The 'Palestinian Gandhi' Who Still Believes Non-Violence Is the Answer

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Amid the smoke, rubble and blood, the idea of nonviolent protest in Gaza seems as preposterous as it is naive.

Indeed, those Palestinians who preached nonviolence and led peaceful marches, boycotts, mass sit-downs and the like are mostly dead, in jail, marginalised or in exile.

Mubarak Awad is one of the latter. Often dubbed “the Palestinian Gandhi” or “Palestinian Martin Luther King Jr,” Awad now teaches the theory and practice of nonviolence at American University in Washington, DC, far from his Jerusalem home.

Israel kicked him out in 1988. Five years earlier, he had opened the doors of the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem, with the goal of fomenting mass resistance to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Do not pay taxes, he lectured. Consume only local goods, like the Indians who followed Gandhi’s movement against British colonial rule. Engage in peaceful protest. Plant olive trees on land coveted by Jewish settlers. Above all, do not pick up the gun. March, and sit down, like civil rights protesters in the American South in the 1960s. Take the beatings, clog up Israeli jails.

It started to take, here and there, even though the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas disdained it. Awad was arrested on the orders of then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and deported.

Today, beefy and white-haired at 71, with his TV flickering images of Hamas and Israel trading bombs and rockets, Awad insists he is optimistic about the prospects for a nonviolent protest movement in his homeland. “I am very hopeful. I mean, you are talking to a very hopeful person,” he says, ticking off negotiated resolutions to what once seemed implacably violent conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa. “Of course, there is violence along the way. Germany and France killed each other for 100 years, and now they are friends.”

That’s the long view, but Awad’s optimism is flagging under the weight of the current Gaza conflict, and he maintains that things could get worse. “The Israelis will leave [Gaza], and we will have even more groups of Palestinians, even more militant than Hamas. The Israelis will say they got the weapons in Gaza, but then [the militants] might go to chemical weapons, or might go to [radiological] weapons – or something worse. These death weapons are getting easy to find and easy to make in the laboratory. So people will engage in worse things to kill each other.”

Many Palestinian youths no longer worry about dying, Awad says. They are egged on by Hamas and even more extreme elements dispatched to Gaza and the occupied West Bank by the so-called Islamic State (IS), the neck-chopping fundamentalists who have taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. “When they see people dying there, they say they are not killed, they are being a martyr,” he says. “And they say those people are in paradise, they are in the hands of God. . . They say they are better than us because they have already died. . . It’s a crazy religious, spiritual way of dealing with death.”

Extremist cash is greasing the path to martyrdom, Awad explains. “The caliphate – the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – is funding people who have started recruiting the young in Jerusalem. A great number of those kids have no jobs, they don’t go to school, and they are on drugs. They are told that if they join certain groups they will get some money – hundreds of young people. So some people are falling under the sway of the IS, and they are willing to kill anybody – Christians, Muslims, Jews, anybody blocking their way. That’s very sad.”

Awad came to pacifism through violence. His father was killed by Jewish fighters during Israel’s war for independence in 1948 when he was five, but his mother counseled him to turn the other cheek. “She told me, ‘The one who killed your father did not know he was leaving me a widow with seven children to raise.’ She said, ‘Please don’t take revenge for your father, don’t kill anyone, don’t ever destroy a human life.’ And I took that very seriously,” – even as his mother dispatched him and his brothers to an orphanage.

“And it was horrible for me. For five or six years, I never had a full stomach. I never had enough to eat. But because of my respect for my mother, I always pushed hard for nonviolence. Not only me, but my brothers, two of whom now head Christian institutions in the occupied territories.”

08_15_Gandhi_02 Dr. Mubarak Awad in his office on August 7, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Jared Soares for Newsweek

A Greek Orthodox Catholic, Awad was influenced by Quaker and Mennonite missionaries, and in his 20s, in the 1960s, he left Jerusalem for Bluffton University, a Mennonite school in Ohio, where he earned a BA in social work and sociology. Then came a Master’s in education from Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and a PhD in psychology from Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school in St Louis. Settling in Ohio, he established a statewide programme to find homes for wayward youths ensnared by the criminal justice system. In 1978 it evolved into the National Youth Advocate Programme. But his heart was in Jerusalem, especially with the outbreak of the first intifada, or uprising, which started out as a kind of rock-throwing children’s crusade. In 1987 he returned to Jerusalem and started agitating for massive, peaceful resistance.

After repeated warnings over five years, Israel had seen enough. In 1988 officials charged him with inciting a “civil uprising” by circulating leaflets advocating civil disobedience – and he was deported. But he has continued to make regular short trips “home” on a tourist visa. His targets: Israeli and Palestinian youths tempted by the siren songs of violence and vengeance.

Awad insists that constant counseling and instruction in alternatives to violence can work – much as Martin Luther King Jr counseled his followers after the outrages of Birmingham. But many longtime observers think his strategy is, at best, way too late.

“Even if most Palestinians [were] convinced of the virtues of nonviolent resistance, it’s likely that there will be small groups who are still committed to violence and will take the opportunity to act on a provocation” from Israeli forces, says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a private group that advocates a two-state solution to the 60-year-long struggle. “This will then justify an even more harsh Israeli crackdown, and the vicious circle will be in full effect.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has embraced nonviolence in theory, but “he’s afraid of the fallout”, Awad says, “that people might say he’s weak”.

Without backing from Abbas or Hamas, peaceful resistance is destined to fail. But so, too, is the violence, on both sides. Despite killing over 1,800 Gazans since July 6th – 72% of them civilians and scores of them women and children under 18, according to the United Nations – Israel has not defeated Hamas and may have spawned something worse.

Wearied by the Gaza catastrophe, Awad has a fallback position – a kind of nonviolence bottom line. “The most important thing you can say to Hamas and the Palestinians now is, ‘At least you can take a position not to kill women, not to kill children. Have dignity for human rights.’”

Awad sighs. On television, the carnage in Gaza is continuing, the rockets are flying.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the first intifada started in 1987. 

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