In a settler’s living room, a Palestinian reaches out
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In a settler’s living room, a Palestinian reaches out

Ali Abu Awwad, who lost a brother to the conflict, uses nonviolence to challenge the prejudices of his Arab and Jewish neighbors

Elie Leshem is deputy editor of The Times of Israel.

Palestinian nonviolence activist Ali Abu Awwad (right) addresses an Israeli audience at the home of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger (left) in the settlement of Alon Shvut on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 (photo credit: Elie Leshem/Times of Israel)
Palestinian nonviolence activist Ali Abu Awwad (right) addresses an Israeli audience at the home of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger (left) in the settlement of Alon Shvut on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 (photo credit: Elie Leshem/Times of Israel)

Before he could bring his friend Ali Abu Awwad into his West Bank settlement, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger had to contact the local security authorities, which in turn had to coordinate with the Israeli army to issue a special entry permit for him. In fact, Schlesinger said, the head of security in Alon Shvut was “very happy” when he called, because he and the leadership of the town had been discussing “the improper ethical situation where there was no framework to bring in Palestinians except as workers under armed guard.”

Schlesinger needed the permit so that Abu Awwad could address a group of settlers in Schlesinger’s living room, less than a kilometer away, as the crow flies, from the center for Palestinian nonviolence that Abu Awwad established a little over a year ago. Schlesinger, 57, is a native of Long Island who emigrated to Israel in 1979 and settled in Alon Shvut a year later.

Some 40 residents of Alon Shvut and nearby settlements of the Etzion Bloc, a 12-minute drive from Jerusalem, attended the meeting last Wednesday evening. Abu Awwad, 43, wore a black jacket throughout the event. He sports a revolutionary’s shoulder-length curls, a rarity among Palestinian men, and his brooding intensity is offset by an easy smile.

During much of the two-hour event — he had to leave early to board a plane to the US, where he attended the AIPAC conference — he sat next to Schlesinger; on the shelf behind him was a photograph of the late Rabbi Aryeh Levin, “the saint of Jerusalem,” whose extensive catalog of good works includes many visits with Palestinian patients at a hospital for lepers in Bethlehem.

When Schlesinger publicized the meeting on Alon Shvut’s email list, one person wrote back to say, “I don’t understand. Why are you bringing a terrorist into Alon Shvut?” A few others echoed that sentiment, with one man saying that local residents had “nothing to learn” from Abu Awwad. Schlesinger also received positive comments in private emails, but the negative responses were the only ones posted to the public list.

A road sign at the Gush Etzion junction, August 13, 2014 (photo credit: Gershon ELinson/FLASH90)
A road sign at the Gush Etzion junction, August 13, 2014 (photo credit: Gershon ELinson/FLASH90)

“People are not afraid to make negative comments about Palestinians; they are afraid to make positive comments about efforts toward reconciliation, even when they believe in it,” Schlesinger said in a phone interview a few hours before the event. “There’s a general mindset in which we completely ignore and are blind to the existence of Palestinians as human beings, and anyone who goes against that consensus senses himself to be going up against the accepted truth.”

Most settlers in his area didn’t relate to their non-Jewish neighbors as people, and certainly not as a national entity, he lamented, describing their mindset as an “ideological bubble.”

Still, he noted, he had not paid a personal price in the community for his activism. “There are some people who don’t like me and some people who think that I’m crazy, but no one has ever come up to me and spat in my face; no one has ever come up to me and said bad things; no one has ever slashed my tires,” he said. (In a subsequent email, he emphasized: “My neighbors are, by and large, rational, levelheaded people. They are not fanatics.”)

“Hopefully,” Schlesinger said, “this first appearance by Ali in Alon Shvut will open many people’s minds to their own blindness.”

Abu Awwad’s story is woven from the same rough fabric, the same anguishes, anger and dashed hopes, as the history of the conflict — from the 1948 war through the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s and early ’90s; from the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 to the subsequent descent into alternating bouts of carnage and fatigue — and the audience was rapt as he related it in Hebrew. His ancestors are refugees who fled the town of Al Qubeiba — the site is now a Jewish agricultural village, Lachish — and settled in Beit Ummar, overlooking the Bethlehem-Hebron road, after the establishment of the State of Israel.

