You’ve Got To Be The Change You Want To See!

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Interview with Ismael Khatib


I met Ismael Khatib for the first time at the opening of Cinema Jenin in August 2010. It still gives me goose bumps when I think about the first screening of  “Heart of Jenin” in Jenin. And so does Ismael’s story. It’s hard to look into his melancholy eyes without thinking how apocalyptic it must be to lose one’s own child. As a mother of a boy myself, this goes beyond everything else in sheer horror …
No matter what the driving forces behind Ismael’s decision were – I’d say that Ismael did something truly extraordinary.
And to quote Gandhi as I’ve done in our headline “You’ve got to be the change you want to see!” Instead of seeking revenge Ismael’s family allowed his son’s organs to be transplanted into Israeli children. Ahmed’s heart went to Sameh, a Druze girl in Pklin; one kidney went to Mohamed, a Bedouin boy in the Negev; and the other to Menuha Rivka, an Orthodox Jewish girl in Jerusalem. But the story doesn’t end with the transplants. Ismael Khatib still travels to visit the families and children that received his son’s organs. He is truly building a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. On a very personal level he is driving the peace process between these two countries forward and is a shining example – not appreciated by everybody in Jenin – which goes far beyond any political argument. A true leader in this so deeply irrational conflict.
The interview that follows is very personal in nature.

Thank you to Fakhri Hamad for being our interpreter during our conversation. And thank you to Youssef Meddah for listening to the audio file in Arabic and giving us the important details!


Ismael Khatib
… was born in 1965 in the Jenin refugee camp after his family was expelled from its home in a village near Haifa in 1948. He grew up in Jenin and as a young man joined the Fatah movement. He participated in the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, and was imprisoned by Israel on three different occasions. After he was released for the third time, following his father’s advice, he quit the Fatah, got married and opened a clothes store. He later closed this store and opened a car repair shop which was shut down when the separation barrier was built by Israel. He had six children when his son, Ahmed, was shot by an Israeli soldier who mistook the toy rifle he was playing with for a real one. Ismael’s momentous decision to donate his son’s organs, to Arab as well as Jewish patients, received great international attention. It was documented in the film “Heart from Jenin”, and became the inspiration for the Cinema Jenin project. Recently Ismael Khatib has opened the “Cuneo Centre for Peace”, affiliated to the cinema.


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Ulrike Reinhard:
Ismael, by donating your son’s organs to Israeli people, you truly took a leadership role in the Israel-Palestine conflict – at least in Jenin where you live. Why did you do so, and also what is your understanding of leadership? I mean, doing such a thing, coming out of a city like Jenin and especially from the refugee camp, you must have been aware this would be a kind of watershed.

Ismael Khatib: Losing your own son is the worst thing which can happen to you in your life. It goes beyond anything I’ve experienced so far. It creates a hellhole in you which never stops aching. So donating my son’s organs wasn’t an easy decision, it was probably the most important and difficult decision I’ve had to take in my entire life.
Donating his organs and letting them continue to live in other children gives me at least the feeling that  Ahmed is still somehow around. I loved him so much … and this is a way to see him still alive. He isn’t gone for ever. This is my story with Ahmed.

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In general I believe children are the leaders of the future.

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They are the ones who will carry out the future, who can reach a position to make decisions and maybe they will contribute to solving this Israel-Palestine conflict. For sure, the reaction to my decision was – and still is – very controversial. I expected this. Jenin is one of the places in the West Bank which suffered most from the massacres of the Israeli army. Especially during 2002. It was hell here in Jenin and especially in the refugee camp where I lived with my family. Many, way too many people had to die!
When Ahmed was shot by the Israeli soldiers I thought it’s more important to find a solution for this situation than to take revenge. When I decided to donate his organs to people no matter where they come from or what religion they belonged to, I really hoped that Ahmed would be the last victim in this conflict. At least among the kids.

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I wanted to send out this message to make Ahmed the last victim in this conflict.

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Ulrike Reinhard:
You were very active in the fight against Israel and have already been imprisoned several times. Ismael, why did you change your mind and why did you take this decision in a totally opposite direction. NOT taking revenge but reaching out your hand to the enemy and giving them life is a completely different way of thinking …

Ismael Khatib: … Yeah. But this is what is needed. I finally found out. I found it out the hard way though.
Living under occupation is something very difficult and I guess very hard for anyone to imagine. The Palestinians have suffered it for more than sixty years now. We’ve tried different ways, different methods    to fight against it: demonstrations, writing on walls, throwing Molotov cocktails, weapons … but still the occupation is there. It’s still there. Nothing has changed. And it goes on and on and on with no … no end in sight. My personal struggle, my personal fight in the very beginning was social. First of all I was trying to help the community. Then it escalated: I took part in demonstrations and then I went on to throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers and their checkpoints in town.
The problem in these years, starting in 2000 with the Intifada was that there was a lot of violence on both sides. There were a lot of suicide bombings in Israel and the Israeli army overran Palestine … and in 2005 it hit my son. Ahmed.
This was so painful, so gut-wrenching – I can’t express it in words. To lose a member of your own family whom you love so much – Ahmed, my son – he was gone. I had lost my son. Why? What for? Who would be next? This moment of my life made me change my way of thinking. I was ready to find a philosophy, a new philosophy, different from the one I used to have.

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I started thinking about setting up a new initiative and sending a new message to Israel and the entire world: The fight has to stop! No more war! I wanted to tell all the Israeli women who are also losing their sons and their children that it is now time to put an end to this conflict.
This why I reached out to the enemy and made peace with them.

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Ulrike Reinhard:
What was the reaction on both sides? How did they take it?

Ismael Khatib: You mean in the different communities, in the Israeli and Palestinian?

Ulrike Reinhard:
Yes.

Ismael Khatib: During these last sixty years there were times of good relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Probably because a lot of Palestinians were working in Israel, and had a lot of Israeli friends. I worked as a car mechanic in Israel. I had a lot of Israeli friends and also customers. And this was true for many Palestinians. We were even invited to celebrate with them and we invited them too. But this became so much more complicated in 1987 with the First Intifada. We can really say that our relations went completely downhill – we were almost disconnected. But I still have Israeli friends. And I have made new ones, not only with the families who received Ahmed’s organs, but also with different people throughout the Israeli community.
There is a huge and very important difference between those who command this terrible occupation and the Israeli people who want to live in peace just as much as we do. I know that.
So what I can say about the feedback to my decision is that far more than 100 people from both sides, both Palestinians and Israelis, contacted me as a key person, wanting to contribute and help to support finding a solution to finally put an end to this conflict in a peaceful and permanent way.

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