by Lorin Peters
When Sami realized, that night, that I had no family to eat with, he immediately said, “Come to dinner with us.” He didn’t tell me it would be a beautiful buffet at his father Bishara and mother Selwa’s home, or that his uncle Alex and his family, and two American pastors would be there.
I met his eldest uncle, Mubarak, four years ago speaking to the Nonviolence class at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987 Mubarak, if my memory serves me, was a child psychologist working in Jerusalem. One day a farmer came to him and said, “The Israeli soldiers have put a fence around my field so that I can not work on it. Can you help me?” Mubarak said, “I have no idea what to do. I will try to think of something. Come back tomorrow.” He was hoping the farmer would not come back.
Tomorrow came, and so did the farmer. Mubarak still had no solution. But he felt he had to do something. So he got a friend and went with the farmer to his field and started taking the fence down. Soldiers came and told them to stop. They kept working. The soldiers threatened to shoot. Mubarak kept working. They fired over his head. Mubarak kept working. They fired under his feet. Mubarak kept working. Soon the fence was down. The soldiers gave up and left. So the farmer went to work on his field.
The story of what Mubarak had done got out. Other Palestinians began to come to him for help in dealing with the occupation. Soon everyone was coming to him. He had become, entirely by accident, a leader of the nonviolent resistance to the occupation of Palestine. This happened about 1987, near the beginning of the first Intifada (“Shaking–off”), the resistance to the occupation.
This first Intifada was not quite perfectly nonviolent. There is a tradition here of stone-throwing. It seems to go back at least 3,000 years. When Palestinian adults finish a nonviolent demonstration or march and go home, sometimes the boys stay behind and throw stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers. The soldiers usually respond with tear gas or rubber bullets (on rare occasions, with real bullets). No soldier, as far as I know, has ever been killed or even seriously injured by a stone.
One day a boy hit a soldier with a stone. The soldier chased the boy, tackled him, hit him, and said, “Don’t do that. I don’t like it.” The next day the same boy hit the same soldier with another stone. The soldier chased the boy, tackled him, beat him up, and said, “I told you, don’t do that. I don’t like it.” The next day the same boy hit the same soldier with a third stone. The soldier chased the boy, tackled him, paused, and then gave him a hug. The boy came to Mubarak, told him the story, and said, “I don’t understand. Why did he hug me?” Mubarak said, “The soldier doesn’t like being stoned. He tried hitting you. He tried beating you up. Neither worked. So he decided to try something else.”
For a year or so, Mubarak was helping organize the Intifada. Sami was a teenager. He was fascinated by his Uncle Mubarak. He rode on the back of his motorcycle everywhere, to demonstrations and marches. The government of Israel, however, found Mubarak very dangerous. They can easily defeat violent Palestinians. But they realized they can not win against a well-organized nonviolent resistance. So they decided to deport Mubarak. He was arrested and tried. Everyday Sami attended his trial. As the injustice to his uncle unfolded, day by day, Sami felt more and more deeply challenged. It became a right of passage to adulthood for him. At the end of the trial, on his uncle’s last day in Israel, Sami committed his life to working nonviolently for justice and freedom for his people.
Mubarak has lived in the US since being deported. He is one of the founders of Nonviolence International, which supports nonviolent movements throughout the world, but especially in Burma. He is now allowed to visit his family in Palestine once a year. He was the senior leader of the Nonviolent Resistance conference I attended last December in Bethlehem, and treated with deep respect by all the Palestinians.
Sami is the founding father and guiding spirit of Holy Land Trust. His vision is broad. First, he is working to make the world aware of the suffering in Palestine – through the summer encounter program (in which I am currently studying Arabic) as well as the Palestine News Network he founded. Second, he is working to overcome the occupation of Palestine – training Palestinians in steadfast, resilient nonviolent resistance, including dialogue with occupying soldiers as well as economic boycotts. Third, he is thinking about what comes after the occupation – Seeds of the Future, Nation-building, Peace Builders (training teachers), and Remember the Innocents (training teenagers). Gandhi devoted almost 20 years to very similar work, preparing his people for independence.
Bishara, Sami’s father, is the founder of Bethlehem Bible College, where our Arabic classes are conducted for three hours every afternoon. It seems also to be the hangout for many of the international evangelicals who come to visit Bethlehem.
Alex, another of Sami’s uncles, is the pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church. I attend Sunday services there about once a year with other Christian Peacemaker Teammates from Hebron. To my surprise, when Alex walked into the dinner, he immediately recognized me. During dinner he mentioned that he is currently working on a manuscript of the Awad family story. After dinner, when one of the visiting American pastors said that, last Christmas, he still did not know there were any Palestinian Christians, Alex invited him to read, out loud, the first pages of his manuscript:
In 1948 Elias Awad, his wife Huda and their four sons and three daughters, ages six months to nine years, were living in East Jerusalem, a few blocks north of the Christian Quarter of the Old City (Crusader Wall). One morning during the War of 1948, Elias remembered, just after walking out their front door, that he had forgotten to put on his Red Cross flag shirt. He asked one of his sons to run back into the house for it. When he returned, their father was dead. A bullet had hit him in the head.
Later that day, Jordanian Bedouin troops arrived. They thought the family was Jewish and lined them up for execution. Huda began quoting from the Quran, until the soldiers finally realized the family was not Jewish.
They were caught in no man’s land, between the contending armies, for more than a week. Eventually they ran out of food. They had more food stored on their roof. But the only stairs were on the outside of their home directly facing one of the armies. Finally Huda dashed out the door and up the stairs. The soldiers shot at her but missed. On the roof she started a fire, either to distract the soldiers or to create a smoke screen. She lowered the food in a basket. I don’t remember how she got herself off the roof.
About a week later new soldiers again lined the family up for execution. Huda feared that her knowledge of the Quran would not save them this time. At the last moment, one of their Muslim neighbors appeared, and began arguing with the Bedouin soldiers that the family was Christian, not Jewish. He was very persistent, and would not back down. He eventually was able to save them.
When the pastor finally stopped reading, he was speechless, his mouth open. For a moment, he didn’t know what to say.