Gazan peace activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, March 2024 (courtesy)
Gazan peace activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, March 2024 (courtesy)
Interview'You can obtain rights while accepting existence of Israel'

US-based Gazan peace activist calls on Palestinians to abandon armed resistance narrative

Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib has long advocated for Palestinians to adopt a pragmatic approach for their cause: ‘How many wars will we go through before we try something different?’

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Gazan peace activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, March 2024 (courtesy)

When it comes to lashing out against Hamas, Gazan peace activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib does not mince words — or expletives.

“They are such f**** criminals. They are now capitalizing off of the Security Council resolution,” he said, referencing a resolution passed at the United Nations last week demanding an immediate ceasefire. “But instead of working to prevent an Israeli operation in Rafah, that Haniyeh a**h*** went to Tehran to receive instructions,” he said.

“He is now telling the Iranians that October 7 and the war have brought such amazing benefits to the Palestinians. I am so furious,” he railed.

Alkhatib, 33, is an analyst and nonprofit administrator living in California’s Bay Area, who has recently been admitted as a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Middle East Initiatives. He is an outspoken peace activist who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Although he has lived in the US for the past 19 years, he does not conceal his deep concerns about the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in his native Gaza, where most of his family still lives, and about the future of the Palestinian people in the absence of a pragmatic vision for coexistence with Israel.

He recently sat down to speak with The Times of Israel about what he considers to be some of the greatest obstacles to peace on the Palestinian side; namely, the delusions the Palestinian leadership has been selling its people for decades.

Since October 7, Alkhatib has embarked on a one-man social media campaign to discredit Hamas, draw attention to the human plight of the majority of Gazans who are not involved with terror, and call for mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis in the hope that the two peoples will one day be able to share the same land in peace. He has published editorials in Haaretz, the Wall Street Journal, and The Forward, among others, and has laid out his vision for peace in his blog with The Times of Israel.

Gazan peace activist Ahmed Fouad Allkhatib and his mother who recently managed to leave Gaza, Dubai, March 26, 2024 (courtesy)

“There’s a reason why the Palestinians have no state 75 years after the establishment of Israel,” he said. “It’s their awful leadership that goes back to the pan-Arabism of the Nasser days, and that has adopted different ideologies – the secular PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], the Marxist PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], or Islamist Hamas – to sell different versions of the same narrative: We’re going to liberate all of Palestine, we’re just the perpetual victims, we have no responsibility.”

An American citizen since 2014, Alkhatib has become an advocate for a renewed nationalist movement in his homeland that does away with old belligerent slogans calling for liberating “Palestine from the river to the sea,” in favor of coexistence with the Jewish state.

His dovish advocacy effort, which has so far gained him a following of over 33,000 on X, is all the more surprising in light of the fact that Alkhatib has lost 30 family members in Israeli airstrikes in the early days of the war. They had fled Gaza City and were sheltering in a house in Rafah, in what the IDF had designated to be a safe area, that according to Alkhatib was targeted in an IDF bombing for no apparent reason.

Alkhatib’s brother Mohammad is still in Gaza with his wife and four children. Alkhatib himself has temporarily left his home in the Bay Area, where he has lived since 2005 when he came to the US as an exchange student, and is currently in the United Arab Emirates with his mother who only just recently managed to flee from the embattled Strip.

The native Gazan is attempting to get passports issued for his brother’s family from the Palestinian consulate in the UAE and hopes to receive them in time for them to leave before Israel launches a ground invasion of Rafah. But Palestinian bureaucracy is frustratingly slow. Alkhatib was told at the consulate that the passports must be printed in Ramallah, and it may take two to three months to arrive. “They are so useless,” he grumbled.

During his visit to the Palestinian diplomatic mission, Alkhatib said, he was reminded once again of what stands in the way of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, on both sides: the unwillingness to recognize that history has placed borders inside a land coveted by the two peoples.

“You go in, and everyone is wearing a pendant with a map of all of [historic] Palestine, and they have a map of all of Palestine on the wall, with no recognition of Israel on it. And this is the PA, a diplomatic mission,” he said. “It’s the same as the Israeli government putting up maps of the whole land of Israel and the Golan Heights.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) historical Palestine, the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan, the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, and a map of US President Donald Trump’s proposal for a Palestinian state under his new peace plan, as he speaks in the West Bank’s Ramallah on September 3, 2020, (Alaa BADARNEH / POOL / AFP)

Born in Saudi Arabia to Gazan parents, Alkhatib grew up in the coastal enclave during the years of the Oslo peace process and left the Strip one month before the Israeli disengagement in 2005. He remembers the optimism of the Oslo years, when tens of thousands of Gazans were working in Israel, the general standard of living was rising, and the creation of a Palestinian state was looming on the horizon.

But in parallel, starting from the mid 1990s and in the early 2000s, Hamas was working behind the scenes to Islamize the Palestinian cause, undermine the Palestinian Authority and torpedo the peace process, and eventually managed to win a majority of the seats in the 2006 Palestinian elections and wrest control of the coastal enclave from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007 — condemning it to 17 years of isolation from the rest of the world.

Despite having lived outside of the Palestinian enclave for so long, Khatib still feels deeply connected to Gaza, of which he has fond memories and where most of his family still lives. His advocacy to improve life in the Strip is not new. In 2015, he launched a nonprofit to create a framework for the construction of a humanitarian UN-operated airport in Gaza to break the enclave’s isolation.

He maintains that existing outside the day-to-day struggle of living in the Strip allowed him to distance himself from Hamas’s propaganda and develop his own vision for the future of his people. The widespread support that Hamas still seems to enjoy among Palestinians after the October 7 atrocities baffles him.

