There is little Salah Khawaja does not know when it comes to the subject of resistance in Palestine.
Born in the village of Ni’lin, he was raised in an environment of creative, nonviolent and direct resistance. Now, at 45 years of age, he chairs the Popular Struggle Committee of Ni’lin and works in the Committee Against the Wall and Settlements covering resistance efforts throughout the West Bank. He is considered by many to be one of the most high-profile grassroots activists in the region.
These achievements become all the more remarkable when one considers that he has been in Israeli prisons for a quarter of his life.
His first of seven arrests occurred in 1983, when he was 15, in which he spent twelve days in prison. Since then, he has been through six more ever-increasing periods of detainment, culminating in a 5-year imprisonment in 1992.
Yet he talks of his arrests with a quasi-dark humour.
“During the first Intifada, the army came into my house so I hid in the cavity of two walls. It was during Ramadan, and the army knew there should have been more people in the house than there were. 'Where is Salah? Where is Salah? We know he is here!’ they would say. When they moved the bookcases, tables and furniture, they found the gap I had crept into. I thought 'Uh-oh!’”
He states how his family was very active in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine party (PFLP) so the Israelis were always “present” in their lives. In 1976 a family member working for the PFLP was killed by the Israeli authorities inside an Israeli prison.
“He was killed because he did not say anything,” Khawaja explains. “He did not tell them anything, not even his name. Now, when I am arrested, and the Israelis punish me, I remember him.”
“But to get through the prison experience is tough, it is not easy. When I am blindfolded and handcuffed, they punished me, stood on my chest and beat me, [but] I knew what to think. I listened to my mother and my sisters saying 'It is not easy with [Israel], Salah. But we are Palestinians and we will resist against them even when you are arrested.’ This is also why I never speak in prison.”
“Even the guards ask me, how do you stay here and not talk?”
His slight frame, friendly features and sociable persona has obviously worked to his advantage in the past, undermining the masculine-aggressive guards and soldiers found in Israeli prisons. One could certainly identify his characteristics and persona as being a microcosm of the asymmetry in power between the Israeli state and Palestine.
The prison experience is tough, it is not easy. When I am blindfolded and handcuffed, they punished me, stood on my chest and beat me, [but] I knew what to think. I listened to my mother and my sisters saying 'we are Palestinians and we will resist against them even when you are arrested’
As he was an active member of the blacklisted Popular Front Liberation Party, Khawaja was more than likely listed a 'terrorist’ under Israeli law. Thus, following his release in 1997, a few years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Salah decreased his resistance activity. However, when the Oslo Accords failed, and Palestine was not confirmed as a recognised country after 5 years, Khawaja joined the fledgling Mubadara or Palestine National Initiative party in 2002. Alongside Dr. Abdel Shafi, Dr. Edward Said and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Khawaja campaigned for this new party, citing the need for “new methods and a new strategy, against the failed Oslo Accords, to fight the occupation and get internationals to recognise that we have an occupation in Palestine.”
Since then, he has been working and campaigning like he used to, before his five year imprisonment. He was an active member of the resistance effort against the construction of the Apartheid Wall in his hometown of Ni’lin in 2005.
In one narrative, he sweeps through what he calls his other current “activities.”
“I sit at the Steering Committees of all the [Palestinian political] parties. There are 35 members, and we discuss support for the prisoners. I am in the Nonviolence Network in the Arab Countries, with representatives from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. I also take discussions in Egypt between the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Mubadara.”
“I always make sure I contact the youth. With 76% of the Palestinian population under 35 years of age, they have the power.”
He concludes by saying, “I am also doing a Master’s in Non-Violent Struggle in Beirut.”
Most recently he has been heavily involved in the recent tent protests, especially at Bab al-Shams, in which activists set up a camp directly targeting the infamous E-1 region of land between Jerusalem, Ma’ale Adumim and the Jordan Valley. He has been, and continues to be, a valuable member of the popular struggle committee in Palestine, possessing a gift for inventing new and creative ways of resisting the Israeli occupation.
By his very nature, Khawaja defies tidy packaging. It is hard to describe what he 'does’ or what he 'is’ as nothing pins him down. One can attribute this to Israel’s relentless pursuit of him or his busy schedule working in all areas of resistance in Palestine. Yet he is constantly working, campaigning, and generally striving to secure a future devoid of occupation. He is an activist at heart and will remain so until he and the people of Palestine can achieve this.