Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Wednesday, March 4, Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist for peace through non-violent civil resistance, spoke. This event was the opening discussion of Swarthmore Hillel’s semester-long Israel-Palestine social justice series.
“I’m not here to create another conflict,” Awwad began. “One conflict is enough.”
Awwad began by addressing a question many people have asked him: why do Palestinians train their kids to hate? Awwad answered, “If you live in that environment, you don’t need a specific curriculum for hatred.”
Awwad spoke about the conditions in which he grew up. At the age of eighteen, he was arrested with his mother and served a fourteen year sentence in jail. He cited jail as a learning experience for him, as it was there that he encountered nonviolent resistance for the first time. He participated in a hunger strike for seventeen days along with the other prisoners to demand better conditions.
“That event opened my eyes about nonviolent resistance,” Awwad said. “In non-violence you don’t just act as a human being, you also involve the human being inside your enemy.”
“In non-violence you have to be very very strong,” Awwad continued. “Starving for seventeen days is like killing yourself each day. You demonstrate how much you believe in your cause by standing even against yourself…When using non-violence you are not a fighter, you don’t identify with political values. You identify with humanity.”
Following the hunger strike, Awwad began learning more about non-violence. He did not receive formal education about nonviolent resistance but studied Gandhi and Mandela in prison.
After leaving prison, Awwad served as an officer in the Palestinian forces. There, he was badly wounded in his knee and sent to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. While he was gone, his brother Yousef, who was thirty-one years old at the time, was killed.
“I knew before very well what it meant to lose your rights, to lose your land […] but losing someone, losing my best friend and my brother was a different story,” Awwad said.
While processing his loss, Awwad considered violent revenge.
“You need to ask yourself: if you start this action when will it end?” Awwad asked. “How many Israeli mothers should have to cry? […] How many Israelis should die to bring back my brother? If all the Israelis are killed, it won’t bring back my brother. Even if I reconcile or revenge, he will not come back.”
Following his loss, an Israeli man who had lost his son called Awwad and his mother, asking if he could visit their home. This encounter was pivotal in shaping Awwad’s views towards Israelis.
“For the first time in my life, I saw an Israeli crying. I couldn’t imagine before that Jewish people had tears, had feelings,” Awwad explained. “I could see them as human beings. It is easier to see your enemy as a devil, but to see him as a human being is a challenge.”
He and his mother soon joined the Bereaved Families Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Becoming a member and a spokesperson of this group helped Awwad enter his new identity of a nonviolent resister.
“Nonviolence has become a way for me to develop society by not acting as a victim,” Awwad said. “For the first time in my life I saw myself as not a victim. You create justice by every single action.”
“Today I feel like I have both nation on my shoulders and they are heavy,” Awwad continued. “It’s a conflict between emotion mostly. What I mean by that is that I always say that the Jewish fear has become our biggest problem as Palestinians, not the Jewish themselves.”
Awwad stressed that to overcome these feelings, reaching a sense of understanding is necessary. According to Awwad, there needs to be nonviolence on the ground, and people must use nonviolence to put national pressure on the politicians.
“Peace is not to hug each other and to eat hummus,” said Awwad. “That is not peace […] The peace movement has no strategy, no vision […] It is not acting it is reacting […] Hope will not be enough.”
Awwad started a Palestinian nonviolence center, Al Tariq (The Way), an organization which teaches the principles of nonviolent resistance to Palestinian men, women, and children. A year ago, Awwad began Roots/Judur/Shorashim: The Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence, and Reconciliation, situated on his family’s land near Beit Ummar, a village near Hebron in the West Bank. In the past year, Roots received over five thousand people from around the world, including congressmen.
“Whatever the price of peace will be,” said Awwad, “it is cheaper than the price of war.”
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