Ali Abu Awwad is a leading Palestinian activist and the founder of Roots – an Israeli-Palestinian project in the West Bank that works for co-existence by changing peoples’ narratives and by transforming the relationship between the two peoples. He sat with Fathom deputy editor Calev Ben-Dor to discuss imprisonment, bereavement, and the missing Palestinian non-violent movement. Also see the interview in this issue of Fathom with Shaul Judelman, Abu Awwad’s Israeli partner in Roots.
Calev Ben-Dor: What events have shaped you and your opinions?
Ali Abu Awwad: I come from a refugee family. In 1948 my family were thrown out of their village, Qubeiba, in what is now known as Lachish. I grew up with this heavy painful narrative – that Israelis came to my land, built a state and have occupied since 1967. I felt that my life, and even my physical movement were totally controlled by the other, and that I had no resources with which to lead a normal life or to achieve my dreams of travelling and studying.
It made me angry and deeply confused: torn between my humanity which didn’t want to hurt anyone and my anger at seeing my mother arrested and humiliated by the army (she was one of the leaders of the Palestinian Fatah party). If people think that we learn how to hate in schools they are mistaken. Whoever lives here doesn’t need anyone to teach them how to hate. Our hate is a product of our conditions.
When the first intifada started in 1987 it allowed me to channel my anger and I began throwing stones at Israelis. I was arrested with my mother (it was her fourth time) and we spent four and five years in Israeli prisons. When I went to prison I was totally broken – I felt it was unjust. But ultimately I discovered that it was a university. Palestinian political prisoners created a system based on committees – management, national security, negotiations etc – to organise themselves. When Israel refused our request to see one another, my mother and I went on hunger strike for 17 days. When we succeeded, it transformed my political mind; I realised that another, non-violent, way to achieve my rights existed. I had been blinded by arguments – about blame, victimhood, punishment and justice. But now I realised that showing my humanity in a non-violent way was the best weapon to achieve my rights.
I was released from prison in 1994 after the beginning of the peace process. Our mission as leaders was to transform the Palestinian nation from being part of a revolution against Israel into becoming citizens of a state that would hopefully be established after five years of negotiations. As we started drafting our constitution we realised that the law is no longer Israel; the law was us – and we needed to respect it.
I became a security officer and I had to arrest Palestinians who had participated in violence. Yet the continuation of Israeli occupation gave legitimacy to this violence, allowing extremist groups to argue that violence was moral and for freedom. They said the Palestinian Authority (PA) were traitors who were bringing security to Israel without bringing independence to the Palestinians. I felt ashamed at being part of that system.
At the same time, Palestinian corruption added another layer of despair and anger. Many Palestinians came to believe that the PA couldn’t achieve independence. Arguments took place within the Palestinian community over whether the right thing to do was to fight Israel or to make peace with Israel. People were confused between their identity as fighters and their identity as citizens. But neither could achieve any meaningful changes to Palestinian life.
Inspired by despair and anger, the second intifada began in 2000. One day I was badly wounded by a settler, and while I was being treated my brother Yousef was violently murdered by Israeli soldiers. At that moment I felt there was nothing worth living for. My brother wasn’t a criminal or a terrorist, he was my best friend, a beautiful man who had two kids who he wanted to raise. I spent sleepless nights with my suffering. I struggled with the concepts of justice and revenge. But taking revenge was not the answer for me. Not because there was a lack of pain or anger but because what I wanted was justice. Yet the only real justice – to have my brother back again – was impossible. When I realised that, I hated myself, my enemy and the whole world. I felt that I was the victim of everyone.
CBD: Both you and Shaul Judelman have mentioned the anger you had. Yet today you are both engaged in non-violence and in dialogue. What brought you to create the organisation Roots?
AAA: One year after my brother’s death my mother hosted a group of bereaved Israeli parents – the Parents Circle Family Forum. I found it shocking to see my mother speaking to Israelis, and I was astounded that they came to my home unarmed to pay a condolence visit. It was even shocking to see an Israeli crying – I could never imagine Jewish people had tears. Yet suddenly they had a human face. It struck me that if the people who paid the highest price can respect me and understand my rights then anyone can. This transformed my life.
I began a complex, painful journey in non-violence and reconciliation, touring almost 40 countries and speaking out in order to bring this message. But I also realised it was essential to create a national Palestinian non-violent movement that would ensure two things: that we could resist occupation non-violently, but that we would stop being victims and begging others to help us. I believe this first step has to come from us. This doesn’t mean Israel isn’t guilty or that we are angels. But we have to create a place where we will no longer be prisoners of the anger that this situation creates every day. We must escape the prison of our narrative.
Along with many other activists, ex-prisoners, women and youth, I created the Taghyeer movement, which means ‘change’ in English. My aim was to show people that they can develop themselves without waiting for others. We have visited communities and engaged community leaders in order to create the mass movement that will guarantee enough pressure on politicians of both sides.
