Visiting Palestinian says nonviolent action can bring peace

Grim as it is, we have heard Sami Awad"s tale before. Awad is a Palestinian from Bethlehem who came to town last week at the invitation of the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center. Standing at the front of a steamy meeting room in the basement of a Northside church, Awad described life under military siege. Twenty-four-hour curfews operate as virtual house arrest. A majority of Palestinians are unemployed and have to rely on relief agencies for food. A physician headed to treat patients was recently shot in the throat by Israeli troops.

Palestinian peace activist Sami Awad speaks to a forum sponsored by the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center.

Even though we have heard more in the U.S. about the carnage inflicted upon Israelis by suicide bombers, Awad"s stories of Palestinian suffering are not unfamiliar either. Violence in Israel and Palestine is so predictable and well-chronicled that many of us in the church basement view the struggle with equal parts frustration and numbness. What can possibly be done?

But then the soft-spoken Awad explains the reason for his visit. The 50 people in the meeting room shift in their seats to hear him better. Awad says there is an answer to the seemingly intractable conflict, a strategy that will bring justice for the Palestinians and peace for Israel.

"As it is for any people under occupation, resistance is our legal right, it is our moral right," he says. "But we want to do it with non-violence."

Awad is the director of the Holy Land Trust, an indigenous Palestinian organization. The formal mission of the group is to work for peace and justice, but as Awad describes it, what he is really trying to do is provide hope to the hopeless. Palestinians feel the world has forgotten them, he says. United Nations resolutions are ignored. Illegal settlements on Palestinian land are protected. The presence of the Israeli military becomes more onerous and deadly by the day. "There is growing anger, there is growing hopelessness, to the point where people are saying we don"t care anymore," Awad says. "We don"t care what happens to us, we don"t care what happens to them. When areas are shelled, families don"t even bother to leave anymore."

When a Palestinian reaction does occur, it is likely to be as deadly as the attack that inspired it. One of Awad"s Bethlehem neighbors was a teen-ager, who Awad knew as a non-religious and non-political young man. Then the teen"s best friend was killed by Israeli troops. Four months later, Awad turned on a television news broadcast and was surprised to hear the boy"s name. The teen-ager had walked into a crowded marketplace and blown himself up, killing seven Israelis in the process.

So Awad and his colleagues are driven to share the simple message that there is another way out, something Palestinians can do to make a better future. The Holy Land Trust is training Palestinians to re-engage in non-violence as a form of resistance. The successes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are inspirations. But Awad is also quick to point out that, despite the recent notoriety of suicide bombings, he is following a rich legacy of Palestinian nonviolent action.

The 1987 intifadah - "uprising" - against Israeli occupation featured non-violent resistance, including boycotts, civil disobedience, removal of roadblocks and continued farming of land appropriated by Israeli settlers. Awad"s uncle and mentor, Mubarak Awad, was one of the leaders of the non-violent resistance in that first intifadah. As a result, the Israeli government expelled him from the territories. (Sami Awad notes wryly that his uncle remains barred while Yasser Arafat was allowed to return, thus proving the Israeli government knows the power of non-violent resistance.)

As Gandhi and King did before him, Awad struggles to convince oppressed and angry people that non-violence is not a refuge for the weak. Awad reports some signs of hope. Two dozen Palestinian young men who had operated as Bethlehem"s armed resistance, or Tanzem, recently started non-violence leadership training through the Holy Land Trust. Many of the 150,000 Palestinians living in the northern city of Nablus in the West Bank have begun refusing to obey the curfew imposed by the Israeli military. Fatah, the main Palestinian political party, has announced they will engage in non-violent resistance.

To make this trip to the U.S., Awad had to leave behind his wife and 3-month-old baby in their Bethlehem apartment overlooking the Church of the Nativity. During a curfew where Palestinians are sometimes shot for peeking out their window blinds, Awad is worried for their safety. But taking his case to the United States people is worth the risk.

"The U.S. is the only country in the world that can resolve this conflict," Awad says, citing the $5 billion in annual aid that the U.S. sends to Israel, including $2 billion-plus in direct military assistance. He hopes that non-violent resistance by the Palestinians will inspire the Bush administration to use the leverage of those dollars to force Israel to withdraw from Palestine.

"We say to the U.S., don"t be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. Be pro-peace. Israeli violence is not providing their people with security, and Palestinian violence is not helping us achieve our goals. Both peoples are suffering, because the circle of violence has no beginning and no end."

For more information on the Holy Land Trust, check To contact the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center, call 920-1510.

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