A Palestinian and an Israeli Present their Joint Peacebuilding Initiatives

Wednesday, 04 October 2017

roots_25sep17_thumbnail.jpgOn September 25th, the AGS Middle East Society hosted an inspiring and insightful guest talk by two peace activists, a Palestinian and an Franco-Israeli, who presented their joint peacebuilding initiatives in the Middle East.

Palestinian Ali Abu Awwad is a founder of Roots, a Palestinian-Israeli NGO that seeks to support peace and reconciliation through dialogue as "a secure place for argument". He also is a founder of Taghyeer (change in Arabic), a Palestinian national nonviolence movement.

Jean-Marc Liling is a Franco-Israeli lawyer specializing in right of asylum. He heads the Center for International Migration and Integration in Israel and joined Ali Abu Awwad in his peace initiative.

Both shared their personal stories and explained how they managed to transcend the narrative of victimhood and the idea that the other is the enemy, to develop the powerful tool of nonviolence in order to engage their respective societies into becoming agents of peace.

The speakers were introduced by Mehra Rimer, a Swiss-Iranian peace advocate who co-founded be8ofhope, an umbrella organization for Roots, Taghyeer and other peace initiatives. They were invited by Professors Mariam Habibi and Joav Toker, who co-teach the course on the Middle East at AGS and animate the AGS Middle East Society with students.

Below is an excerpt from Ali Abu Awwad's speech.

 "One of the things that we suffer from is that people take sides. Whether you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. And you make a conflict in your country – between Jews, Muslims, Christians… you take a stand. And people used to deal with that before but today there is a price, a terrible price, because people are dying because of that – in your country, in our country.

One of the things that bring me outside the country is that speaking to you is so important, because you are part of it, whether you are directly part of it or not. I think that radical and terrorist movements have used this conflict a lot, including politicians and governments. So one of the reasons that we are here is because we don’t want to be used. And we cannot be used if we are clear about what we want and speak with one voice. And here, I have to say that it’s hard. It’s much easier to be part of the problem, but being part of the solution is really hard. Especially for someone like me.

I’m a Palestinian, I come from a refugee family from 1948, I’ve carried this heavy, bleeding narrative in my heart all of my life. Then I opened my eyes and I realized that I was born to a very political mother. My mother was one of the leaders of PLO; she was leading the Fatah movement with Arafat since the 1970s, and I encountered the conflict, I encountered the Jews, and I experienced, I breathed the occupation every day.

When I was a child, I saw her beaten in front of my eyes. There, you don’t need an ideology to hate. You lose your mind. I was just a child, who wanted to grow up normally. Sometimes, I’m amazed, especially when Jewish people ask me: “Why, you, Palestinians, educate your kids to hate?” Then I come up with this answer that if you grow up like this, I don’t think you need a specific curriculum for hate. It does the job for you. And this is what we are having, every day. 

Just imagine: you open your eyes in the morning, you cannot think about any future. It could take you sometimes two hours to reach your school, which normally takes ten minutes. You come home with tear gas, with no school bag because you ran away from the soldiers, maybe with a rubber bullet, and you see your father being slapped on his face by a 19-year old soldier. And you live in a home that has no water – just imagine – your house has no water for 25 days during the month. No water. It’s still happening today. So what? You will not be a Mandela.

So in 1987, I found myself coming to the street where the first Palestinian uprising started, and throwing stones on Israeli soldiers. Not because I was a fanatic, not because I was a terrorist, but that was my only way to scream and to show the whole world that I deserved to live with dignity – that’s all I wanted. I was arrested, and then I was released, then I was arrested again, and in 1990 I was arrested with my mother. She spent five years in prison; I spent four years in an Israeli prison.

