“Let there be Peace on Earth and let it begin with me.” Jill Jackson-Miller and Sy Miller
Ali Abu Awwad, is a Palestinian non-violent Peace activist. Surprised? Yes, we usually hear about Palestinians that are violent and believe Israelis and Jews are less than human. I was so excited recently when I listened to an interview of my favorite Palestinian Peace activist, Ali Abu Awwad. I had the honor to meet him years ago and knew that what he was working on was vital for Peace in Israel and Palestine.
Ali’s story and life’s work have been highlighted in over twelve documentaries including two award-winning films, Encounter Point and Forbidden Childhood. He also was honored as the Arab World Social Innovator in Palestine for “introducing non-violence, reconciliation, and civic participation to Palestinians as a means of empowering citizens to seek social change and find a more equitable solution to conflict,” by the global nonprofit thinktank Synergos.
Being totally honest, as a Jew, I knew listening to a Palestinian perspective might make me feel uncomfortable at times. But if I want to work on Peace, and for Peace to exist in Israel, we all have to be willing to do so―after all, both Israelis and Palestinians must be equally acknowledged and satisfied for Peace to have a viable solution. Besides, I knew Ali would have a unique and significant perspective to hear, and I definitely was not disappointed.
I was eager to listen to what he had been doing with Taghyeer (Change), his nonviolent Palestinian national movement. Taghyeer states that their aim is “to build democratic and independent communities who have the strength to forge together a Palestinian path committed to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” Ali founded Taghyeer to achieve and guarantee a nonviolent solution to the conflict.
Why was I so keen on learning about what Ali had been working on? Because I knew him to be an intelligent man of openness and caring who looked at Israelis with his eyes wide open―some he even considered close friends. I was anxious to hear about the good he was doing in our beloved Israel―and how he was working toward Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, for his dear Palestine.
We met a few months after our family trip to Israel in July 2014, when we had found ourselves terrified, running to bomb shelters, and cowering as we listened to exploding missiles in the sky. This was no movie―it was our reality at the time. When we were not hiding and desperately hoping our lives would be spared during these personally transformative events, we toured incredible, historic and religious sites. The fact that we stayed as far as I was concerned could only be Divine intervention―this Jewish girl had been raised on too much chicken soup and was ready to leave, but that is not how my life unfolded. I am still trying to get over the Jewish guilt of taking our son to war for his bar mitzvah present!
I had met Ali in 2015, when he was on a speaking tour in the United States with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger. They were part of Roots-Shorashim-Judur: The Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence, and Reconciliation, another organization that Ali had helped found. A Palestinian and an orthodox rabbi who was an Israeli settler living near each other, in Gush Etzion―not the typical companions. Ali describes Roots as “another crazy initiative he established between settlers and Palestinians.” Weren’t these two groups enemies? What each group learned was that they loved the same land, but had entirely different narratives. Roots continues today, with their goal to promote dialogue and eventually trust between Israelis and Palestinians―as a path to reconciliation and Peace (I always capitalize Peace, it is too important.)
I had written about Ali and Rabbi Hanan’s Peace work in my book, “BLASTED from COMPLACENCY, A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.” If you recall the impact of being Palestinian targets, changed my entire life, and made me want to work on Peace. During the time I was writing and finished my book, I knew that Ali was working on Taghyeer (Change), and I looked forward to hearing about his latest accomplishments.
But first, let me tell you more about Ali―you would never believe he would be a Peace activist given his personal history. His family were refugees from Al-Qubayba, Hebron. They were forced off their land during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 during what the Palestinians call the Nakba [Catastrophe]. Yes, that’s right. As Jews, our celebrated return to our homeland is considered a huge and illegitimate catastrophe by the Palestinians. Oy. Subsequently, they settled in Beit Ummar. His mother was a leading political activist during the First Intifada. She was close to Yasser Arafat.
It is a coincidence that my first trip to Israel was during the First Intifada, but thankfully I avoided being caught up in the protests. The tour operator told us, “we just don’t go where they are demonstrating.” It was during my second trip to Israel that all hell broke loose. Sometimes I think I’m still suffering from P.T.S.D.
Ali was raised to protest what they called the Israeli occupation, by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers when he was young. He said he thought it would rid them from what he felt was his land. Instead, time after time he landed in Israeli jails.
