The Palestinian Nonviolent Movement

Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, discusses Palestinian nonviolent resistance (Staff photo M. Horton).

Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, was in Washington, DC the last week of April speaking to NGOs, community organizations and universities. At the Carnegie Endowment, in a talk sponsored by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, he discussed “Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance: A Viable Option for Winning a Two State Peace.”

Awad opened his presentation by reiterating that, with roots at least as old as the 1936 general strike against the British mandate, nonviolence was not a new strategy or concept to the Palestinian people. Comparing the current al-Aqsa intifada to the intifada of the late 1980s, he noted that, in contrast to the first intifada, the current one is largely fought by guerrilla cells using light arms.

The non-violent beginnings of the al-Aqsa intifada, he recalled, were brutally and systematically crushed by the Israeli military. This targeted attempt to destroy nonviolence as a tactic, coupled with the failure of the Oslo process, which Palestinians saw as the result of nonviolent struggle, has supported the logic of armed struggle, Awad said.


There are two benefits to nonviolence as the primary tactic of the Palestinian resistance, he argued, especially in the current situation. The first is that a nonviolent struggle will make the movement popular and involve the community at large, which presently is immobilized by the armed components of the current resistance. This democratization and popularization of the movement, Awad said, not only will utilize more of the community’s human resources, but also will build community and momentum for popular participation in Palestinian society as a whole. This empowerment and participation ultimately will make a more accountable Palestinian government, as well as a stronger resistance.

Awad cited several victories for the non-violent movement. Because of the Israeli regime’s vast military superiority, he said, many of the fighters have questioned the effectiveness of armed struggle. In fact, 15 fighters from Kata’eb Al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) approached the nonviolent movement in Bethlehem for training, and now are dedicated to nonviolence. This, of course, has made them no less wanted by Israel, Awad observed, and many have been arrested because of their involvement in the nonviolent movement. The Holy Land Trust, he said, is focusing resources on working with the fighters and is initiating a program to train prisoners in nonviolent strategy upon their release.

The organization’s primary focus, however, is on villagers, who are most affected by the wall. They are being systematically urbanized, Awad reported, because the wall is taking their land. The village of Qawawis, in the Al-Khalil (Hebron) district, he said, has been completely depopulated because of the conditions imposed upon its former residents by settlers and the IDF.

If this urbanization process continues and the wall is completed, Awad warned, Bethlehem will be more densely populated than the Gaza Strip. If plans for the E1 settlement are permitted to proceed, he said, settlements will sever the north and south of the West Bank from each other. Should that come to pass, Awad foresaw a landscape of densely populated prison-like cantons connected to industrial zones.

During the question-and-answer period, Awad addressed the common misperception that the nonviolent movement is a Christian movement, noting that the movement in Palestine is Muslim-led, with the majority participants Muslim. And just as the nonviolent struggle is certainly not a Christian movement, the armed resistance is not a Muslim movement, he added, citing a number of Christian participants in armed organizations. The disagreement on strategy, he said, has more to do with what people think will succeed than with religious affiliation.

Awad also said that while his organization has made attempts to involve internationals and Israelis in their efforts, the severe repression and hindrance to their presence has made it clear that “we are locked up in prisons,” and that, in the end, the movement must be a Palestinian-focused initiative.

Awad questioned inflated visions of Israeli support for peace with the Palestinians, critiquing the oft-repeated statistic that 60 to 70 percent of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state. He cited a recent poll which asked Israelis if they thought Palestinians have the right to be there. Fewer than 5 percent of respondents agreed that the Palestinian people had these rights. “Our goal,” he concluded, “is to get Israelis to recognize these rights.”

To help sponsor nonviolence training of a village, contact the Holy Land Trust’s fiscal sponsor, Non-Violence International (<>), for more information.           

Matt Horton


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