Here, I can say that when the military court gave me ten years to prison, I was totally broken, because I felt that that was unjust, because the only thing that the Israeli Shabak wanted was information about my mother. So they tortured me for one month and six days, physically. You cannot imagine. Some Palestinians lost their lives in that torture. But I refused. I refused to give any evidence against my mother. So there was a promise to throw me ten years to prison. And I couldn’t believe it. When the judge gave me ten years, I almost fell down. I couldn’t imagine – I was 17 years old – that the next ten years of my life, I was going to spend in prison because I threw stones at Israeli soldiers. And this is what happened.

So now you have to deal with it. You’re still breathing – you’re not alive exactly, but you’re still breathing – and you have to show that you are a hero, because you are the son of a hero, and people look at you as a leader. So what do you do? So with this broken heart, I went to prison, but I didn’t realize that I was going to one of the best universities that you can imagine, because Palestinian political prisoners succeed in creating a whole system to lead and manage their daily life. There were professors, lawyers, teachers… they created five committees: committee of education, security, management, national, and negotiation court. I always say that if a Palestinian were to create the same system outside, it would be the best nation! And that’s really what happened. So my best education, that has much influenced me and was better, I can say, that even a university, was in prison, studying psychology, politics, Judaism, Christianity, all kinds of subjects. The best travel agent was a book: if you want to travel from prison, you grab a book, and there you go on a journey. That was how I experienced different cultures. 

But the big lesson was: during three years I was asking the Israeli authorities to allow me to visit my mother in her other prison. Israel refused. So in 1993, after three years, she and I decided to have a hunger strike. So we entered a hunger strike that continued for 17 days, starving everyday just to see each other. And after 17 days of that fight, we managed to meet. And that was my first transformation. Not by meeting Israelis, not by seeing the humanity of the other, not by these nice values of peace: it was targeting my mind before my heart. What is this weapon that I was too blind to see? What is nonviolence? Why did Israel agree? They could have let me die. And I started to dig into and learn about nonviolence and nonviolent struggle.

And finally, I realized that this effective weapon, I had never used before because I was stuck, and my blindness came from my rightness and anger, but deep under, I was led by being a victim. When you consider yourself as a victim, you give yourself the right to do whatever, and no one has the right even to judge you or to punish you. And this is the hidden psychology and the hidden psyche of the Jewish people and the Palestinians. And that is what keeps this conflict going. Which is right. 

So finally, by also a peace initiative, I was released after four years, but I couldn’t really be part of that process. And I’ll tell you why the peace process has failed in my opinion. I think that we Palestinians, before the Oslo peace initiative that was signed in 1993, we used to have one identity: to prove our belonging to Palestine and to practice our identity as Palestinians. That identity means: “revolution”. We are the people of the Intifada (the uprising). We are the people of PLO, the resistance. These words are values of our identity. So after the signing of the peace agreement in Oslo, we were expected to do a huge shift from being part of a revolution to being part of a country, a society, to become citizens, not fighters. But we didn’t make the shift. The Israeli continuation of the occupation didn’t allow us to do that. The corruption of part of our leadership didn’t allow us to do that.

The big arguments between different political parties were that Fatah couldn’t prove that peace was welcomed and could lead us to our legal right of independence; then Hamas also couldn’t prove that violence was working. And the international investment in our conflict continued, because we are a good market for outsiders. We are a good market for the Western world, with its politics, for the congress, and for the Arab world. We are a good market to invest hate – by ourselves, because we allow others to do that with us and for us.

So by the end of the day, 2,000 Palestinians had lost their way to practice their identity. Shall we fight as a right? No, it’s not working. Should we go to peace and become citizens? It’s also not working. But there is a new reality on the ground that the Palestinian authority is there.

So on the one hand you pay wealth taxes every month to an authority that doesn’t guarantee freedom of movement as a basic right of any human being. So we become confused. That’s why the whole process has blown up. Peace collapsed, our hope collapsed, and then Israel came with new actions on the ground, and new facts, including this wall. And they’re still there, and I still believe that this wall has nothing to do with security, because hundreds, tens of thousands of Palestinians every day illegally pass and go to Israel for work. But this law has designed a new political, geographic, demographic fact on the ground.

