Before Sulaiman Khatib and Yonatan Shapira had even met, they were bitter enemies, at least in theory. One was a Palestinian activist and prisoner for 10 years in Israeli jails, the other an Israeli pilot who flew more than 100 missions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
The two — now members of a group called Combatants for Peace — came together Oct. 12 in Philadelphia to tell their story of how they were able to renounce violence and work to advance peace between their people. The men spoke to about 30 people in City Hall's Conversation Hall, as part of a program organized by Philadelphian Lynn Mather.
Khatib spoke of a childhood in Ramallah, on the West Bank, where he threw stones at Israeli soldiers during the first intifada in the late 1980s. He said that prison was where he received his actual, as well as political, education via other incarcerated Palestinians. He learned English, read books and even participated in hunger strikes to improve conditions in the jail.
Five years after his release, he was one of three Palestinians and four Israelis to be sent to Antarctica on the 2003 "Breaking the Ice" expedition — to "see if we'd fight each other," Khatib said jokingly. "Ice" is a nonprofit group that sends groups of people to various locales to give them a common challenge. The goal for the Israelis and Palestinians was to scale a mountain in Antarctica — working together in the process.
Throughout their long discussions on the trip, the travelers found some common ground. Discussions started with politics, then sociology, then simply the conditions of humanity.
"We believed that we have to do something to change the situation," stated Khatib. The 33-year-old said that talk was not enough. As such, he helped establish the Abu Assukar Center for Peace and Dialogue in the West Bank, created to bring together Palestinians and Israelis.
Shapira, 34, a Tel Aviv native, the son of an Air Force general and a rescue-and-assault helicopter pilot, warned attendees that he'd be critical of the Israeli government, but that it was not done out of anger: "Everything I say and do is for the love of my country, love of my people, and love of my Jewish heritage."
He spoke of the strong Zionist and democratic principles he learned from his family and at school, but said that he didn't see those principles at work. Too late in life, Shapira said, he discovered that his country and his army "did the opposite."
'This Bomb Fell on Me'
For him, the turning point came in the summer of 2002, when he learned that an Israeli F-16 fighter that was targeting a Hamas leader killed 14 civilians in the process, including nine children. "In a way, this bomb fell on me," said Shapira.
He added that the event made him realize that something "was rotten" with the entire situation — that he was trapped in an endless cycle of violence.
"[I] decided it's not enough just to put down your arms. It's important to start the next step."
Shapira's brother, Zohar, a former Israeli commando, was a founding member of Combatants for Peace. Through contacts in humanitarian organizations in Israel and Palestine, Zohar Shapira conversed with Palestinian peace advocates in 2005, in places like Bethlehem and eastern Jerusalem. Yonatan Shapira met Khatib in one of those meetings, and a partnership was born.
"We know that we are a minority of a minority," he admitted, but "we hope to be able to convince people."
Nevertheless, Shapira understands the plight that Israeli citizens face. To that end, he also volunteers with SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center, which helps victims of terror attacks. "I know how much the Israelis are suffering," he said.
He hopes that the sight of two former enemies working together will spur more people to think closely about resolving conflicts. "I think you understand why our government doesn't want us to meet each other," he said. "When people meet each other, the walls fall down."
The former rescue pilot sees what he's doing now as merely an extension of his mission before: "This is the most important rescue mission."