Ali Abu Awwad’s life could have turned out very differently.
His mother, Fatma, was a Palestine Liberation Organization regional leader and worked closely with Yasser Arafat. Abu Awwad witnessed her arrest by Israeli security forces and joined in the first intifada.
“I was not born peacefully,” Abu Awwad recounted on Wednesday, April 19, to the nearly 50 in attendance at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. The peace activist’s talk was sponsored by Congregation Dor Hadash and J Street Pittsburgh.
Abu Awwad first saw his mother arrested in 1982 when he was 10, he said.
“When she was arrested again in 1987, when the first intifada started, and I saw her beat up in front of my eyes by Israeli officers and security officers — that was the end because I felt it’s not about the land or identity, it’s personal,” he said.
The arrest of his mother, combined with everyday injustices and life under what he called “military occupation,” turned Abu Awwad into a rock-throwing 15-year-old who was eventually arrested for his work as a leader in the resistance movement.
His approach to the conflict changed while imprisoned at the same time as his mother. While incarcerated, he spent much of his time interacting with other Palestinian political prisoners and educating himself; he learned both English and Hebrew while detained.
After several months, he sought permission to visit his mother, something that is supposed to be allowed every three months. After three years of asking, he and his mother went on a hunger strike for 17 days.
Abu Awwad eventually won the right to see his mother, but he gained more than a mere visit. He asked himself why, after all of the violent clashes with Israel, he was able to accomplish a goal simply by not eating. That realization, he said, started another journey of education which, after his release from prison thanks to the Oslo Accords, led to the founding of the Taghyeer Palestinian National Nonviolence Movement and the Abu Awwad International Nonviolence Center in Palestine.
Abu Awwad also continued to work in the Palestinian Authority, bringing with him his new belief in nonviolence as a political tool.
Despite delivering his freedom, the Oslo Accords and the peace process that followed were bound to fail, Abu Awwad said, because of conditions on the ground.
“There are parties who are willing to keep this conflict going,” he said. “They don’t want to see peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We are good material for their politics.”
After the start of a new intifada in 2000, Abu Awwad, fed up with the corruption he saw, resigned from the Palestinian Authority.
The former resistance fighter said he concluded that: “We don’t need political parties because we’re not a country, we’re not a government.”
Instead, he said, Palestinians should be under one umbrella without the baggage of different ideologies.
Amid these political realizations, Abu Awwad was shot by an Israeli settler. While recovering in Saudi Arabia, his brother Youssef was killed by an Israeli soldier, he said.
Youssef’s death caused Abu Awwad to grapple with some strong emotions. On the one hand, he was angered by what occurred and wrestled with the idea of revenge but knew violence wasn’t the answer. On the other hand, Israeli soldiers still occupied the streets where he lived.
“How can I hear the Hebrew language anymore?” he asked. “How can I go back to Palestine from Saudi Arabia? How can I prevent myself from doing anything that will harm my son? What can I tell my brother’s kids? I was totally broken.”
It was after a Jewish Orthodox Israeli father reached out to Abu Awwad’s mother, saying he represented a group that wanted to learn about Fatma’s activism and their family’s loss, that his life changed, he said.
Soon Abu Awwad and his mother were sharing a new message both at home and abroad — one of non-violence. Fatma spoke to a United Nations delegation and Abu Awwad talked at high schools, universities and even the Knesset.
In 2013, he developed the Palestinian Karama Nonviolence Center in the West Bank, and in 2014 he co-founded Roots, a Palestinian-Israeli initiative promoting understanding, nonviolence and transformation.
Abu Awwad next concluded that nonviolence should be used to transform Palestinian society, rather than relying on Israel as a partner. He recruited community leaders who spent time in prison and were seen as stalwarts uncorrupted by the Palestinian Authority to help spread the message of nonviolence.
“This is not a nonprofit acting as a nonprofit. This is not the phantasia of reconciliation. This is not spirituality and healing and yoga,” he said.
Instead, he called for a commitment from Palestinians to stop acting like victims and as if they are in a suffering competition with Israelis and the Jewish people.
Instead, he said, Palestinians should build a new construct for themselves.
“We need to frame ourselves in a new model, a model that will provide dignity and responsibility,” he said.
Taghyeer’s work includes cleaning trash from the streets, composting, gardening and home farming.
The organization developed a grove of trees in the South Hebron Hills and grew to include regional groups, including a women-led coalition of teachers, young professionals, veteran political activists and social workers, according to the group’s website.
“Nonviolence,” Abu Awwad said during his nearly hour-long talk, “is the art of humanity.”
Rabbi Jamie Gibson visited the Nonviolence Center in 2015, 2018 and 2019 during some of his 34 trips to Israel and came to hear Abu Awwad speak last week. Gibson said when he visited the center, both a Jew — who was not necessarily from the left — and a Palestinian, shared their views of the conflict.
“Both sharing the tales, challenges and struggles of coexistence and shared respect for each other’s claim upon the land or, as Ali put it the other night, how we belong to the land, the land does not belong to us,” he told the Chronicle.
Gibson said that while in the short term things look pretty bad, the long term holds promise.
“[Abu Awwad] said this directly: Long-term change is built by minorities, not majorities, and by committed individuals who are committed to the ideals that motivate them and the people that follow them,” Gibson said.
J Street Pittsburgh Chair Mark Fichman said the organization co-sponsored the talk because Abu Awwad is an “eloquent, deeply committed advocate for an exclusively nonviolent path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Abu Awwad, Fichman said, has pursued nonviolence for many years and was active in The Parents Circle, which engages in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict.
Fichman referenced Abu Awwad’s acknowledgment that both Israeli Jews and Palestinians “belong to the land.”
“We think Pittsburgh and the Jewish community here would appreciate the chance to hear his lived experience and the lessons he has taken from them,” Fichman said. “My impression from the audience reaction is they received his views very positively.”
In an interview following his talk, Abu Awwad said his vision for a solution to the conflict includes two undivided states.
“I believe in my people more than the government,” Abu Awwad said. “Most of the people are not engaged directly with the conflict. They just want to live with dignity.”
“The problem is not Judaism,” he continued. “The problem is not the Palestinian national identity. The problem is how do we belong to the land, and how do we practice the relationship? That’s the problem.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.