Ali Abu Awwad chose nonviolence over revenge

He already had been jailed and shot when an Israeli soldier killed his brother.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Ali Abu Awwad and Israeli settlers cofounded Roots, which recognizes mutual connection to the land – and a responsibility to solve the conflict.

It was the year 2000, and the second Palestinian intifada had just broken out. Ali Abu Awwad was in Saudi Arabia, recovering from an Israeli drive-by shooting, when he received word that an Israeli soldier had shot his brother Youssef in the head at close range.

“He left us a son and a daughter and this huge package of pain and loss and anger,” recalls Mr. Abu Awwad. Part of him wanted revenge. “Then you ask yourself, how many people shall I kill? What could be enough dead Israelis to heal this pain?”

Then his mother, a Palestinian activist who was close to iconic leader Yasser Arafat, did something extraordinary. She received a group of bereaved Israeli parents into her home.

“For me, it was shocking to see an Israeli crying,” says Abu Awwad, who had been given a 10-year sentence as a teenager for his involvement in the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. “I couldn’t imagine that Jewish people have tears.”

Abu Awwad has since advocated nonviolence as the best way to end the Israeli occupation. For more than a decade, he worked with peace organizations, even touring the world with an Israeli mother whose peace-activist son was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

But in the past couple of years, he has come to the conclusion that peace will not be made by the Israeli left – anchored in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, a world away from the conflict.

Many peace activists disassociate themselves from Israelis who live over the pre-1967 lines, the internationally recognized border of Israeli sovereignty. Some Israelis won’t drive in the West Bank, where the number of settlers has tripled since the 1993 Oslo Accord.

Abu Awwad understands the gesture, and sees the detrimental effect of settlements on Palestinian national aspirations, but he takes a different tack.

“We have more than 600,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Who’s going to talk to these people?” he asks, sitting under a makeshift canopy on his family’s land between Bethlehem and Hebron, surrounded by settlements. “The peace movement is not courageous enough to act where the heart of the problem is. The heart of the problem is here, not Tel Aviv.”

So Abu Awwad decided that in order to achieve Palestinian rights, he would need to engage Israeli settlers. As word got out, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger from nearby Alon Shvut came to meet him. Though the rabbi had lived here for decades, it was the first time he had ever heard a Palestinian account of life under Israeli occupation.

“It was offensive, it was jarring, it was challenging, and it made me feel attacked,” Mr. Schlesinger recalls. “But he wasn’t angry, and he wasn’t full of resentment or hate. He was telling the story of his life.”

In doing so, Abu Awwad changed Schlesinger’s life. The rabbi says he realized he’d been blind to the reality around him. He went back to talk with Abu Awwad again. And again.

They were also joined by Israelis from nearby Tekoa, home of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, who had actively cultivated ties with Palestinian leaders, including the iconic Palestinian fighter-turned-president Yasser Arafat and Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Last year, the growing movement established Roots, which promotes taking responsibility for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Roots doesn’t endorse a particular political solution, but rather the values of respect, nonviolence, and honoring both sides’ deep connection to the land. So far, it has hosted more than 6,000 visitors, including 600 Israeli pre-army students.

“I think this is the right way,” says Gal Rosenberg, a student and right-wing voter, after hearing Abu Awwad speak. “This is the dream.”

Abu Awwad is touring the United States in June with Schlesinger. And Roots, along with Mr. Froman, is prominently featured in a documentary, “A Third Way,” which will screen in the US and Western Europe this fall.

“Hopefully the film ... models for audiences this process of dialogue and helps them humanize their feelings toward people they’re stereotyping most of the time,” says director Harvey Stein, who says it challenged his own “typical leftist” views. He hopes to hold “impact” screenings of the film followed by audience dialogue – perhaps mirroring some of the characters’ discussions.

For now, many of those engaging with Roots are foreigners, who tend to be more enthralled with talking than the locals who deal with tensions, checkpoints, and attacks on a daily basis. Within Palestinian society, there is a strong movement against “normalization” of relations with Israel, including anything that would appear to accept the status quo. And on the Israeli side, support for the two-state solution reached a historical low during last year’s Gaza war.

There’s also a strong religious Zionist movement that teaches that the whole land belongs to Jews, contrary to Froman’s teaching that Jews belong to the land.

Abu Awwad says he knows his ideas sound “crazy” – as did those of Froman, who once appeared, wearing tefillin, with Hamas’s Sheikh Yassin in Gaza City before thousands of Hamas followers. Mr. Stein films him telling Mrs. Froman that her husband had a big heart, but also seemed to be deliberately foolish. “And that’s the big wisdom … how to be foolish,” he says.

However, he and his partners are pragmatic, too. “It’s about catalyzing people to take responsibility against the violence – whether it’s local teachers working against hatred within their students, visiting victims of attacks in solidarity, or challenging the mantra that ‘there’s no one to talk to’ on the other side,” says Shaul Judelman, one of Froman’s students.

Logistically, it’s not easy to get Israelis and Palestinians together in the West Bank, since they are largely barred from entering each other’s communities. Abu Awwad’s land is a rare piece of territory where both are welcome. There is no sign, just a rusty gate that is left open, leading to an outdoor shaded area where visitors are served water in plastic cups.

They sit in a circle, sometimes straining to hear as a breeze swings open the creaky metal door to Abu Awwad’s spartan one-room home. It’s far more elemental than a typical peace conference held in a gleaming hotel.

Just a few minutes away is the hitchhiking stop where last summer three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Palestinians and killed, sparking an escalation that led to the Gaza war. Recently the yeshiva classmates of two of the teenagers visited Roots. Mr. Judelman went with his partner to a private Palestinian school. The local Israeli commander came and talked for several hours with Abu Awwad, who saw an opportunity to help make him part of the solution.

Schlesinger has hosted Abu Awwad in his living room to talk with his neighbors – twice. Some accused him of bringing a “terrorist” to their community, but dozens came and listened. One left saying, “It’s hard not to be convinced.”

There’s so little mutual understanding in this conflict, says Judelman in the documentary. “But then you meet the rare person on the other side who has listened to you, and he can speak to you in a way that he understands where you’re coming from. It’s just a very different kind of ... talk.”

Abu Awwad is modest about the fruits of his work thus far, emphasizing that nonviolence is a means, not an end, and Palestinian rights have yet to be achieved.

“But I think nonviolence is the celebration of my existence. I used to wake up, and I wish that I was not born. Today I wake up and I celebrate this,” he says.
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