Nonviolence in the Middle East: A Talk with Mubarak Awad

Mubarak Awad is the founder of Nonviolence International. Meir Amor, an Israeli peace activist living in Canada, interviewed him.

By Meir Amor (interviewer); Mubarak Awad (interviewee) | 2000-10-01 12:00:00

Meir Amor: Why did you become a leader in the nonviolent Palestinian struggle?

Mubarak Awad: Palestinians had hardly any understanding of nonviolence. Gandhi had not been given a lot of attention in the Muslim world because he was against the creation of Pakistan, an Islamic state. So in the Arab mind nonviolence is just surrendering to the one who has more power.

Before I was expelled from Israel, my first initiative with Palestinians was to try to develop an educational program of nonviolence in Islam. I went to India to find a Muslim who worked with Gandhi: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who brought his village of Pathans into a struggle, forming a nonviolent army to help Gandhi. I wrote a book about him and met with religious leaders in Palestine, Israel, and Egypt. I found interested Muslims—most of them Sufis. In Islam, the Sufis are like Quakers in Christianity. In some places they are regarded as heretics. They pray, they dance, they act as if they have oneness with God. In Islam you cannot do that, so the Sunnis and Shiites don’t accept them as real Muslims. They are the ones who started writing about Islam and nonviolence.

Meir Amor: How do Sufis argue against the notion of Islam as a religion based on Jihad—Holy War?

Awad: They interpret Jihad as the evil inside oneself that a person has to fight against.

They say not to harm a tree, an animal, or a person. It’s a lovely notion, similar to the Quaker concept that there’s a part of God in every person, so you must not hurt a person because you’d hurt God.

Anyway, in Jerusalem I started the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence. I didn’t work with Israelis then, but with Palestinians. I went to schools, cities, clubs—to anyone who would hear me, telling them that we could get rid of this occupation through nonviolent means. Nonviolence is a matter of not accepting the authority of those who occupy you -not paying taxes to those who occupy you. Not buying or selling anything to those who occupy you. Making life miserable for them by not accepting their existence, even by turning your face, to seem not to know they are around. It was tough for Palestinians not to look somebody in the face, not to argue with them, not to fight them. I went to political meetings and gave a training for the PLO people in Tunis about how nonviolence can work. They thought I was crazy.

Amor: Take an average Palestinian person in an occupied village. The Israelis’ bulldozers demolish his house. What would you say to him? To ignore Israeli presence?

Awad: I had very specific strategy of 10 or 15 pages on how to get rid of the occupation. It was published in one of the Palestinian magazines. I thought of 120 ways in which the Palestinians could use nonviolent struggle against the Israelis. An old man came to me whose land the Israelis had taken. He wanted it back.

So I told him to get 300 or 400 people from his village—children, young people, old people—anybody who wanted to come. The settlers had put a fence around the land. We could take the fence down and just sit there and if the Israeli military wanted to kill us, let them kill us. I told him, on one condition: Not a single person should throw a stone. If we are all going to be massacred, let it be. And we did that; we took the land back from the settlers. That created an echo with a lot of Palestinians, who started coming to me at the Centre instead of the PLO. After a while we connected with some Israelis and Christians who joined with us.

Amor: So some of the people who were previously defined as enemies become an important component of the nonviolent peace struggle?

Awad: Yes, and we started bringing Palestinian and Israeli professors together to talk. In the beginning it was very secretive. Next we brought together artists. The most success we had was in bringing Palestinian and Israeli women together to talk. They talked about how they did not want to allow their children to be killed. One of the main objectives was to teach Palestinians not to be afraid of Israelis. Taking fear away from people and replacing it with courage is the essence of nonviolence.

Amor: How would you use that formula in respect of the right of return. What would you say to those who say, “We would like to go back to our home in Israel”?

Awad: Destroy all the refugee camps. Just burn them. When you are hundreds of thousands of refugees there is no place to go but home. But they wouldn’t do it because that was very scary.

Amor: That’s what Gandhi did in India with the salt march! Let’s destroy the refugee camps and start walking to our previous homes. Is that what you proposed?

Awad: Yes, but they wouldn’t do it. It would have taken the initiative from the PLO. This is part of our problem. One other suggestion upset the Israelis a lot: I said that in the occupied territories we would decide to drive on the left side of the road. The Israelis said, “You are creating chaos, you are going to kill us all.” I said, “This is our land. We decide what we will do.” I got about 6,000 people who were willing to do it. A lot of Palestinians started feeling the strength of nonviolence. There is a law that where there are fruit trees planted, they cannot take that land for a settlement. So we started going at night and planting olive trees. It became important to us to understand the rules that we have to function under. I was the first person to go to the Israeli police and ask a permit to demonstrate. And the police were very happy. They said, “My gosh, you want a permit to demonstrate?” I said, “Yes. We will demonstrate in front of the Damascus gate against the occupation.” I was with only two people. The Palestinians who looked at me were so scared. I had more police protecting me than there were Palestinians demonstrating.