It was a watershed moment that saw Abu Awwad’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, scattered all over the world to places as far-flung as “Jordan and the Netherlands,” he said, and the source of an endless flood of fear and anger.

Arab residents of Jerusalem throw rocks at Israeli police near the Lions Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on October 6, 2000, at the outset of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Arab residents of Jerusalem throw rocks at Israeli police near the Lions Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 6, 2000, at the outset of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“You grow up with these memories that control your emotions,” he said. “But even more than that: I grew up in a very difficult reality. I would go to school every day, and I never expected to come home. I didn’t think I was capable of coming home. You run into soldiers in the street, with gunfire, with rocks, and all these things only make you more angry. To you, the other side seems like the devil incarnate. All it does is attack you. You don’t think of the other side at all; you’re blind.”

His anger was further fueled when he was 10 years old, he said, and witnessed agents of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency beating his mother, an activist and recruiter in the Palestine Liberation Organization. During the first intifada, when he was 17, rage drove Abu Awwad, like many Palestinian youths, to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers and settlers. But it was on a day that he decided to stay home that he was arrested for the first time, he said.

“The soldiers entered the houses and rounded up children and adults and they ordered us to pay, in court, NIS 1,500 to go free,” he said. “The truth is, I would throw rocks, but on that day I had exams so I stayed home — that’s why they got me. I felt this sting of injustice, and it only made me more angry.”

He refused to pay the fine and ended up spending three months in prison.

Eight months later, Abu Awwad was again arrested. This time he was convicted of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, as well as of membership in a militant cell, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He said that the charges were trumped up and that he was jailed because he had refused to divulge to the Shin Ben information about his mother’s activities.

“Once again I felt the sting of injustice,” he said. “I had dreams, and I had plans for my life. I wanted to travel abroad, to study. I wanted to be a pilot, which for a Palestinian is crazy — I don’t even have a passport. But I lost my dreams, I lost my rights, and I was going to spend 10 years in the same room, in prison.”

‘Once again I felt the sting of injustice’

A hunger strike declared by many of the Palestinian inmates in 1993, three years into his sentence, proved pivotal for Abu Awwad. He refused food because he wanted to visit his mother, who was being held in another prison, and 17 days into the strike, he was granted permission to see her.

“That was the first time I got something out of the Israelis,” he recalled. “But what had more of an impact was the way I had behaved in order to demand my rights: the nonviolent action of engaging in a hunger strike, instead of wielding physical violence. And it dawned on me that maybe there was another way to demand one’s rights — although I didn’t turn into a Gandhi or a Mandela. I realized that my people could gain a lot more by going down that path than by using violence.”

Abu Awwad was granted early release, along with many other security prisoners, after the signing of the Oslo peace accords, and was recruited as an officer in the newly established Palestinian security forces.

“Suddenly I had to work against the people I was once associated with, the people who had fought against Israel,” he said. “So I arrested Palestinians who used violence; I arrested them and interrogated them because I supported the accords and was convinced that it was the right thing to do, to live up to the agreements we had signed. On the other hand, we weren’t able to bring the people to a place where they would define violence as a crime. Violence was still seen as revolutionary action against the occupier. The Palestinians hadn’t been given a state, and the extremists used that fact to prove that there was no peace with the Israelis.”

The ongoing Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip put the security forces in a difficult position vis-a-vis the Palestinian population, which perceived them as representing Israel’s interests and perpetuating the indignities of the occupation. At the same time, even Abu Awwad, who, as an officer and former prisoner from a prominent family, enjoyed a lofty standing in Palestinian society, was liable to get “slapped in the face” by a young soldier at a checkpoint.

He quit in 1997. “I was ashamed to be part of that system,” he said. It was around the same time that Palestinian extremists began carrying out gruesome suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, primarily on buses. “Suddenly the Palestinians began to react in increasingly violent and cruel ways,” he said. “People lost hope, even though they had initially supported the agreement.”

