Ali Abu Awwad was 15 when he first took up arms to fight in the ranks of Fatah during the first Intifada. It was in an Israeli prison that he decided to embrace nonviolence in 1993, but the murder of his brother Youssef, shot down by an Israeli soldier in 2001, forced Ali to go even further:
“How many Jews would have to be killed to avenge death of my brother? It was then that I realized that the only way to break the circle of hatred was to start talking to the other side.”
Fear is our real enemy
Awwad is one of the most prominent representatives of a new generation of Palestinian activists who draw inspiration from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Committed to creating a Palestinian front of nonviolent resistance, he is deeply convinced that peace will only be possible when Jews free themselves from fear: “The history of the Jewish people is a horrible series of traumatic experiences and we must help them liberate themselves from fear. They are not our enemy, their fear is our real enemy and I refuse to continue being a victim of this fear,” he told Euronews in Geneva, where he participated in the “Israelis and Palestinians against the Occupation” debate.
He was born in 1972 near Hebron, on the Palestinian side, into a family heavily involved in politics. He heard how they had been forced in 1948 to leave their lands and the locality of Al-Qubayba where they lived, which had been destroyed by the Israeli army. His mother was linked to Fatah and he witnessed frequent visits by soldiers and scenes of brutality when they wanted to get information about Palestinians involved in anti-Israeli operations. Later, while active in the intifada which started in December 1987, Ali threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. At the age of 18 he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, of which he served four, released following the Oslo Accords.
The young intifadist was in convalescence after being shot in the West Bank by a settler’s gun when he learned that Youssef had been killed at a checkpoint. Ali had discovered the power of nonviolence during captivity, when after 17 days of hunger strike with his mother, who was in the same penitentiary, they were allowed contact, but it was the death of his brother who pushed him to a radical decision: “I found myself at a crossroads. Filled with hatred, I was forced to take a full turn. There are 600,000 settlers in the West Bank, where we want to create a Palestinian State and instead of demonising them, we need to get both parties to take responsibility and negotiate a way out of the impasse.”
He founded the “Al Tariq” movement, which teaches the principles of non-violent resistance to the Palestinians and, since the death of his brother, is part of the Israel-Palestine “Forum of Bereaved Families”, founded by Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jew whose son was abducted and killed by Hamas. In the region of Gush Etzion, Palestinian territory occupied by some twenty settlements under the control of the Hebrew state between Bethlehem and Hebron, Ali founded with his other brother, Khaled, and with Rabbi Hanan Shlezinger, the NGO “Roots”, which organises meetings between Palestinians and Jews and today involves about 18,000 people.
‘There is no shortage of reasons for violence, we need a way out’
Is nonviolence not cowardice, weakness? Is it not lack of solidarity with the victims? Ali replies, his voice heavy: “The conditions of life in which the Palestinian population lives today are very hard. Our aim is to get the anger and resentment provoked by all the humiliations and injustices that make the daily life of the Palestinians channelled into actions of nonviolent resistance.”
He points out that the attitude Gandhi called satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, is the only way to achieve a just and lasting solution that will enable everyone in the Middle East to live with dignity and in freedom and security.
“The Palestinians have been living in extreme despair for years and both the international community and Israeli society have given us no hope, no model of peaceful solution. The role of nonviolence is to speak to people’s despair – not to tell them they are right, but to show them a way out.”
Convinced that people long for a solution, that they want to act in accordance with humanitarian principles, Ali Abu Awwad speaks to everyone, including the most radical factions. He says his goal is to get everyone involved in a human rights fight for both sides and that this is the only approach that can bring freedom to the Palestinians. “I do not argue the Jewish identity, I contest the actions of Israel, it’s the actions that must change. My appeal to the Jews of Israel is to take their responsibilities and overcome fear. By defending our dignity, they will be defending their own dignity.”
His voice trembles with outrage when he speaks of the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank: “My people suffer here humiliations and revolting crimes. In order to achieve peace, we must put an end to the Israeli occupation. A Palestinian has no right to water, electricity, no right to build, he spends three hours waiting at checkpoints.”
Ali explains that Al Tariq activists work with community leaders to get out of the impasse, creating spaces for action here. There is room for everyone – Jews, Christians or Muslims: “We organize workshops in various places in Palestine, plant trees, clean streets, develop civil liability projects, encourage women and youth participation, cooperate with the international community.”
The peace activist underlines that his movement is laying the foundations in the society so that political leaders and community leaders begin acting on principles of nonviolence: “We are engaging Palestinian society in the process and the leaders will follow society. We must unite and not dig divisions, as do the occupiers – we have to question Israeli politicians, but also to question our view of the Jews.”
Ali Abu Awwad knows he has chosen a difficult battle. He says that the Israeli government fears the movements of civil society, particularly those who attract Jews and Palestinians, because it knows that they represent a powerful force. And that is why they are subject to much hatred, but it is the price to pay, as Gandhi pointed out: “They start ignoring you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you and you finally win.”
He is convinced that “when the Palestinians massively unite in a non-violent movement, the Israelis will stand up for our rights.” The first signs of profound change are already visible and very uncomfortable for the Israeli government, even if they are still a minority: the Israeli soldiers of the “Combatants for Peace” movement refuse to serve in the army.
Concerning the “Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions” movement (BDS), Ali considers it useful and necessary, noting that nonviolence is active, not passive, but adds that it should be part of a wider range of measures.
There are more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. For Ali Abu Awwad, if Israel wants to contribute to a solution, one fundamental step is the release of all Palestinian prisoners because “Palestinians can not be expected to renounce violence while their parents and brothers are victims of injustice in Israeli prisons.”
He recalls that a humanitarian attitude can not be expected from people who continue to be humiliated and says that the international community has to put pressure on the Israeli government to change this.
There are more than 2.1 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, about 450,000 in Lebanon, living in refugee camps where they are deprived of a dignified existence. Ali warns that the situation of these people will only change when Israel starts to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority, the entity representing these refugees, to advance a two-state solution that also involves Palestinian refugees.
As for the winds that can blow from Washington, he says that if the new US administration pushes ahead with Donald Trump’s promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, this would mean that the US President does not respect the blood shed– Palestinian blood and Jewish blood – “because it would cause an immense shedding of blood.” And he has a piece of advice for President Trump: “Instead of taking one side in the conflict, urgently adopt policies that promote a solution, because neither the Palestinians nor the Jews will disappear and to support one side would be to perpetuate the conflict.”