Amor: For the past seven years, since the Oslo agreement, we have had a kind of peace process. Let’s say the Palestinians try to come back to Israel. What kind of country would they have?

Awad: For the future of that area we should not have a Palestinian state. I could call the whole of Israel “Palestine” and an Israeli could call the whole of Israel and Palestine “Israel,” and we could live together, accepting each other. This is my dream. That will come after 50 or 60 years. Israel has to accept that it is part of the Middle East, and divorce itself from being European. They have to be accepted by the Arabs and Palestinians as a minority in the Middle East, much as the Christians are a minority in the Middle East. It is nice to be European but they are not. The older generations of Europeans are dying. Now the young people are Middle Eastern. We have to think that any Israeli has a right to own a home in Damascus and, if he wants, in Baghdad.

Amor: So you are speaking about a unified Middle East?

Awad: Yes. We have to compete with the United States, with Europe, with China, in education, science, and commerce. We have to be together to compete and build an acceptable standard of living.

Amor: Can Islam, Judaism, and Christianity together develop a nonviolent approach to politics?

Awad: I don’t think so. Jews who are religious go to the right. Muslims who are religious go to the extreme right, and Christians who are religious also go to the extreme right. That is our problem. When you have people who receive instructions from God they cannot function in a peaceful way. But a miracle happened in South Africa. We have to learn from them the concept of reconciliation, the admission that, “Yes, we did you wrong and we are sorry.“That is a tough thing for the Israelis to say to the Palestinians. “We are settlers on your land. Thank you and we appreciate that you let us use your land.” Recently I was in a conference in Australia. And the minister said, “We recognize that this land belongs to this tribe of native Australians and that we are using their land.” That’s all. I am not interested in taking Tel Aviv or kicking Israelis out. Just say that you are sorry. Say, “I did you wrong.” I’m happy with that.

Amor: Is the formula for reconciliation the right of return to the places from which people had been kicked out?

Awad: We built houses for some people so they wouldn’t be refugees anymore. Then they decided to go back to the refugee camp because they are at ease in that community. If tomorrow you tell the refugees that they can go back to their original places, no more than ten percent would leave their community to go change their lives. There is a fear that everyone would go back, but that is not realistic.

Amor: Surveys have been done lately. I don’t know how accurate and reliable they are, but they report that most Palestinians in refugee camps would accept only one solution—full return, even if it means they would have to become Israeli citizens. They would not stay in Syria and Jordan, but would go back.

Awad: You have to distinguish between emotions and reality. If anybody tells you he will go to Palestine, let him go for a visit. If there is a Jewish community there, he will not want to be in it. We don’t have the mentality of the settlers going into Hebron. If Palestinians don’t have a community they cannot exist. I did a lot of work with refugee youths in the camps when I was in Jerusalem. One situation created a big problem. I gave them roses to go and place at their families’ original homes. About 60 percent did not know where the house of their father or their grandfather was in Israel. So emotionally everybody will tell you, Oh I want to go there, but physically that would not work. Palestinians were mostly farmers. For the past fifty years they have not been farmers. Do they want to go back and be farmers? There is no community in Israeli society for them to go and live in.

Amor: How would you address the centrality of Jerusalem to Israelis and Palestinians?

Awad: The old city of Jerusalem should not be ruled either by Palestinians or Israelis. We should have a committee of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, with rotating leadership to take care of religious matters. I think that Arafat is ready to deal with Jerusalem. For politicians to interfere inside the city of Jerusalem doesn’t work. I am not saying that it should be a capital of Israel or a capital of Palestine. But the old city of Jerusalem, I am against having it under international rule because the Palestinians don’t trust the UN and the Israelis never did trust the UN. So it would be good cooperation if we could have a committee of religious groups, just to be responsible for the religious aspect of it. Sewage, water, and security matters would be handled by Palestinians and Israelis.

Amor: Deep in your heart do you believe this conflict is resolvable?

Awad: Yes, I think the Arabs and Palestinians have to recognize that the Israelis and the Jews have the right to stay there. Neither Israelis or Palestinians can feel superior. No one can say that he is a dirty Jew or he is a dirty Arab. That has to disappear. We can do that. We have to eliminate most of the traditional feelings—that God gave me this land, or that God is telling me to do this, or that this is all mine. The traditional people are dying out and we have a new generation. Ten or fifteen years ago nobody said that the Israelis could recognize the PLO. We have it. And now we have to take ourselves to the higher ground—to open borders on both sides, and give people the freedom to choose. I am hopeful.

Mubarak Awad lives in Washington, D.C. at present.
Mubarak Awad is the founder of Nonviolence International. Meir Amor, an Israeli peace activist living in Canada, interviewed him.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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