The transformation of Ali Abu Awwad began in a hospital bed in Saudi Arabia.
It was January 2001, and Abu Awwad, then 28, was recuperating from a gunshot wound sustained from a settler’s pistol following an altercation near his native village of Beit Umar, in the southern West Bank near Hebron. But the news he received that day brought with it a pain that made the wound in his leg feel insignificant ‒ his older brother, Yusuf, had been killed by a soldier at an IDF checkpoint.
“I grew up in a very political family,” he recalls to The Jerusalem Report
. “My mother was a senior Fatah leader and Israeli soldiers routinely came to our house and slapped her around, trying to get information about Palestinians involved in anti-Israel operations.
“One time when she was in prison, the army allowed us to visit her, but when they finally brought her into the meeting room we weren’t allowed to touch her. I hadn’t seen her in several months, and here I couldn’t even hug her or sit next to her. With things like that, I never needed propaganda to hate Israel.
“After that, my life’s path was pretty simple. I was active in the first intifada that broke out in December 1987, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at IDF troops and at Israeli cars on Route 60. By the time I was 18, in 1990, I’d been sentenced to four years in jail and people saw me as a key figure in the up-and-coming generation of Fatah leaders.”
None of that, however, prepared him, or his family, for the death of his brother.
Although he had turned away from violent protest during his prison sentence, Yusuf’s death left him with a searing pain that transcended anything he had experienced previously.
“I had figured out the tactical value of nonviolence during my jail sentence ‒ my mother and I had staged a 17-day hunger strike for the right to communicate, and eventually the prison authorities gave in. It was the first time I’d ever gotten anything out of the Israelis and it taught me a terrific lesson.
“After the hunger strike, I was totally committed to nonviolence, but when Yusuf was killed, it forced me to a real crossroads.
On the one hand, all the seething anger and hatred of my teenage years came rushing back. But at the same time, all I could do was listen to my mother’s broken cries and think, ‘So, how do I avenge this? How many Israelis have to die to bring Yusuf back? How many more Israeli mothers have to experience what my mother is experiencing?’ Those questions brought me back from the brink and forced me to turn my life around,” he says.
Fourteen years later, Abu Awwad’s life bears little resemblance to his troubled youth. He says his brother’s death gave depth to the nonviolent tactics he’d adopted a decade earlier. After the 40-day mourning period for Yusuf, Abu Awwad joined the Bereaved Families Circle, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost relatives to the conflict, as well as Combatants for Peace, and he began to get to know Israelis as individuals rather than as soldiers and “enemy” settlers. Today, he spends most of his time speaking to Israeli and Palestinian groups about the virtues of nonviolence and the need for both nations to create a joint future.
EVEN MORE importantly, Abu Awwad’s home has become a haven for Israel- Palestinian reconciliation. Located on a small plot of farmland in the middle of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Bethlehem, the field has been owned by the Abu Awwad family for decades, but had been largely neglected.
He moved there in January 2014 with a dream of creating a Palestinian center for the study of nonviolence, but soon made an unexpected discovery: Israeli settlers who wanted to hear his story and wanted to work together on issues of joint concern, including housing, freedom of movement, and more.
Those relationships quickly grew to include settlers from Efrat, Alon Shvut, Kfar Etzion, Bat Ayin, Tekoa, and other Jewish communities. Eventually, the burgeoning friendships created two parallel programs: Roots/Judur/Shorashim, a Palestinian- Israeli initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation, as well as the Yusuf Abu Awwad Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence.
In many ways, “The Field,” as locals call it, is a metaphor for the task at hand, which is to say a work in progress. Weather permitting, activities are held outside on worn couches under a tarpaulin for shade, or in the small, ramshackle hut that doubles as Abu Awwad’s bedroom, heated in winter by a small potbellied stove and cooled in summer by the late afternoon breeze.
Kosher chickens, in deference to the Orthodox nature of most of the Jewish participants, are prepared in an in-ground pit, while in the kitchen, a cousin takes care to ensure that one large pot is used only for rice and lentils, ensuring it stays kosher so all comers can feel welcome.
“Ali is the type of Palestinian leader we Israelis have both hoped for and feared all these years,” Shaul David Judelman, a resident of Tekoa and the Jewish head of Roots/ Shorashim/Judur, tells The Report
. “He is definitely a proud Palestinian, but for him that doesn’t mean ‘zero-sum game’ ‒ good for Palestine equals bad for Israel, and vice versa. He is a servant of his people’s future, this land’s future. And you see how much thirst there is here for his message, in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
“A rare voice looking forward instead of competing about the past. Instead of just demonizing the settlers, he’s engaging us and exposing our community to a Palestinian lexicon that isn’t aggressive and violent. He’s also challenging Palestinian and media depictions of us as simply monsters, opening the voice of the Jewish history that’s also part of this land,” asserts Judelman.
