right now, the Palestinians and the Israelis are not in the same place. So we have recognize that.
With that said, to show empathy to the enemy, is something challenging even if we talk about the Irish experience, or white Christian, so it’s not really just for Jewish and Palestinian Arab, it’s very unique for us. It’s everywhere in every conflict that where people come together after losing their loved one, and spiritually on an ongoing conflict. It’s not [inaudible 00:13:07] conflict. So this is beyond, for me personally, it’s beyond imagination that our communities, some of our people could agree to come together and create a transformative experience by sharing sorrows and hope in the same moments together.
This gives me a lot of hope and a lot of successful, not even just by the numbers of people that growing every year, rather by that deep spiritual change that happened to people that moving from fear to trust, and to show up for a minute, for a short time, for one hour a year, that how sharing power and sharing sorrow and sharing pain and everything else as a human, in humanizing each other, how this place could be, look like if we really got to reconciliation deeply with each other and recognize each other and the narratives are having a place to go exist next to each other.
Mark Steiner: So Chen, I was thinking about what Sulaiman was saying, and a couple of things popped in my head. One was the Israeli government and population seems to be more of a council of Trent that it ever was about this issue, and maybe moving further to the right. So I’m curious from both your perspectives, but let me start with you Chen, what this event means and how it’s received by Israel and what effect you think it’s having?
Chen Alon: So first of all, as Suli mentioned, I actually directed, I am directing, I’m a theater director and I’ve directed all the ceremonies since 2006.
Mark Steiner: Let me just say something Chen. Well done.
Chen Alon: Thanks. It’s even more surprising as we started 15 years ago with 70, 80 people in a French theater in the South of Tel Aviv and we dreamt of doubling the number in the next year, but it started with 70 people. Last year we had 9,000 people in the HaYarkon Park in Tel Aviv, and this year because of the corona virus, we had to go online only and we had 200,000 people joining us. So except from using the word success because I don’t think it’s a success, it’s just we are actually providing something that a lot of people need and is not to be stuck in the mechanism of bereaving and sorrowing and justifying the next war.
What we are actually doing in this evening is that it’s a Memorial ceremony, like a lot of other Memorial ceremonies in Israel on that day, on that evening. But what we are doing is that we are allowing people, Israelis and Palestinians, and by the way thousands of people around the world, to experience what we’ve experienced. And it’s the transformation of trauma, transformation of bereaving, of sorrow, of very negative feelings that how you can be stuck in them, or you can transform them into reconciliation, into peace-building, into building trust, into struggling together. And I think that’s the reason that it’s so successful because there is a need, a real need of people to not to be paralyzed by their sorrow, not to be paralyzed by their hopelessness, and it provides hope for people.
15 years ago, we did it, and the first year that we founded the movement, because we felt some kind of a responsibility. We were all combatant soldiers, warriors, and we felt responsibility for this loss. We felt responsibility for the families on both sides, that weren’t able to produce it because it’s too difficult for them. And we got a lot of hostility and attacks by the right wing in Israel, by the government. Even each year, even the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense are intervening and then preventing from Palestinians to get into Israel for the ceremonial. And we get a lot of, dozens of people outside demonstrating, trying to beat up the people who are attending the ceremony. It became some kind of the biggest event of the Israeli Peace Camp, and the only annual big event for Israeli Peace Camp. And I think the Palestinian Peace Camp that is not abiding to the BDS and the boycott and the anti normalization movement.
Mark Steiner: So there are a couple of things that people I heard talk about over the last week, since the Memorial service. And it has to do with, how you have a Memorial service when someone argues there’s no moral equivalency? That there were one that occupy, one’s the occupied. So how has that kind of worked through politically for both of you? Chen you need to talk about that.
Chen Alon: Yeah, first of all, I will never speak on behalf of the occupied. So I will allow Suli to talk about this. I can talk only from my position, from my perspective, which is an invitation for alliance against the occupation. I mean, any activity that we are doing in Combatants For Peace, we’ll never forget the power balance and that it’s not balanced between the occupiers and the occupied, but we are partners, we are allies.
So there is no other way for us to be active, to take an action, to function without working together. And I think there is something in this event, which is an opportunity, because it is the most sacred day and the most painful day to look at the bereaved families, to look at the people, to be with the people who lost their beloved ones.
It’s a moment that allows all the people who feel responsibility and feel part of the conflict to reflect. And I think we are offering something both to the Palestinians and Israelis without forgetting the power structure.
Mark Steiner: And how would you answer that Sulaiman?
