Nonviolent Resistance and Palestinian Self-Development

[On January 24, 2020, Ali Abu Awwad discussed his work to mobilize a movement of nonviolent resistance to the occupation in the Palestinian Territories at the Middle East Institute. These notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentation and are not an attempted transcription. To see the entire program click here.]

Ali Abu Awwad: It was a long journey from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. I was born a refugee in the West Bank to a very political family. My mother was a principal in the PLO under Yasir Arafat and was arrested several times. I remember the second time the Israelis came to arrest her. I was fifteen and watched her being beaten. It was enough to drive me to into the streets to throw stones at Israeli soldiers. I was not a politician, not a fighter, just a kid who wanted his basic human rights and his identity, to be who I am as a free person. With my actions, thoughts, and dreams under the daily control of the military occupation, I needed no curriculum, no one to teach me, how to hate. The Israeli kids who have to hide in shelters for hours need no one to teach them how to hate the Palestinians.

When by mother was arrested in 1967, for the second time, I became more active. The fourth time, in 1990, I was also arrested and tortured as they tried to coerce me into giving information against my mother, which I refused to do. I was sentences to ten years in prison and my mother to seven and a half.

My dreams of travel and study, and my crazy dream of becoming a pilot, were crushed by that sentence. Yet, prison turned out to be an amazing educational experience. I learned English and Hebrew, my dignity was not taken away. I felt respect from the other prisoners and even from the Israeli guards. My mother and I engaged in a hunger strike of seventeen days to get to see one another. What forced the Israelis to recognize my right to see my mother? I realized I had been blind to the strongest weapon I could have: my humanity.

We were released under the Oslo process. The process ended in 2000 by a second, this time more militant, intifada. I was wounded by a settler and then my brother was killed. The loss of my brother was a loss that left me in dilemma. Only his return would be justice but that was not possible. I remembered reading in prison that Malcolm X said that “justice is just us,” but I couldn’t understand what he meant. Then we got a phone call from a rabbi who said some Israelis who had lost people and wanted to meet. When we met with them and saw the tears of these Jewish people, I realized we were not the only victims on earth. Yet, still, though we were equal in sharing what is under the ground, we were not equal above the ground. Reconciliation requires sharing values.The struggle is more than just sharing hummus with Israelis.

I became a Palestinian spokesperson. My heart was changing, but not my life conditions. I was meeting with lefties but not with the right wing. It is insufficient for those who do not engage in violence to say leave us alone. They must share in the task of dealing with those who are violent. My biggest dream is a National Palestinian Non-Violent movement. The peace movement has failed in changing living conditions or the political situation. Retired politicians become part of the peace industry yet there is no peace. When we send our kids to one week summer camps and then back to refugee camps they become more traumatized. We must do that, but we cannot do just that.

Nonviolence is not about “normalization” and giving up your rights. The majority of Palestinians who hear me speak want to join the Taghyeer (Change) movement. After six month with zero budget, 3,500 people came to our program in Jericho, community leaders, not politicians, are the key. Politicians manage the conflict on the ground but leaders invest in the future.

Stop saying, “Educate women about their rights.” They know their rights. Stop saying you will empower them, they are powerful. I know, I am the son of one of these powerful women. What they want is respect. Instead we educate men about women’s rights. The new generation is not political but social. The one who brings a knife into a crowd comes not just to kill but to die. We listen to young people rather than talk to them and help them to implement their ideas. They are peaceful, but desperate. For them nonviolence is not a tactic or a strategy; it is who they are. You don’t fix a broken car by changing the driver. We have no hate for anyone. We are for ourselves and against no one. We managed to get 42 organizations to sign the charter. It is time to partner, not to lead.

The village of Jubbet al-Dhib is a great example of nonviolence. They had no water, no electricity, but the reached out to an Israeli group that provides solar systems and now they have electricity. Even after the system was confiscated by the Israelis, they hired lawyers and got the system back plus water and other resources. J Street provided them a clinic and Taghyeer is providing a guest house. We want to create the first Palestinian nonviolent college. I know that peace requires a high price in compromise and healing but it is much cheaper than the price of conflict. I am not here to compete as to who has suffered more. That competition solves nothing. 

[In response to a question accusing Palestinians of harboring a jihadist ideology rooted in Islam]: Whether you believe in God or not is irrelevant to whether you are a terrorist or a peacemaker. As a Muslim I can tell you my book orders me if they incline to peace you must incline to peace, yet others can read the book differently. The same is true of Judaism–and believe me I have the best teachers on Judaism. I believe politicians should be forced to create a system in which all can practice there religion and identity in peace. My problem is not with Jews living in Hebron but with the occupation. I am not the best person to speak about religion, but I believe the Creator put all these different religions in one land for a reason. My Qur’an says to know those who differ from you (not to despise them). If there is another Qur’an, I don’t know it. 

[In response to a question about torture in prison]: You can fight behavior, but you cannot fight identity. If we change behavior, we can secure identity. If I am not a citizen and I am not a fighter who the hell am I?

[In response to a question about how to get international support for the Palestinians]: Palestinians today feel abandoned by both the international community and their own leaders. We should teach the world of humanity and nonviolent struggle. If you lose the support of the government, get the support of the people. Political leaders get their support from the political system, leaders get their support from the people. 

[In response to a question about outreach to the Palestinian diaspora]: We are in the first stage to create unity and leadership. We are not a political party. Our conflict is not like the British in India because the Jews believe they have a connection to the land; so we need to come up with our own nonviolent approach. 

[In response to a question about a role for Palestinian nonviolent pioneer Mubarak Awad in the proposed Nonviolent University]: Mubarak Awad was deported by Israel and we have worked with him. There are some people who are Non-Violent with hate, and we are working with Mubarak to create a different model.

[In response to a question about working with other groups]:There are 32,000 nonprofits in Israel and 4,000 in Palestine. When I formed Taghyeer, we invited ten Israeli and ten Palestinian organizations. Eight of the Palestinian organizations are active in the movements but none of the Israeli organizations were able to work together. Taghyeer is not a organization. It is a movement.

[In response to a question as to the prominence of Taghyeer in the Palestinian psyche]: The first things organizations do is bring in media to spread the message. We do not. We focus on the community leaders. As we grow there may be a time when we are in danger, but it won’t matter because the ideas and the movement will be established no matter what happens to the individuals in the movement. I hate it when people call me the Palestinian Mandella. In Palestine it doesn’t work like this. If you call me the Palestinian Mandela, people will talk to me. Our culture is different. There is a joke about Arafat going to India where he was asked to reach out to a Palestinian who had joined a movement where million people worshiped a man as their god. When that man died, they elected the Palestinian to be their new god. When Arafat’s people asked the Palestinian to meet Arafat he refused, so Arafat went to him, saying, ” I am Yasir Arafat. How dare you not come to me?” The guy replied, “I am a god to six million people!” Arafat replied, “I am a god to eleven million gods like you.”

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
www.minaret.org

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