CDB: What does Roots seek to achieve?
AAA: Encourage people to take responsibility. If a mosque is burned, are Jews ready to say this is not Judaism? If a Palestinian stabs a woman, are Palestinians ready stand up and say this act doesn’t represent them? People need to be strong enough to make statements, because we don’t see it from politicians.
In addition to encouraging the grassroots, we also aim to put pressure on the political leadership to stop using excuses like ‘security’ or ‘freedom’. But this won’t happen unless the two sides stand together and speak in one voice.
But our role is not to dialogue forever. Dialogue is only a carrier from truth to a bigger truth. The bigger truth is what we need to do for peace: not only building a non-violent identity, but creating a mass movement on the ground – where hundreds of thousands of people will come onto the street to force the political leadership to sit and find a solution that we will all benefit from.
CBD: In Roots you partner with Jewish settlers. What is that like?
AAA: I came here two and half years ago to create a Palestinian non-violent centre in an area surrounded by settlements. Many people thought I had lost my mind. But I’m tired of the Israeli lefties in the peace movement. The Israeli peace movement is stuck. The Israelis would tell me that as good Jews they don’t drive to the occupied territories, or speak to settlers. But what good does that do me? I suffer here and I want to partner with Israelis here, not at the beach in Tel Aviv or at five star peace conferences. There, they won’t speak about the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem where people don’t have water. When Israelis don’t speak to settlers they are evading their responsibility. When I came here and began speaking to settlers I found out that my job as a Palestinian is to bring lefties from Tel Aviv to meet settlers in Efrat.
I’m not seeking to give legitimacy to settlements but to the human beings who have roots in this land. This is the painful part of this solution where both sides need to recognise the legitimate narratives that both nations have about this land. One can’t separate five million refugees from their roots and expect a solution. Nor can one divide 700,000 settlers from their roots and expect a solution. On the other hand, we can’t live together.
CBD: So what sort of political model do you imagine?
In my opinion we should have two states but a complete division is just not possible. This is not just a geographic conflict about land but one that also includes ideology, nationality and demographic reality. The model of having two states on one land, with people benefitting from a shared life together is better than two rigidly divided states.
Independence for Palestinians by ending the Israeli occupation is the first step for peace. Security and recognition for Israel will be the first step for Jews to be engaged. How do we achieve that? By meeting each other and educating towards non-violence. By hearing one another and by overcoming fear. Peace can’t be a threat to refugees or to settlers. In Roots we do engage, we go to settlements and speak with people who have never spoken to a Palestinian before as a partner. Roots isn’t about designing borders.
Ultimately any peace initiative that doesn’t guarantee recognition for the two nations and their legitimate and full rights to the whole land will fail. And we can’t rely on our politicians – they are managers of fear, anger and conflict, but they are not leaders for change and they are not engaged in solutions.
CDB: How do you see the role of third parties in the conflict?
AAA: I once spoke at the [British] House of Lords – the upper chamber in the UK Parliament – and saw that there were two groups divided between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. They didn’t even sit with one another. So I asked them, ‘Can’t you be pro-solution? Are you expecting that either Israelis or Palestinians are going to disappear?’
This doesn’t mean we want the international community to step back and let us figure everything out on our own. We need engagement by third parties that considers the two truths of the two nations. But the minute there is a grassroots movement that guarantees that both peoples’ truths can fit together with dignity, it will be much easier for third parties to help us.
CBD: What homework do you believe the sides need to do?
AAA: Each side has to work on their sense of identity. For example, the three main values of a settler’s identity are Judaism, settling in the West Bank and Zionism. But these values have been implemented in the heart of the Palestinian community. So the big question is how does one practice these values and identity without victimising the Palestinians? How do we create a situation in which the settler can add the other truth to his truth without having to give up his identity?
We Palestinians also need to struggle with the question of how we see ourselves and our future with these people – because we consider them occupiers. When you consider someone an occupier you will spend your whole life trying to throw them out. But by doing this we are just harming our own identity – because it’s not going to happen. So one piece of homework for us is to build a new identity that includes adding the Other to our existence.
Roots organises community meetings at which we talk about non-violence. This has nothing to with Israelis. Palestinians need to build their own identity in order to work out how we can end the occupation without harming ourselves. I want to secure an identity for Palestinians that allows them to identify with non-violence without being afraid of the ‘anti-normalisation’ charge. This movement isn’t about the other but about themselves.
Politicians always say that ‘the ball is in Israel’s court’. But this is not the way to lead my nation. The minute that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will stand on the street non-violently, the majority of Israelis will rise up non-violently in support of them. The majority of Israelis want peace, but they are weak because there is no Palestinian non-violent movement. Such a mass movement will make Israel embarrassed by the occupation. That’s why I believe it’s not a question of whether violence is legitimate or not. It’s about this: do we want to be right or do we want to succeed? Being right is fine. Both sides are right. But we’re both unsuccessful, especially the Palestinians.