Palestinian security forces participate in a training exercise in the West Bank city of Tulkarem , Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013 (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)
Palestinian security forces participate in a training exercise in the West Bank city of Tulkarem , Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013 (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)

Three years later, Abu Awwad came close to falling into a similar pit of despair. Palestinian anger had just exploded into the brutal second intifada, which would last five years and see over 4,000 people killed on both sides. Abu Awwad was changing a flat tire one day in October 2000 on the shoulder of the road to Halhul, near Hebron, when a settler drove by and fired at him, he said. He did not see the gunman’s face, but he was driving a Subaru station wagon with Israeli license plates, he added. Abu Awwad said he later learned that the shooter had also killed a man in Halhul that day. A suspect was never arrested.

The hollow-point round hit Abu Awwad in the knee and exploded on impact, shattering bone and cartilage, and he was taken to a hospital in Saudi Arabia for treatment. It was during his stay there, a month later, that he learned that his older brother, Youssef, was dead.

“He was stopped by a group of soldiers at the entrance to our village and he got into an argument with one of the soldiers, and the soldier shot him in the head from a distance of 70 centimeters. He died instantly,” Abu Awwad said. “Youssef was employed by a company that worked with the Jewish National Fund. He was a good man. He wasn’t involved in anything, and he had Israeli friends.”

Abu Awwad said the argument began after Youssef berated a group of Palestinian youths who were throwing rocks at the soldiers, telling them that their actions were endangering their compatriots as well. The children obeyed Youssef because of his status in the community. But when he got back into his car to drive away, one of the soldiers began to throw pebbles at the vehicle, Abu Awwad said.

“So he got out of the car again and started to argue with the soldier. The soldier said, ‘Why are you trying to be a hero? Who told you to get involved?’” The argument escalated and the soldier fired. Abu Awwad said witnesses told him that after the soldier shot Youssef, his commander slapped him and took away his rifle. Later the soldier would claim that Youssef Abu Awwad had tried to grab the firearm in the heat of the exchange.

“When something like that happens, you’re no longer the person you once were,” Abu Awwad told his hushed audience. “It’s no longer the same family; your life is no longer the same; you’re full of anger that tears you apart. I knew what it felt like to lose one’s rights, I knew what it was like to stand for hours at a time, and I had experienced abuse. But to lose someone so close…” He paused. “You’re wounded so deeply by it and your humanity is dashed to pieces — into anger, revenge, despair. I considered revenge. I said to myself that maybe revenge would heal my pain. But I also asked myself how many Israelis I would have to kill before I was sated. How many Israeli mothers would have to cry and taste the salt of my own mother’s tears?”

An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Gush Etzion junction, near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, on November 10, 2014. Behind him is the Rami Levy supermarket, which has been praised as a haven of coexistence. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Gush Etzion junction, near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, on November 10, 2014. Behind him is the Rami Levy supermarket, which has been praised as a haven of coexistence. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Abu Awwad said that he was consumed by sorrow, and that the anger and sense of victimhood built up in him to the point where he no longer wanted to see the Israeli soldier standing at the checkpoint at the entrance to his village. He was “controlled by bereavement and loss,” and utterly unable to relate to Israelis as human beings. Still, he didn’t turn to violence. “I had lost my brother but at least I hadn’t lost my head,” he said.

A year later, he received a phone call from Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli Jew whose son Arik, a 19-year-old soldier, was kidnapped and killed by Hamas operatives in 1994. Frankenthal founded the Parents Circle Families Forum, which holds activities involving Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the conflict, in an effort to further dialogue and promote coexistence. Frankenthal said that he intended to visit the Abu Awwad household.

“I was shocked that such a group even existed on the other side, because they were our victims — we had killed their children,” Abu Awwad said. “And yet, they were prepared to come visit the home of this hero [his mother], who was considered the devil incarnate when it came to the struggle against Israel. I was shocked when my mother invited them to our home in Beit Ummar… and I was shocked that an Israeli would pick up the phone and ask for our consent to enter our home. Israelis had always been present in our home, but they never asked for permission.”

‘It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings’

Frankenthal and his group were different. Abu Awwad said that the sight of bereaved Israeli parents weeping in his living room was the biggest shock of all — he had grown up thinking that Israelis were incapable of shedding tears.

“An Israeli mother who had lost her son held my mother’s hand and both of them cried wordlessly,” he said. “It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings. I saw different representatives of the Jewish people, of Judaism, and of Israelis. It had a huge impact on me.”

