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A Palestinian’s journey from stone-throwing to conflict resolution

Aziz Abu Sarah became embittered as a kid during the first Palestinian intifada but had an extraordinary transformation – in Hebrew class.

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    Aziz Abu Sarah found himself filled with hate after Israel imprisoned his older brother, Tayseer (pictured, top), who died shortly upon his release. But eventually he led the Bereaved Families Circle, an Israeli-Palestinian group, and convinced his parents to join as well.
    Evan Bryant
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The first time Aziz Abu Sarah threw stones at Israeli soldiers, he was 7 years old.

“I thought, ‘This is cool. I’m such an idiot, how come I didn’t think of this before?’” he recalls, as he brings a National Geographic-organized tour to the very bend in the road where he used to stand and pelt cars in Eizariyeh, a West Bank town just outside Jerusalem.

But what began as a game quickly turned more violent as he and his friends were swept up in the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. When they hit an Israeli bus, a guy came out and started shooting at them. They escaped, but other youths were arrested or killed.

Mr. Abu Sarah’s journey from this bend to conflict resolution and ultimately founding a company, MEJDI Tours, with two Jews is a rare one in this polarized conflict. While he still understands the anger young Palestinians feel, and their grievances vis-à-vis Israeli policies, he has vastly different ideas now of what kind of action will bring real resolution.

“We [Palestinians] never think about what do we want to do and plan.… We’re very reactionary,” says Abu Sarah, who today splits his time between Jerusalem and Washington, serving as executive director for George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. “The problem with reaction is it’s not done to make a change. It is not a strategy. The only thing you’re doing is getting your anger out.”

He knows whereof he speaks.

When skirmishes broke out on the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem during the first intifada, an 18-year-old neighbor of his was killed.

“At this point I was angry, I wanted revenge for my neighbor,” says Abu Sarah, whose bitterness deepened when his older brother Tayseer – almost a parent figure for him – was arrested by Israeli soldiers and beaten until he confessed to throwing stones. When he was released after almost a year, he was coughing up blood. He died three weeks later.

Abu Sarah became a youth activist in the Fatah political faction in Jerusalem, rising to editor of its weekly magazine with his impassioned articles.

Writing 'with anger and bitterness'

“I wrote with anger and bitterness, and used my pain to spread hatred against the other side,” he reflected in a 2009 account. “However, the more I wrote, the more empty and angry I became.”

When he graduated high school, he realized he needed to learn Hebrew in order to get a job. So he reluctantly signed up for an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew course generally filled with new Jewish immigrants. He was the only Palestinian.

“My plan was, ‘I’m going to learn the language without talking to those people. I’m not even going to say, ‘Hi,’ ” he says. “We had this wall of anger, fear, and ignorance that … makes it impossible to see each other as a human being.”

It was his first time meeting Israelis who were not soldiers or settlers. And they were far different from the image he had held of them. Some of them actually knew of Johnny Cash, one of his favorite country singers. He also met his first Israeli who believed he as a Palestinian was entitled to the same rights as Israeli Jews – and was willing to work with him to help achieve that.

“Slowly you get to know people … and this ‘us vs. them’ starts to fall apart,” he says.

Bereaved Families Forum

He went on to become fluent in Hebrew, and engaged in the world of conflict resolution. He became chairman of the board of the Bereaved Families Forum, where Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members to the conflict come together to help each other through the pain.

His family was deeply skeptical at the outset. “But eventually they joined my dumb ‘naïve’ group,” he laughs.

When it comes to the asymmetry of the conflict, Abu Sarah is not naïve.

“We’re not going to be able to beat Israel and their guns,” he says. Instead, he says, Palestinians must find ways of putting soldiers in a paradox. For example, rather than throwing stones, they could throw hundreds or thousands of little bouncy balls – all bearing messages of anti-occupation, reconciliation, and peace – at soldiers.

“If he shoots me, he loses, and if he doesn’t shoot me he loses because it makes him look weak,” says Abu Sarah.

Empathy with Israelis

Even as Abu Sarah understands the feelings of Palestinian youths facing a soldier, he has also come to empathize with Israelis. He took the rare step as a Palestinian of visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem – writing about it in Haaretz – and, as part of his work with the Bereaved Families Forum, toured schools with an Israeli Jewish friend whose daughter was killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing.

In his talks with Palestinian youth, Abu Sarah emphasizes – and symbolizes – their ability to chart their own course whatever Israel’s policies may be.

“Regardless of what others do to you, you still have the ability to shape your life,” he says. “What they can’t take away from you is who you are.… You can mold that as you want.”

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