But on the other hand, this wall is like a psychological treatment of the Jewish fear – because it defends them, and as long as this defends me, I cannot argue if this wall is legal or not, because it’s my life, and I can understand that. On the other hand, I’m sure it prevents from attacks, but it cannot prevent totally from attacks. Because when people lose their fear of dying, you cannot stop them. They will dig, they will jump, and this is what happens. So it’s not about exactly security, because in my opinion, security cannot be achieved by using people’s fear, by authorizing others, by pressuring another nation. As my argument today, we cannot achieve freedom by killing others. It doesn’t work. You don’t need to be Gandhi to realize that. And my last statement is very clear: our freedom shouldn’t pass through Jewish bodies, graves; it has to pass through Jewish hearts. Because there is enough humanity there – but I didn’t grow up with this, because of my life condition.

So finally, in 2000, the fight started. I couldn’t really find myself a fighter or a citizen. But people expect from you as a leader to come up with things and I couldn’t come up with things; I couldn’t give answers. One day I was badly wounded by a settler who was driving and using his weapon against Palestinians. I was sent to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment because I got this dumdum-exploding bullet in my knee. I was really in a difficult situation. A month later, I received the news that my older brother Youssef, 31 years old, was stopped by a group of Israeli soldiers at the entrance of my town, Beit Ummar, near Hebron, and very violently murdered. 

So now, what do you do? I mean, all of my life was about a price that I had to pay, but that price was different. I experienced what it means to lose rights, what it means to lose land, and I could deal with that. But loosing him, for me, was like loosing my best reason for life. I mean, after him, nothing was worth anything. I promise you, I would be ready to do anything that you can imagine just to bring him back to his kids.

Then another struggle had started. What shall I do? I used to be a fighter. I know how to use weapons – I was trained. Yes, I have never used them, but I will be ready to go for revenge, punishment, because the murderer of my brother just murdered him for no reason. Even the officer of that unit slapped that soldier on his face, took his weapon, and threw him out. But this is not enough. That soldier has never been to prison, has never been to justice. So in general, when this happens to any human being, the first reaction is revenge. And you are right, it is legitimate, and you go for it. But something inside me rejected that because I suddenly thought: if revenge is about seeking justice, if revenge is a just act against the killer, what is justice? That is a big question. I couldn’t really know what justice was.

Then I went back with my memories to prison where I started learning about nonviolence, and I remembered reading Malcolm X, when he said: “Justice is just us.”  I couldn’t really understand what he meant by saying that. But I rejected any revenge – not by lack of anger: I was so angry and ready to take revenge, but then I said: how many people shall I kill? What could replace this feeling of having him? Is it by killing ten million people, Israelis, Jews? I will not be happy because he is not there anymore. The only justice for me would be to have him back to his kids – that would be justice. Does it mean that there is no justice in life? That’s a big question. Then I realized that I was stuck with this. Because, yes, part of me believes that there is no 100% justice in life, because you cannot bring a broken hand to be the same as before it was broken. You will never have that. But you can heal it. That, for me, is sort of justice – but there is no complete justice in life. 

And from there, I started a journey after my mother, a year later, hosted Israeli bereaved parents who called us, asking to come and visit us. And I was shocked. Because Israelis used to come to my home but they never called. They used to come and damage and arrest, they never paid condolences, they never showed humanity. And suddenly, my mother was hosting them. And I promise you – I was born in 1972 and that meeting happened in 2001 – that was the first time that I sat with an Israeli who was crying. I couldn’t believe that Jewish people had tears, until that minute. And suddenly, the devil had a face, and that face was human, and that mother or that father had paid the same price as my mother. And suddenly, there was an earthquake inside my heart. It was so hard to put a human face to my enemy.