It struck Abu Awwad that, despite the inequality between Israelis and Palestinians, and the vastly different circumstances of their lives, his pain was no different from the pain felt by Israelis who had lost their loved ones. That realization has driven 14 years of activism for nonviolence, including lectures that he delivered all over the world with Robi Damelin — her son, David, 28, was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002 — advancing dialogue through the shared experience of bereavement. More recently, he forged a relationship with Hadassah Froman, the wife of the late settler peace activist Rabbi Menachem Froman, and with Schlesinger, who recently accompanied him on a tour of the US as part of the Roots project, which organizes meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.

About a year ago, Abu Awwad built a small compound, a center for nonviolence, on a plot of land owned by his family within a stone’s throw of the Gush Etzion junction. It’s a three-minute drive from the hitchhiking post where three Israeli teenagers were abducted by Palestinian extremists last summer and killed, in a brutal attack that sparked another bout of carnage in Gaza. Abu Awwad hosts groups from all over the world there, as well as meetings between Israelis, including settlers, and Palestinians from diverse backgrounds.

“I said to myself that if these people [settlers] can get to know and understand me, and see me as a human being — and they’re the ones who are criticized and called an obstacle to peace — then maybe we can build a system that’ll enable our politicians to sit together and arrive at some sort of a solution,” Abu Awwad said. He emphasized that he was in favor of talking to anyone in the interest of explaining the Palestinians’ point of view and furthering their rights.

Schlesinger said the compound was “like a kitchen where they cook a pie made of [Israeli] left-wingers and right-wingers and Palestinians. You discover the humanity of the other side, his life, his needs, his worldview, which is very different from your own.” He also said that, among the visitors to Abu Awwad’s center, he had met many left-wingers from Tel Aviv who had never encountered a settler before.

A delegation of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders from the United States meets with members of the Roots project at Ali Abu Awwad's center for nonviolence on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy http://friendsofroots.net/)
A delegation of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders from the United States meets with members of the Roots project at Ali Abu Awwad’s center for nonviolence on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy http://friendsofroots.net/)

“We bring together people from both sides to see each other, to listen to each other, and to absorb each others’ truths and narratives,” Schlesinger said. “This transforms people and totally changes the way they think about the other side. They suddenly realize how ignorant they are and how powered they are by prejudice and stereotype.”

One woman at the meeting, Tzviya Vahab, told Abu Awwad that Palestinians had a misconception about Israeli violence, and that Israelis only kill because “we have no choice.” He replied that as a “man of nonviolence, I can’t agree with that sentence.”

“I don’t think it’s true that all of those [Palestinians] who were killed were like your brother,” she insisted. But Abu Awwad said that the violent extremists know how to stay hidden and that innocents, both Palestinians and Israelis, are the ones most impacted by violence, which is why force could never yield a solution.

Abu Awwad’s compound is adjacent to the local Rami Levy supermarket, where Palestinians shop and work alongside settlers. Toward the end of the evening, several of the Israelis chimed in and mentioned the supermarket as evidence that coexistence had already begun to take root. But Abu Awwad insisted that true coexistence would only come about when Palestinians were business partners with Israelis and not just their employees, when they realized they could benefit from being on an equal footing with Israelis.

“I just want to say that your words were very special, and it’s hard to not be convinced,” said Yossi Nussbaum, 75, of Alon Shvut, addressing Abu Awwad. “I’d like to relate an experience that I had and which I can’t forget.”

On September 13, 1993, he said, the night of the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, he was driving home from Jerusalem with his wife, and the two entered Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb. He recalled that all of the residents of Bethlehem were streaming toward the center of the city.

“When I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said, “I experienced the decision of November 29 [1947], the United Nations decision to establish a State of Israel. I remember that as a little boy — it was around 2 a.m. — my parents woke my sisters and me, and we went out to the center of Jerusalem. And all of the city’s residents were dancing in the streets.

“When we entered Bethlehem, at one point we felt uncomfortable, because we found ourselves in a very tightly packed press of people.” In the past, Nussbaum said, he had been attacked by Palestinian rock throwers, and he was afraid of what would happen if the mob turned on him and his wife.

“But they were all happy, the entire city, all decked out in their best clothes,” he related. “And I said to myself, Wow, this is just like November 29.”

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