Nonviolence in the
Mubarak Awad is a
Palestinian psychologist who organized a nonviolent resistance
movement against the occupation of Palestinian lands at the end of the 1980s.
Israel expelled him to the United States, where his organization is known as
Nonviolence International. Meir Amor, an Israeli peace activist living in
Canada, interviewed him.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 nor
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.
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Mubarak Awad lives in Washington, D.C. at present.
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