I started a long, complex journey that brought me to places where I would never have imagined being, and finally, to coming and speaking – not to the people that I agree with, because talking to the Israeli leftists is nice, but what about the core of the problem? 600,000 settlers: these are the people that need transformation, or at least need to be engaged. Yes, I do have deep political arguments and disagreement. Because in my opinion, settlement is an illegal political act based on a legitimate political, ideological identity for the Jewish people – this is how they think. And dialogue is not to ask people to change their identity. Peace is not giving up our identity – who we are. Peace is giving up our behaviors. Occupation is a behavior. This is what we need to argue, not Judaism. Right of return, “refugeness”, are a behavior. This is what has to be healed in a way or another, by creating a new environment that will guarantee for these two identities to live with respect.

So design it: one State, two States, three States… as long as people will agree about that, we are fine with that. But with my sorrow, until today, we are not ready for that. What can make us ready? One is the best engagement between two identities for Palestinians; two: to have resistance, but nonviolent resistance; and also, to develop our life and to take responsibility. Because we cannot say that occupation is guilty of our violence. That has to stop. We have to take responsibility, because our freedom is stuck there.

On the other hand, Jewish people have a lot of homework to be done. Starting with overcoming the Jewish fear that has become our biggest enemy, but also to find and support partners on the ground who are making a difference, and to stop criticizing everyone and wanting to throw them to the sea. Israelis have to learn how to engage, not to disengage. That’s the only way that Israel can be saved. And the only people that Israel can engage with, in the first place, are the Palestinians. And we know that, because we come from the ground.

So finally, I created this nonviolent center, in Goush Etzion, where the heart of the problem is, four years ago. Many people, friends of mine, told me that I had lost my mind, that Israelis were going to kill me, the settlers were going to take over… And for the past four years, until today, I have received more than 30,000 people to that peace of land, from all over the world, including Israelis and Palestinians.

But the best thing that has happened is: after Roots, I succeeded, with community leaders, for the first time, to create a Palestinian national nonviolence movement, to build a new identity of nonviolent resistance and nonviolent development. It’s called Taghyeer – Change in English. This is the movement that I am really now invested in, because my dream is to see hundreds of thousands of Palestinians on the first place struggling and standing for their rights, nonviolently, with this message of dignity. That’s the key. 

Our politicians will tell you that the ball is on the Israeli yard, because these are the occupiers. In my opinion, they key is in the Palestinian hands. The minute that we stand nonviolently, Israelis will stand by us. Because I believe, through experience, that there is enough humanity in our area to promote peace and nonviolence.

[Audience: How do you go from this narrative of having your enemy facing you everyday, coming to your home, to loving him? Where along the way have you found this humanity to love your enemy?]

I’m not sure it’s about loving our enemy. I have an argument for that – because sometimes we listen to these nice things: “love your enemy”, etc. I think it’s mostly about responsibility. I mean: what is the interest of Israel today? To secure its citizens, right? What is the interest of the Palestinians? To get rid of the occupation. So it’s mostly about mind before heart. Because people are traumatized – Israelis and Palestinians are totally traumatized. If you keep acting for peace with hugs, hummus, five-star peace conferences, the whole world invites us and treats us as heroes because we are the peacemakers. And these nice NGOs who have invested millions of dollars on the salaries, which can feed my village for one year… there is also so much dirt there.

So the first question has to be: what is the best for me? How do we create interest? That security and freedom can be achieved by nonviolence – that’s first. Second: meeting the other is so important. Dialogue, in my opinion, is not heart agreement. Dialogue is to create a secure environment for argument. People need to feel secure to argue. Not to love – to argue first, because you cannot start with love. We don’t love each other, but we share the same destiny.

What does that mean? What is the future of Israel, having four million Palestinians and five million outside? What is the future of Palestine when Israel has six million inside and some millions outside, 17 million Jews? Are they going to disappear tomorrow? They will not. Are they going to give up their rights? They will not. It’s the opposite. Both sides will fight until the last drop of blood. Because this is the only place where we belong. Not just that: this is the only place where we want to live. And not just that: this is the place where everyone around us doesn’t want us. If Jews think that the Arab world wants the Palestinians they are making a big mistake. If we think that Americans want the Jews, we are making a big mistake. But we need to learn that together.