Sulaiman Khatib: Thank you, this is very important point. I think from my experience that in Combatants For Peace and other circles that we are allied with, the power dynamic, the structure of the power is recognized deeply and widely. With that said, you can have some challenges sometimes. I don’t want to say it’s a very perfect picture of course. There is a generation of oppressed people here, so that can reflect sometimes in the details of our work.
With that said, I guess Chen talks about this a few times, that we basically come together, to take responsibilities together of the actions we did, and give a model for other people to be changed and transformed as ex fighter. I believe like the victim-hood comparing who’s suffering more is not really our game and it’s not helpful for any sides. I believe as friends said, while we are really dreaming in the vision as memorial day scene for example, we have to keep one leg in the reality, which is unbalanced and the Palestinian live under the occupation and all of that, but we have also to touch the dream even a little bit so can people feel it.
Mark Steiner: Both are very important responses. I’m curious from the both of your stories, and very quickly in time we have, but I mean, you Sulaiman, if am I right? 10 years in Israeli prison? Is that correct?
Sulaiman Khatib: Right-
Mark Steiner: You were 14 when that happened?
Sulaiman Khatib: Yep.
Mark Steiner: Then I wanted to hear from Chen, but let me start with you. So A, I think it would be interesting for our people viewing around the world to know why at 14 years old, you spent 10 years in prison? What happened? And B, what transformed you into you’re thinking to become parts of things like Combatants For Peace?
Sulaiman Khatib: Yeah. So for the first question, let me put this. The illegal situation where I live in West Bank, it’s under military Israeli rule, which is not even the normal Israeli law and not the international law. So let’s say, when I was 14, I was drawn to arm struggle, Che Guevara, Arafat style. I was coordinating a leading group of kids, to throw stones and cocktail Molotov by attack to Israelis. With a friend, we stopped two Israelis and they were slightly one dead. So I ended up being the angst prisoner for some time, a little bit pre the first Intifada.
With that said, if Israeli did the same, he will go to the rehabitation center. It’s a different story because it’s a military rule. That’s a direct reason. As Chen mentioned, we’re victims of the system basically. With that said, for me, that deep experience, the sacred time in jail, I’ve been active also in jail inside the Fatah movement at that time among many other prisoners, with the solidarity action we did specifically the hunger strike.
The food hunger strike was a huge transformative experience for many prisoners. We learned this from the Irish experience actually back in the days, because that’s the most practical experience that you can experience the power of nonviolence. It’s very harsh. It’s harder than violence. You need a lot of patience, not to eat. I was 15 when we did the hunger strike, food hunger strike for 16 days. 17 days was my longest time with other prisoners, and of course I also read books about other revolutions in the world and I also read Hebrew, I read the narratives.
For me as I said, you can really have a longer conversations of a theory of change and I don’t believe in all these books of theory of change. I really believe of my journey and our journey also later on in Combatants For Peace. This is the central part for me, specifically to add to the experience having Israeli partners, to humanize the enemy is the first condition to be transformed.
Mark Steiner: That’s a very difficult and very powerful move. Chen, how about you? What was it between the first and second Intifada that moved you to change?
Chen Alon: Yeah, I mean, we always talk about transformation as a one point. It wasn’t an epiphany for both of us.
Mark Steiner: Right, right.
Chen Alon: It’s a long journey, but I can mark few steps along the journey that were transformative for me. And one of them was, Suli mentioned that he was a boy, a child under occupation. Another word, another way to define it, is that Suli lived and still living, is living under military regime. I mean the occupation is a military regime. I’m a citizen of Israel, a democratic state, and most of my life I experienced democratic life and experience. But when I was in … I graduated acting school, I was accepted to the Repertory Theater.
I was a professional actor there and I played in very humanistic, left-wing, some of them, even American plays from the ’30s or Awake and Sing of Clifford Odets, about the depression, the big depression, economic crisis of 1929, and I was in the repertory theater. A citizen, a proud citizen of a democratic state, playing a very radical left play about changing the system and being revolutionary against the capitalist system of … I was playing a young revolutionist from the Bronx. Then at the same, very same night, I’m taking off my three parts suit, putting on my major uniform and driving 40 minutes, and I’m in Gaza, a commander of a checkpoint in Gaza.
So at the same night, imagine that. I mean, as a professional actor, I’m delivering a message to the Israeli audience about changing the system, and 40 minutes afterwards, I’m a commander of the military regime, of a dictatorship of a million and a half people in Gaza Strip. So this is something that you do it once, you do it twice, you do it a few times and you say, “What is this split? Am I a citizen? Am I serving a democratic state and its backyard is a military regime? I cannot accept that.