His mother also was imprisoned, and over the course of three years he repeatedly requested seeing her to no avail. Finally, they both decided to go on a hunger strike to be able to see one another. It worked. After seventeen hungry days, Ali was allowed to see his mother. He says, “I became aware of my own humanity.” The hunger strike was his first lesson in nonviolence―and he saw that it could work.
He started reading about the nonviolent strategies and philosophies of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. while he was still imprisoned. He began looking deeply at himself. You can see the philosophies of these great men woven throughout Ali’s works and beliefs. I believe he should be counted amongst them.
Awareness is one of life’s essential realizations. How do you know what you believe if you don’t take a step back and observe your thoughts? Are there beliefs that are destructive, or that you have outgrown that need to change? Look at your thoughts and feelings honestly. Be brave and decide whether you need to take a different path. Then act.
So much of what he said reminded me of the various spiritual leaders I have studied such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. Deepak has said, “You must find the place inside yourself where nothing is impossible.” Ali seems to live from this perspective, always thinking creatively and moving forward.
Eventually Ali was released with other prisoners after the signing of the Oslo Accords. In 2000, Ali was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler in the West Bank and evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. When he returned, to his horror he found out that Yousef, his 32-year-old brother, had been shot in the head and killed by an Israeli soldier.
The shock and pain were immense. His brother was his best friend. Ali says he is not a saint, but thankfully, he understood that taking revenge and violence out on an Israeli could not bring his brother back into his arms. He said, “You cannot achieve justice by killing someone.” What he ultimately realized was that reconciliation is even more powerful than revenge. Amen.
Ali, together with his mother and brother Khaled, became a member of the Parents Circle-Family Forum, a grassroots organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members due to the conflict. Today, over 600 families are members. The organization says that they are “the only association that does not wish to welcome any new members into its fold.” Can you imagine what their meetings must be like? Yet, they turn their grief into good by working on reconciliation.
Roots-Shorashim-Judur followed, and now Ali through Taghyeer has turned to working primarily with his fellow Palestinian people. Spiritual teachers profess that you must change yourself before you can change the world, and indeed he has. Ali’s life demonstrates the power behind finding internal strength.
Ali says that he knows that there are many Israelis on the Left that want a just solution. However, “Israelis are having mostly an emotional transformation toward Palestinian rights. But emotional transformation is not enough for Palestinians to survive and end the occupation.” He said that they need social and political massive transformations and different kinds of projects on the ground so people would believe that life could change in a positive direction.
And to be fair, I feel the need to mention that although Israel has repeatedly offered Peace opportunities, the Palestinians always seem to shoot themselves in the foot and reject them out-of-hand. Were their leaders representing how their constituents felt, or making decisions for other reasons? Or are there at least two extremely different Palestinian attitudes toward Peace? After all, we do not have to look any further than the United States to see two political sides who seem devoid of commonality. Let’s hope for both countries that we’ll find ways to work together.
It is a sad truth that Ali acknowledged that after proudly working for years on Peace together with Israelis, unfortunately the political reality has not changed― it has failed.
To move forward, Ali advised that the Palestinian Peace movement needs to declare that that “any drop of blood for anyone should not be spilled, and hurting any human being on this land regardless of where he or she comes from, should be a crime.” Amen.
For the world to trust Palestinians, Ali says they must be able to lead themselves. They should not be a resource for any political force in the Middle East to use the Palestinian cause to promote antisemitic speeches and hateful behavior. They are free and educated and should be partners with Israel for a normal future, but not to the point where their kids and the next generation’s dreams are controlled by others.
At Taghyeer they seek a normalized future with Israel. I could not help but think about the recent “normalization” of relations with countries like the UAE, Bahrain and the Sudan. Can Palestinians be next?
However, some Palestinians attack him demanding, “How dare you normalize the relationship with Israel during the occupation. First end the occupation, then normalize.”
Ali says first the Palestinians must “normalize” their own culture. He said that “Palestinians are scared of normalization. We must change our society to become normal in our behaviors, in self-responsibilities, in women rights, and youth rights―all of the values of a healthy society.” He continued, that the Palestinians must use their humanity for their own cause. They should look internally and use their energies there first before they would be able to sign a Peace agreement.