We need to create benefits from peace. There is a psychological benefit from revenge, because it feeds our anger and hatred. But it victimizes us – we don’t see that. But there is a great benefit from nonviolence: it gives us a taste of life. My life didn’t become better, my conditions are the same – even worse, because now, I’m carrying two nations on my shoulder, and they are so heavy… but my life today has a taste. So my interest is also through my mind.

So how do we bring them? First, we create a framework, because Palestinians will not come just to meet Israelis and go back to their refugee camps. This will not be enough; the peace movement has to learn that lesson. What will bring them is to guarantee two things for them: a place for their anger to come out without harming themselves or anyone, which is nonviolence; and on the other hand a place that they will benefit for their life, from their engagement in peace-building: to have bread on their tables, to have water in their houses… This is what the peace movement is missing.

And finally, I’m not sure it’s about marriage, love, but it’s not about divorce either. I used to think it was about divorce: two States, we need to divorce, then we will be ready to get married again. No, we cannot do that. We need a relation of covenant. Nobody is authorizing anyone, but also it will prepare us maybe to get married, but if we don’t get married, we will not separate. Two states acting with deep cooperation in all values of life, including security and staff: this is my political vision. Because we cannot live without each other, we know that very well. If you ask a Palestinian “do you want Israel to disappear tomorrow?” they will say “no, but we don’t want the occupation”. If you ask Israelis “who is the closest people to you?” they will tell you Palestinians, more than Syrians, more than Jordanians, more than whatever. So it’s about managing it in a framework. 

People need to feel secure to admit for their mistakes. Why this competition of suffering? I’m telling you: because if you criticize one side, it will become defensive. And this is what I’m experiencing with Jewish people who live in France, because the whole movement is against them, so you put them in a corner, then they become defensive. No. We need to create a secure environment for them to stand and end the occupation. Because it’s their job, but it’s by us, whether we are Muslims, Christians, Buddhists… whatever. This is hard, this is really hard, because the judgment is very clear: Israel is the occupier. Should we compliment the Jews for that? No, you are not complimenting the Jews. But you are helping also the Jews, and by helping them, you are helping me. By threatening them, you are victimizing me, because I’m the one who is dying over there. 

So that is the deep value of nonviolence that we want the international community to understand. We want Trump to understand that investing in Israel and supporting Israel blindly, you are killing Israel, you are not killing the Palestinians. Because this blindness is disengaging Israel from a normal future with its neighbors. You cannot do that, because one day, it will blow up. And here, what are we facing? In France, in Europe, in America, these attacks are the consequences of the Western politics that we face and you are not aware of. And before you discuss hoping to open your borders for refugees don’t create them. Don’t send your Marines to Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein, and you bring down a dictator but you create fanatics. That Middle East has been damaged. People think it was an Arab Spring – it was an Arab winter. Because you cannot bring down a dictator and have the whole country collapse. I agree: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was a dictator, but bringing him down with killing all of Egypt was not the right thing to do. Look at the consequences. Look at Syria. And stop blaming Muslims. You want us to be closer to the Jews? Don’t push us to the corner, don’t label us fanatics. It’s not Islam, it’s Muslims, it’s their behavior, it’s not their ideology. And by the way, in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity, there are enough crimes and enough acts of reconciliation. It’s up to you to choose. You can have legitimacy for violence and war and you can have legitimacy for peace. So let’s stop this argument between religions – the issue is about the people."

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Patrick Clairzier Haiti-USA
M.A., School of International Relations
Class of 2009

quote leftAfter working in financial services for ten years, AGS has provided me with a platform of different views and new perspectives on world affairs from which to build a new career in international relations.quote right

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