A March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that 71 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank believe that the October 7 massacre, in which in terrorists killed some 1,200 people and kidnapped 253 others, was “correct,” and that 52% of Gazans and 64% of West Bankers want Hamas to rule Gaza at the end of the war. These figures are an increase from a previous poll conducted by PCPSR in December.

“So many people cheered on the acts of October 7, but hated the consequences. I tell my fellow Palestinians, how can we as a community be so clueless and so stupid not to realize how much of a disaster this has been,” Alkhatib commented.

Hamas terrorists near Kibbutz Nir Oz during the massacre on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

The causes of a perverse obstinacy to stand behind Hamas after the destruction it brought upon Gaza are hard to fathom even for him. “Some of it is herd mentality, some of it is brainwashing. Some people are confused about what they want. They don’t understand that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t have armed resistance and economic prosperity.”

The roots of Hamas’s brainwashing run very deep, Alkhatib said, and will be very hard to untangle.

“The incitement on the cultural, religious, and educational level is absolutely detrimental and is immensely harmful. Not just to Israel. It is keeping us [Palestinians] as a people frozen in time, frozen in a narrative, a set of declarations and views that are getting us absolutely nowhere,“ he said.

“These people have been doing the same thing for 75 years. How many wars are we going to go through before we realize we need to try something different?” Alkhatib asked.

Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP/Mahmoud Essa)

Palestinian diaspora and self-professed allies

The Palestinian echo chamber problem, Alklhatib claimed, is compounded by the reverberations it generates abroad.

“I understand [Hamas supporters] in Gaza or the West Bank, they have a hard time on the physical, visceral level. Maybe 70% of their backing of Hamas stems from their massive personal suffering. I don’t excuse it, but I get it. But the diaspora communities, in Europe and America, believe and repeat a lot of the same slogans. They’re delusional,” he sighed.

“The narrative among the diaspora communities is based on Al Jazeera and TikTok, and it’s that our problems begin and end with Israel. Nobody is asking of Hamas to own up to the disaster they’ve started. Nobody is talking about the fact that we need peace, healing and reconciliation. There are some faint voices here and there, but the louder voices are just entrenching the narrative,” he said.

“The moderates among Muslims and Palestinians are partly responsible for where things are right now. For too long, we’ve either not been willing to speak out and marginalize the extremists, or we’ve almost sheltered them by blaming everything on Israel,” he added.

In his view, the same criticism applies to the Western self-defined allies of the Palestinian cause.

“Unfortunately, we have some horrible intellectuals, media, and activists who proclaim to support the Palestinian people. But instead of helping our people see things differently, they just parrot the slogans, thinking that that makes them worthwhile allies, while I genuinely think that makes them detrimental and harmful.”

A demonstrator holds a ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ sign outside the United Nations’ highest court, rear, during historic hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, Feb. 21, 2024 (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

A renewed vision for a Palestinian peace camp

Alkhatib has low expectations for change from the two protagonists in the Palestinian political scene — the corrupt Fatah-run Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which he describes as an “Islamist death cult living in Doha.”

“Our narrative today is based on 30-second videos from TikTok,” he said. “[Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas has said nothing meaningful to address the Palestinian people. There needs to be someone that talks to millions of Palestinians and gives them a 20-minute dress-down, tells them to get off TikTok and realize the disaster we are in. This resistance b***s*** is over. Someone needs to tell them that it is not going to liberate the land, and that peace is inevitable. Coexistence is inevitable. You can obtain your rights while accepting the existence of Israel.”

However, after the failure of the Oslo process, peace has become a hard sell for many in the West Bank and Gaza, Alkhatib said.

“Unfortunately, for many Palestinians, peace has become synonymous with acquiescence, as a result of their lived experience, the settlements, the occupation, and the killing [by the IDF], but also as a result of a lot of the brainwashing,” he said.

Alkhatib called for a rebranding of the term, and the creation of a new narrative.

“We need to build a culture of coexistence and diplomatic resistance and accept that the Israelis are here to stay. Why is it so hard for some people to say that on the Palestinian side?”

The lack of a pragmatist Palestinian peace camp with clear demands and a clear vision has also impacted the Israeli peace camp, he claimed.

“I think the dwindling leftists and pro-peace camps in Israel, and even the liberal Zionists, could have been empowered by actions on the Palestinian side that could have made it much easier to confront the messianic, nihilistic Ben Gvirs and Smotriches of the world,” he said, referencing two firebrand Israeli government ministers who are at the forefront of the settlement movement.

“We should have said we genuinely want a two-state solution. We accept a pragmatic arrangement for a symbolic return of a few thousand Palestinians [who fled or were expelled in 1948], but most of the return is going to happen in the West Bank and in Gaza,” he said.

“And there needs to be a reasonable effort to integrate those who wish to stay in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon into those societies. We need to accept that there will be shared and mutual sovereignty over Jerusalem, and that this is going to be a place for all,” he added.

Formulating clear, pragmatic demands would have had a positive impact for Palestinians on the international stage, Alkhatib said. “It would have made it much harder to sustain the settlement enterprise, and much easier to challenge it legally and diplomatically.”

In spite of the destruction brought by the ongoing war, and the lack of an internationally agreed vision for postwar Gaza, Alkhatib remained optimistic for the future.

“I believe that when the war ends, people are going to reject the Hamas resistance narrative once and for all, even if it happens in phases. I genuinely think that there’s a widespread, massive desire on the part of so many people in Gaza to make sure that this is the last war.”

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