Ali is hard at work changing the attitudes of many of the Palestinian people. Taghyeer’s mission is to establish a massive nonviolent movement on the ground. This will allow Palestinians to adopt nonviolence as an identity―first to themselves. Then they would be free to present this new identity to Israeli society and eventually the world. At Taghyeer they believe that “every society in Israel and Palestine have a tremendous responsibility to adopt nonviolence and to establish and prepare the ground for any future Peace agreement.” They want to create an environment where solutions are possible.
Ali’s emphasis on nonviolence is music to my ears, how about to you? For years, the Palestinian leaders have promoted violence and hate against Israelis with terrorist bombings, missiles, stabbings, and car rammings―all rewarded by the Palestinian Authority with a salary for the attackers’ efforts. The more Jews killed, the higher the salary paid to the assailant or their family after they intentionally murdered Jews― sometimes as well as themselves. These heinous, hate-filled acts lacked any desire for Peace. What was worse than intentionally shunning Peace, was the damage to their souls, believing in this evil. How did belief in these atrocities change them individually as people, and as a society? But as we have seen, their citizens are no more of a monolith than our own.
Taghyeer is working with many groups in their communities throughout the West Bank―even during the crisis of the Corona virus. They are partnering with their own people. Empowering them first to believe in themselves. Encouraging them to drop the mantle of victimhood.
Thus far they have engaged top leaders acting as agents of change, in approximately 32 communities who are undertaking social and political activism to adopt nonviolence. They hope to recruit 70-100 community leaders.
Ali says, “We have politicians, but I’m not sure we have leaders because politicians are managers of this reality, and this conflict. Leaders are managers for a just, safe and a peaceful vision for the nation.” Nonviolence educates us that we are leaders, and everyone can make a difference. But Palestinians need to trust themselves. He says that at Taghyeer they tell their people what they need to know, not necessarily what they want to hear. The P.A. is not necessarily a fan―they arrested their community organizer.
When President Trump released his Peace Plan, Ali wrote to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority and challenged him to write a Palestinian peace initiative. Ali said that Palestinians feel lost today and that despair is pervasive. However, he sees their despair as a great motivating resource for change. Ali feels that one of the issues of contention has always been that so many others speak for the Palestinians, and he feels that Palestinians need to speak and demand their rights for themselves. They held their first massive grassroots event of four thousand people in Jericho in June. Ali’s dream is to someday hear 100,000 Palestinians insisting on a nonviolent, political solution.
To see Ali further the support of women in their cause also gave me hope. Ali had been raised by his mother, a compelling, incredibly strong activist, so politically effective women was nothing new to him. However, that is not typical of many Arab men, so they educate their brothers about women’s rights. Ali advised, “We don’t teach women about their rights, I promise you our women know about women’s rights. We believe in Palestinian women empowerment, and believe they are super powerful. They have to be respected.” They are training their women to be leaders and several just finished a one-year leadership program in Germany.
Taghyeer also recently completed their charter which stated two objectives:
We commit to the principles of nonviolent resistance as the means to accomplish two very important objectives:
- To end the Israeli military occupation and therefore achieve peace and security for all.
- To develop an advanced social system that guarantees democracy and independence and provides all the necessary resources for the legitimate leadership and institutions in order to conduct their work with integrity and effectiveness.
Their delineated values encouraged me that a foundation had been established to ensure that their work was implemented with moral efficacy. Taghyeer’s stated values included: Having integrity, being respectful, responsible, organized, committed, creative and responding in nonviolent, peaceful ways to bring about change.
So far Taghyeer has partnered with nineteen local organizations in Palestine who have signed the charter and they are hoping that the twenty-eight more organizations that are considering signing the charter will do so soon.
Taghyeer is working on many projects that perhaps I can feature in the future. Ali is working on a manifesto of 100 tough questions trying to answer them on the conflict as a solution maker. He also finished writing his book in Arabic called, “Painful Hope,” because he says, to have hope in this land, is such a painful issue.
So, what do you think? Hearing about Ali Abu Awwad’s beliefs and efforts toward Peace―does it give you hope for an eventual Peaceful solution? It makes me cautiously optimistic. I wish I could wave a magic wand and Ali Abu Awwad would be the Palestinian leader representing his people. Can Ali convince his fellow Palestinians that nonviolence is a more productive stance? We’ll see what happens.
May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,
I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…
Penny S. Tee
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