“I understand the emotion behind the anti-normalization movement,” adds Abu Awwad, “but they are missing an important fact here. There are 600,000 settlers in the West Bank, where we are hoping to create a Palestinian state. They aren’t going anywhere. Someone’s got to talk to them a) because boycotting them is only going to push them into a corner and empower the radicals, and b) when we talk about justice, we have to be committed for justice for these people, too. Otherwise, our demand for justice is empty.”
However, Abu Awwad’s commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation is far from the Palestinian consensus, a point highlighted by the spike in attacks on Israeli civilians during the Ramadan holy month that concluded mid-July, as well as the violence on the Temple Mount on July 26, as Jews marked the Tisha B’av fast at the Western Wall plaza below. Polls consistently show a large majority of West Bank Palestinians in favor of violence against Israeli civilians, especially in Judea and Samaria.
MORE BROADLY, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, tells The Report that 49 percent of Palestinians support a return to an armed intifada, and that 36 percent think that armed action is the most effective means of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In contrast, Shikaki said only 32 percent think negotiations are the most effective way forward while 26 percent feel that popular nonviolent resistance is the best means of advancing their cause.
Still, it seems that Palestinian society might be slowly changing. Whereas Gandhian-style nonviolence has yet to win over the Palestinian masses, individual efforts and specific programs are creating an infrastructure and language of protest aimed at recasting the Palestinian struggle.
For more than a decade, some West Bank protest groups in Bil’in, Na’alin, Nebi Salah and other villages have tried, with varying degrees of success, to ensure their protests remain free of violence. These protests have often turned violent when protesters threw stones at IDF troops, triggering a response, but locals claim that the violence is usually started by Israeli leftists and foreign nationals, not by Palestinians.
At the government level, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has shifted the struggle against Israel from Yasser Arafat-style terrorism to diplomatic and legal battles being fought in the halls of the International Criminal Court, the United Nations as well as taking advantage of international anti-Israel initiatives such as the BDS anti-Israel boycott campaign. Abbas is aware that violence could derail these initiatives.
“Even more critically, young Palestinians ‒ the online, social media generation ‒ just want a normal life,” Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel-Palestinian Creative Regional Initiatives NGO and a longtime peace activist, tells The Report. “They just want normalcy. They are not burning to join the fight and to risk everything.”
The Aida refugee camp, established in 1948, is a dusty, concrete neighborhood on the outskirts of Bethlehem. On the scale of Palestinian refugee camps, Aida is not too bad ‒ the concrete homes are small and crowded, but there is none of the squalor or filth that characterizes similarly sized camps in Jordan, or even the Shuafat camp in north Jerusalem.
Apart from the eight-meter security wall, the main “theme” of the camp seems to be the right of return. While the issue of reversing the 1948 establishment of Israel, which the Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, is certainly part of most Palestinian discourse with Israelis, the issue seems to hold particular potency here. The main entrance to the camp is crowned by a massive bronze key, the symbol of the Nakba and the sign of residents’ dedication to return to their parents’ and grandparents’ village of Beit Natif, west of here. The one tourist shop in the camp is marked not only by a selection of worn metal keys, but also by old metal utensils that bring up the memory of a Palestine that is no longer.
Amid the cracked streets and peeling stucco walls, the Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Society stands out as the camp’s nicest building. Inside, a group of children are spending a hot Ramadan afternoon on computers in the well-stocked library. The room is spacious and neat, with reading and study materials in Arabic, English and French, and decorated with large mural paintings of Palestinian heroes and icons ‒ Arafat, late Columbia University professor Edward Said and others. The center is also home to a music room, photography and dance studios, a small gift shop and more.
Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour, the center’s founder and director, says he established Alrowwad in 1998 when it became clear to Palestinians that the Oslo negotiations process had failed, that Israel had no intention of ending the occupation and that the clock was ticking down toward the type of violent explosion that erupted in September 2000 with the outbreak of the second intifada. In order to provide hope and expression to residents of Aida, he founded the center under the slogan “Beautiful Resistance.”
“‘Beautiful resistance’ means celebrating the positive things about Palestine and about Palestinian culture, without allowing negative stereotypes or images to influence who we are or what our aspirations are,” he tells The Report. “We teach our students to act, to dance, to create puppet shows, paint, make music, write poetry, take photographs and much, much more, all with a very clear moral stance. We will not allow the occupation to steal our humanity.”