For 20 years, 30 years, we are now celebrating 53 years of the occupation. It had to be stopped years ago and it’s our responsibility to stop it. So that was the first crack, the first split that I couldn’t integrate and I decided on one. I had these two characters inside me. I decided to be loyal to the citizen of a democratic state and take responsibility over that.
Mark Steiner: Very well said, both of you. I appreciate that. Let me conclude with this that, A, I’m curious why you think given that the peace movement is not the majority inside of Israel itself. Why the Israeli government is terrified of this particular alternative memorial service, that keep trying to shut it down, not letting people come, having them attacked and not letting Palestinians come in to participate, and B, the question is now as well is how is this regarded among Palestinians? I’m very curious. And the final part you both answer quickly, is where do you think this goes from here?
Let me start with you Chen, about the Israeli government and its response. And Sulaiman I’m very curious what you think about the responses among Palestinian people themselves.
Chen Alon: I’ll be very short and very clear. They are terrified of this ceremony. They are terrified of this event because it’s amazingly effective. It’s like going through the pain of people. The clear pain becomes a clear insight that the wars have been created by human beings and they should be stopped by human beings. So people come to the ceremony, they see human beings in front of them and they realize that this pain that both sides is suffering from, is useless and there is another way. There is another way and they see it on stage. That is why the government is so afraid of it because it’s an insight which provides an image or embodiment of the vision, of how it will be after the occupation will abrupt to an end.
Mark Steiner: Sulaiman, please go ahead.
Chen Alon: Yeah, so let me say this. We are not talking about as it is, we said two equal similar sides. So with the cultural differences, with where we are right now, with the needs of both sides are different, if even I’m studying this Nonviolence Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, it’s being about all the people have the same needs but not all the time. With that in mind, my expectation from Palestinian under the occupation is different a bit from the Israelis at this moment.
With that said, I guess it’s much more challenging for Palestinian to accept the Memorial Day ceremony together with the Israelis and in generally the idea of working together while the daily life is still under details of the occupation, all the human rights abused of the occupation every day. So of course it’s much more challenging. My mom in order to get the olive tree is to my family in the olive harvest, she needs Israeli permit. And I go to my village in area C where the army’s just around the door, around the corner every day, 24 hours, seven days a week. So honestly, there is a huge difference here.
With that said, I believe deep down in my heart, both peoples want just to live normally. And as Mandela spoke about, people learn to hate as they could learn to love. Most of our people are normal people and they really, if they’re given a chance, they will show their morality and their love and our indigenous tradition here as Middle East has enough space of forgiveness and love here. With that said, in the road, in the journey, we do face a lot of challenges of opposition from many Palestinians, whether Palestinian here or Palestinian in [inaudible 00:32:22]. And the truth is, we need internal work in Combatants For Peace, to make the Memorial Day ceremony also more accommodated also to the Palestinian ears and eyes and heart. And that’s a big challenge within us, among us. We don’t agree on everything anyway.
So it’s a bit more of ease to Israeli Jewish American organizations to sponsor the Memorial Day. With that said, I believe we’ve seen thousands of Palestinians in Gaza this year, watch the Memorial Day and in the Palestinian Territory and refugee camps. I really appreciate that. This gave me a lot of hope, and also I will come on the challenges personally. I feel definitely is appreciated. The criticism because, it’s hard to sell hope, you know? And that’s what’s our job actually is really, and that’s what I learned about revolution in jail is how to convince people that nonviolence works and together with our Israeli partners, and sell hope for our population, both sides.
Mark Steiner: Well I know this has been a fascinating conversation. I wish we had some more time, maybe one day we will. But before I say anything else, I want to thank you both, Sulaiman Khatib and Chen Alon for the work you do and for showing the courage to stand up for peace the way you do in a very dangerous place, and that this 15th annual alternative Memorial service between Palestinians and Israelis just continues until it wins.
It’s been a pleasure to have you both here, and as someone who wrote a poem about 48 years ago, about refugees creating new refugees, about this occupation, that your spirit is one I hope that can take hold. I really appreciate you both taking the time to Real News today, and I look forward to other conversations and staying in touch.
Chen Alon: Thanks, thanks a lot.
Sulaiman Khatib: Thanks for having us.
Mark Steiner: Thank you both very much. And I’m Mark Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for joining us. Let us know what you think. And of course during this pandemic, please stay safe, stay home, chill out, take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.