Sami Awad is wrapping up a day of training with Palestinian women leaders in Bethlehem, another step in the effort not only to empower women, but to extend the concept and practice of non-violent popular resistance.
“At the theoretical level,” Awad says. “I would say that the idea of non-violence is becoming more accepted. The criticism we had is going down.”
“These women in this workshop are taking a very big role in the non-violence movement,” Awad tells The Media Line. “We are doing this by talking to people who were marginalized or felt they were marginalized to help give them a very strong voice.”
The Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust has become one of the most visible organizations promoting non-violent resistance as a Palestinian weapon.
"The misperception among Palestinians is that we are a bunch of peaceniks; peace-loving people trying to get along with the other side," says Awad, executive director of the trust. "That is not what we are promoting. We believe that non-violence taken as a popular movement of resistance will be able to achieve the goals of the Palestinian people.”
There is no doubt that the Palestinians have recognized the devastating toll on their society and political goals caused by the violence witnessed in the second Intifada from 2000 into 2005. Suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli civilians led to the Israeli army recapturing the West Bank in an iron-fisted crackdown that left more than 4,000 dead and more than 5,000 prisoners in Israeli jails along with colossal economic losses, territorial fragmentation and incalculable social suffering.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Palestinians have slowly regained a hold on their cities, but their fight for statehood and the end of Israeli control has taken a more passive turn as they remain wary of another uprising. A poll done by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 25.9 percent of Palestinians favored holding huge demonstrations to overrun barriers and Israeli settlements; 15.2% supported violent actions; and a silent majority of 53.4% were in favor of peaceful negotiations. (5.5% answered, “I don’t know.”)
Watching popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia and the civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria has had a limited impact on Palestinians, who have remained largely silent as they seek to reconcile their Hamas Islamists and Fatah nationalist camps and figure out how international bodies can get them what direct talks with the Israelis had so far failed to win.
Yet grassroots activism today, such as the Holy Land Trust, is behind the successes it has seen, like the fight against the route of the Israeli security barrier through various West Bank villages. One of the factors that weighs heavily on the minds of Palestinian non-violence activists is the inherent negative effect of the involvement of international and even Israeli volunteers. Some argue their presence risks portraying this kind of resistance as something not emanating from within the Palestinian community, supported primarily from without.
“At one point, there were more internationals than Palestinians, but now we are at a different level of thinking. Also, many internationals and Israelis are coming, not to try and end the occupation, but to see what they can do to support us in ending the occupation,” Awad tells The Media Line.
Awad is blond and speaks excellent Americanized English after spending 10 years at universities in the United States. He tries to dismiss the perception that the non-violence movements have a distinctly Christian air because of its many sympathizers abroad and affiliations of many of its proponents. Only 2 per cent of the Palestinian population is Christian and none live in areas like Nablus, Jenin and Qalqilya, where there is growing involvement, he says.
What is preventing the non-violence movement from really taking off, they say, is the lack of charismatic leadership, vision, unity and strategy - a Palestinian Gandhi.
“I would still say that there is not a nonviolent movement in Palestine because we are still in a reactionary state. We have to be proactive. This is the challenge for us and that is what we are engaged in at the moment,” Awad says. “We are not there yet.”
During last September’s initiative by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to win recognition of statehood and full membership in the United Nations, mass non-violent protests were organized in the Palestinian territories. Orchestrated by the Palestinian Popular Committees across the West Bank, they failed to achieve the hoped-for impact because Israelis neither saw nor cared about them. Ironically, the low profile that kept the demonstrations beneath the radar came largely because the Palestinian Authority did not want to provoke Israel to respond with military force.
At the moment, the Palestinians are mainly interested in the reconciliation negotiations being held between Hamas and Fatah, which is taking up a lot of their energy and less in the statehood efforts. Yet they are inspired by the Arab Spring.
“What we see in the Arab Spring is that this was the voice of the majority and while this is Western thinking, we see this now as part of our culture and I think this is our role model,” Awad said.
One of their main obstacles is the simple semantics of the term "non-violence." In Arabic it is "la-umph," or "no-violence." Some argue that it sounds as if it is negating something, like the right to fight back. For this reason, activists use the terms "civil resistance," "popular resistance," or "political defiance."
This is important, Awad explains, because in the Palestinian Arab culture, pacifism is seen as a sign of weakness.
Palestinians claim the Israeli army has developed a culture of hostility toward peace activists by defining them as the enemy and condoning violent behavior toward them by soldiers. Some involved in protests have said that organizers sometimes put a quota on the number of internationals and Israelis at demonstrations in order to make certain that the majority were Palestinians.
“To build a movement you need to show that it is a local movement and what has happened with non-violence is a dependence on internationals and Israelis; a sense that if they are not there then we can't do anything," Awad says. "Part of it is fear of not having this shield and part is a lack of self-confidence."