SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — Sulaiman Khatib is an ordinary Palestinian with an extraordinary past.
Born in the West Bank near Jerusalem, he grew up as a “freedom fighter,” as he describes it, fighting against the Israeli occupation by throwing stones and preparing Molotov cocktails.
But in 1986, when he was just 14, he and a friend stabbed some Israeli soldiers. Khatib was arrested and sent to prison for 10 years. He spent most of his time behind bars learning Hebrew and English, reading about Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi and studying the histories of other conflicts — all of which, he said, led him to a startling conclusion.
“I believe there is no military solution to the conflict,” Khatib, 39, said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an interview this week with JTA from Melbourne. “I believe nonviolence is the best way for our struggle, for our freedom and for peace on both sides.”
Now, as co-founder and director of the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, Khatib is in Australia with Tami Hay, director of the Sport Department of Israel’s Peres Center for Peace. They are leading a team of 24 Israelis and Palestinians in a unique bridge-building exercise: to compete in an international competition of Australian-rules football, a hybrid of American football, Gaelic football and rugby.
“The main message is not just about sport or winning the game,” Khatib says. “It’s about winning life.”
Participating in a tournament alongside 18 teams – including ones from the United States, Canada, South Africa, Britain and New Zealand – was the easy part for the Israelis and Palestinians; preparing was much harder.
First, there are no Australian football ovals in Israel or the West Bank, so the group – known as the Peace Team — trained on soccer fields in Jaffa and Jerusalem. Most of the players had never heard of the game before, let alone played it. The rulebook had to be translated into Arabic and Hebrew, as did the instructions of the coach, Australian-rules football legend Robert “Dipper” DiPierdomenico, a giant, mustachioed man.
One of the players, Kamal Abu Althom, told JTA that sometimes it took him three hours to get from Hebron to the training sessions. The soldiers “take a long time at the checkpoints, checking our ID, checking our bags,” he said.
This, said Hay, emphasizes one of the points of the program. “The Palestinians realize this is the only chance to meet Israelis who are not soldiers, and for the Israelis, they’re not meeting Palestinians only at checkpoints,” Hay said. “We created a safe place where they are able to meet without stereotypes.”
Just days before the Peace Team’s departure for Australia, an Internet campaign almost nixed the trip. “We got some threats against Al-Quds saying they were collaborators,” Hay explained.
Added Althom, “Many people I know are opposed to my participation in activities with the Israeli side. They do not believe that it can improve the situation or lead to peace. I try to portray the positive things as much as possible.”
Nimrod Vromen, an Israeli player, told one media agency: “For me it’s easy. For the Palestinians, they actually have their lives threatened playing in this team.”
Tanya Oziel, executive director of the Australian branch of the Peres Center for Peace, knew there would be massive hurdles when she conceived of the idea of a joint team in 2007. A Sephardic Jew with Iraqi origins, Oziel knew that the Peres Center already had an Israeli-Palestinian soccer team, so she adapted the idea for Australian football and first brought a joint team to Australia in 2008.
“I think because of the power of the story and the impossibility of the story it actually gave me more motivation to make it happen,” Oziel said.
The media coverage here of the team’s visit – amid a campaign to boycott Israel by targeting Max Brenner chocolate shops, which are Israeli-owned, across Australia – has been “unprecedented,” said Oziel. She singled out Al-Jazeera’s coverage, which has been intense.
Off the field, the team’s arrival in Australia’s capital last week prompted the Parliamentary Friends of Israel and the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine groups to join forces for the first time. In Sydney, they met the premier of New South Wales, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and joined 85,000 people on a fun run to Bondi Beach.
Arguably, the most inspiring event was an iftar celebration to break the Ramadan fast with the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney, participants said.
“It was really unique,” Hay said. “Usually we don’t have any contact with the Muslim community when we travel. Jews and Muslims together — you break barriers, you can really feel it.”
Oziel agrees. “Nothing has bridged the two communities like this,” she said. “The Peace Team is like a beacon for other communities in conflict.”
After being defeated in the early rounds of the tournament, the Peace Team registered its first victory against China. But their defeat by France on Wednesday meant they had lost any chance of winning the International Cup trophy.
It’s not the toughest reality that they’ve had to face.
One week into their trip, news broke of the terrorist attacks near Eilat, which left eight Israelis dead.
“The younger Israeli players who just got dismissed from the army took it more emotionally, and were scared how this would affect the team,” said Hay, who grew up witnessing the bus bombings in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s. “The older ones said to remember that what you’re doing here is proof that we are doing it better.”
Khatib who also co-founded an Israeli-Palestinian peace group called Combatants for Peace in 2005, said, “We prayed together and stood in silence for one minute for the victims on both sides. The team hugged.”
“It was very moving,” Oziel said. “There’s amazing unity but it’s also very confronting. We are against violence on both sides.”
Regardless of their failures on the field or their feats off it, the Peace Team’s two-week trip to Australia has been an unbridled success, Oziel said. It’s what happens next that concerns her.
“I’m more worried about the backlash when the boys get back home,” she said. “There’s still resentment. Some of our boys are under threat for being involved in normalization projects with Israel. It’s very sad.”
Hay is equally concerned.
“We’ll see what’s happening after September” – when the United Nations is due to vote on the matter of Palestinian statehood, Hay said. “It’s a vexed situation. This project survived the intifada, the Gaza war, really difficult times. No matter what will happen on a political level, we’ll be able to do what we do, but we need to be strong.”
As for Khatib, he said his life experience offers him a unique perspective.
“I’ve been in an Israeli jail for 10 years. I do things I believe in and I’m ready to risk my life,” he said. “So I’m not really worried about me.”