Abusrour, 52, admits he faces a difficult task ‒ poverty, lack of freedom of movement and frequent incursions into the camp by IDF forces create a culture of violence and anger that is tough to counter. He is proud of the fact that none of the thousands of students who have passed through Alrowwad have been killed in clashes with the Israeli army. He also says that fewer than 30 percent of Aida youth have been jailed in Israel since the first intifada broke out in 1987, a lower number than most Palestinian communities, and especially other refugee camps.
Sitting in his crowded office surrounded by photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he says it is tough to change a template of resistance that has defined the Palestinian struggle for well over a century against Ottoman, British and Israeli rulers.
“I am here not to dictate behavior but to give possibilities. I want to give young people the tools to resist the tendency to go toward violence or to respond to violence with violence,” he says. “It is also important to me that my students understand a central, critical point about our country: This is a land of multiplicity and diversity, where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together as equal human beings. I am a Muslim, but I cannot say that Palestine is only for Muslims. I also can’t accept those who say Palestine is a Christian land or Jewish land.
“So we resist the occupation, but my fight is to give space for expression in the most beautiful, creative and nonviolent way. But it’s also important to understand: Nonviolence is not cowardice. It is far more courageous to respond with nonviolence than violently,” he says.
NOT THAT Abusrour’s nonviolence has led him to compromise on his opposition to Israel, and especially not to the more than 600,000 Israelis who live over the Green Line. Alrowwad’s commitment to nonviolence notwithstanding, his approach to Israel and Israelis is far from Abu Awwad’s.
Both in the camp and around Bethlehem, he is a strident voice against “normalization” with Israel and in favor of the BDS movement. He describes Israeli policies as an ongoing “rape” of Palestine on both sides of the Green Line. For him, the key distinction about forming relationships with Israelis has nothing to do with Israel’s pre- or post-1967 borders, but rather with Israelis who recognize the country’s sins, apologize and act concretely to reverse what he calls the “ongoing Nakba.”
One major issue relates to basic definitions and the fact that some terms and ideas are simply lost in translation. Asked whether he would consider stoning settler cars as “violence,” one senior PLO official, Issa Abu Aram, said, “No.” Other activists tell The Report that while their groups forbid rock throwing during their protest actions, they admit that stones are often thrown at IDF soldiers.
“Our demonstrations are always peaceful, but our activities don’t always mean protest marches to open Shuhada Street,” says Issa Amro, the head of Hebron’s Youth Against Settlements group. The group organizes an Open Shuhada Street campaign, which refers to a main street adjacent to the small Jewish community there ‒ the IDF has closed the street repeatedly to most Palestinian traffic over the years, first in response to Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein’s rampage in 1994 and later at the demand of local Jews looking for security following a series of brutal attacks during the Oslo years and the early years of the second intifada.
But Amro says it is the Palestinians who are subject to settler violence on a regular basis.
“A lot of our protest is expressed just by the fact that we are trying to support Palestinian families living near settlements. They get a lot of attacks; they are not safe. They very often cannot work near their homes,” he points out to The Report.
The 35-year-old Amro, like Abu Awwad a veteran of the first intifada, says he discovered nonviolence in 2003, as the second intifada raged and there were soldiers and tanks everywhere. The army had closed the Palestine Polytechnic University, where Amro was studying engineering and he decided to reopen it. “As I started considering what to do, I came across the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others. I came to realize that their deep moral convictions were far stronger than any rock I could throw or bullet I could shoot.”
Like Abusrour, however, Amro’s stance is clear vis-à-vis settlers. Asked whether there was any way he could envision Palestinians and settlers living in peace, he asserts that there is no way for Palestinians to reconcile with the occupation.
“We see settlements as occupation ‒ they attack us all the time, and they have complete immunity from the army and from the Israeli courts. There is no way to coexist with that, ever. “Of course, we know there are many, many good Israelis, perhaps even people that live in the settlements. But we don’t get inside the settlements to see them as human beings. It’s like soldiers who serve here with the occupation army. Many people come back here after they complete their service and apologize for what they did and they act with us against the occupation. When they do that, and relate to us as people with full rights and dignity, they are, of course, more than welcome. But when he’s in uniform, I would never, ever shake his hand.
“It’s the same for a settler. There may be good individuals who are committed to ending the occupation. But, as for the settlements themselves, we see them as apartheid and an act of violence and racism against us,” Amro says.
Back at The Field, seven-year-old Micha- el Friedman, this writer’s son, kicks a soccer ball with Yusuf Abu Awwad, Ali’s 12-year-old son who is named after his late brother. After a few minutes, the boys had disappeared, only to be found after several minutes sitting in Abu Awwad’s car, happily sharing a bag of potato chips.
“These kids have simply not learned how to hate. They are simply an example for all of us ‒ to be friends, without any of the other craziness that blinds us. It’s my goal, and all of ours, really,” Abu Awwad says.