Iranian stamp honouring Suleiman Khater for killing Israelis
Sinai October 1985 — Egyptian conscript Suleiman Khater killed 7 Israeli civilians, including 4 children, during their vacation in Ras Burqa, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In December 1985, Khater was tried in a military court and was sentenced to life in prison. A few days later, on January 8, 1986—30 years ago—Khater was found dead in his prison hospital room.
On his death anniversary, the Egyptian Committee Against Normalization with Israel organized a protest at the Press Syndicate to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. Indeed, some inside Egypt and in the wider Middle East have considered Khater a hero. How can someone who killed children be labeled as a “hero” by anyone? The answer lies within the mess of the region, which seems obsessed with inventing fake heroes.
Khater is the Egyptian version of Samir Kuntar, Hezbollah’s man who killed an Israeli baby. However, Kuntar was exposed when he sided with Assad against the Syrian revolution, while Egypt’s Khater died in mysterious circumstances that fueled more suspicions about his case.
In the Middle East, the manufacture of heroes needs few ingredients. First, the psyche: The crime happened only 6 years after the signing of the Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. This peace was President Sadat’s project, but was not particularly popular. Many Egyptians continued to view Israel as an enemy who should not be trusted. In other words, if any incident involved an Egyptian soldier versus any sort of Israelis, then the Israelis must be the “aggressors.”
Second, the players: Among Egyptians, two groups tend to be the top rejectionists of the peace treaty with Israel: the socialists and the Islamists. Both have been keen to find a hero who can provide an illusion of victory of any sort in order to boost their popularity among the public. The incident also happened at the peak of Khomeini’s tenure in Iran. Glamorizing a Sunni Arab soldier was the perfect tactic to serve the mullahs’ regional goals, particularly amidst its brutal war with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The Islamic Republic was focused on winning more hearts and minds among Arabs in order to portray itself as a friend, not a foe. The Iranian regime issued a stamp “in honor of the martyrdom of Sulayman Khater, hero of Sinai,” and an avenue in Tehran was named after him.
Ironically, the Islamic Revolution Document Centre that labeled Khater in its report as a “martyr” acknowledged that the Israelis were tourists, but it failed to mention the age of the children. The document further mentioned his answers to the court: “The investigator asked, Why did not you fire warning shots in the air? And Suleiman answered, they had worn swimsuits and one of the women undressed to tempt me.”
It is frankly pathetic that anyone who reads these answers could still consider Khater a hero. His answers were simply embarrassing; even by the Iranian standards of heroism, considering the graceful behavior of their top martyrs like the Prophet’s cousin Ali and his son Hussein.
Third, the Egyptian leadership: Mubarak, who ruled Egypt after Sadat, was never a man to appreciate frankness, accountability, or fact checking. The entire management of the case bore the fingerprints of Mubarak’s toxic mix of deliberate silence and behind-the-door dealings. The official newspapers stayed silent and refrained from mentioning that most of the victims were women and children. Opposition newspapers in Egypt were allowed to publish simply fabricated news about the victims. On the other hand, Mubarak agreed to pay $500,000 in compensation3 to the families of the Israeli victims as part of the deal between Egypt and Israel to return the Taba heights to the Egyptian sovereignty. Egypt also made a formal statement to the family of each victim “expressing its acceptance of responsibility, its regret, and its condolences.
Moreover, the mysterious death of Khater—which some recent reports have suggested was a murder, not a suicide as the Egyptian officials claim—also fits Mubarak’s style. Yes, Mubarak turned a blind eye to the creation of a fake hero, but he (most probably) would never allow this hero to exist in real life.
In his mind, Mubarak saw himself as achieving a winning formula by allowing the Islamists to have their myth, the Israelis to have their compensation while the real killer was punished—albeit allegedly illegally. However, Mubarak’s win–win formula, like all his policies, has had its long-term negative impacts.
Mubarak has squandered an opportunity for truth and accountability and created a climate of distrust that still haunts Egypt today. If facts about victims were shared with the public, Egyptians would have never praised the likes of Khater.
As a result of Mubarak’s toxic legacy, the case of Suleiman Khater is still haunting Egypt today. The 30th anniversary of his death is now used by the anti-coup leaders in their preparations for the 5th anniversary of the 2011 revolution. Khater is now depicted as one of Egypt’s “real patriotic soldiers” who truly defended the country against the “Zionists,” unlike “Sisi’s men”. Youth who were not even born at the time of the incident are convinced that the Islamist’s story is true. Socialist leader Hamden Sabahy has recently praised Khater as a hero.
Indulging in myths has become one of Egypt’s and the Middle East’s gravest illnesses. Fake heroes have become a convenient way to score political points and create false perceptions. Khater’s heroism is the product of the ugliness of the political Islam and the misguided dogma of the Arab socialists.
Of course, Khater’s supporters have every right to know the truth about his death. Yet I challenge them to mention the age of his victims—a conveniently omitted fact that has been formally documented in the compensation deal to their families. Four children, aged 10 to 13, cannot be spies. We Egyptians should be proud of our soldiers, who fought honorably in 1973 war, and are fighting terrorism now in Sinai. The likes of Khater, however, are not an appropriate representation of Egypt. A killer of four children should not be considered a hero.