Palestinian activist touts nonviolent resistance to occupation

San Francisco Chronicle

Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer- Thursday, June 12, 2003

In late March, Sami Awad visited the West Bank town of Jenin to try to convince Palestinian students at the Arab American University that demonstrations, candlelight vigils and other nonviolent methods are effective protest tools against Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.“We told them it is a form of resistance — that it’s not, as many misperceive it, a form of passive acceptance,” says Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust-Palestine, a nonprofit activist organization based in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. “The response we got was tremendous.” Awad, who has studied the lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rattles off a long list of examples that he says prove the majority of Palestinians embrace nonviolence.

Every Monday night for the past three months, for example, groups of Palestinians gather in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where they light protest candles. To oppose Israeli lockdowns, Palestinians risk arrest by leaving their homes at night to visit neighbors. Some bang pots and pans in front of Israeli tanks.

And, after Awad’s talk in Jenin, many students — even members of the radical group Tanzim, linked to President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction — signed up for nonviolence workshops, he says.

None of these approaches garners international headlines, but Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have acknowledged the movement’s effort, even though both leaders have resisted joining it, Awad says.

“The majority of Palestinians aren’t involved in acts of violence and armed resistance against the Israeli occupation,” Awad said in a recent interview in San Francisco during a one-month U.S. speaking tour. “A growing majority is calling for nonviolent resistance.”

Awad, 31, who has a master’s degree in peace and conflict resolution from American University in Washington, D.C., condemns the suicide bombings orchestrated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian militant groups, arguing that violence against Israelis has only worsened the prospects for a future state of Palestine.

He has met with members of Hamas, and says the closest he came to reaching an understanding with the militant organization occurred after a Hamas spokesman told him two years ago, “I respect what you do and I won’t oppose your action and activity.”

“As a Palestinian, I also feel anger and frustration,” Awad says. “I’ve also suffered under Israeli aggression and attacks, from being locked in my house and imprisoned with my wife and daughter with armies outside, to being detained and questioned by soldiers just for my activities. But we tell people to learn from the experiences of the past and to look for alternatives.

“We tell people they have the right to resist the occupation and use whatever means necessary,” Awad adds. “But what has been the result of (violence)? That’s why we say the armed resistance has not been successful, and that the tools of nonviolence can achieve our goals.”

Awad, who was born in the United States and is Christian, says he was most influenced by his uncle, Mubarak Awad, who founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem. As a teenager, Sami Awad participated in tree plantings and other activities sponsored by his uncle’s group. But in 1988, Israel deported Mubarak Awad, accusing him of encouraging violence. He settled in the United States, where he founded another organization called Nonviolence International.

Two weeks ago, Awad says he had an animated discussion with Israel’s deputy military governor in Bethlehem, who grudgingly released exit permits for him and his family to go on his U.S. tour after telling Awad, “Don’t think nonviolence will work.”

Awad believes it will — eventually — as more groups like Holy Land Trust- Palestine work together and more Palestinians become alienated by the violent tactics waged by groups like Hamas.

“Nonviolence is not something that happens overnight,” Awad says. “It’s not a means to end the conflict tomorrow. It’s something that evolves over long periods of time.”

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