Sami Awad’s vocation is to tear down walls in the Middle East. As executive director of the Holy Land Trust, based in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Awad works to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis—and between Christians, Muslims, and Jews—as a necessary path to peace in the region. He was interviewed by Sojourners editor Jim Rice this winter while Awad visited Washington, D.C., to address a gathering of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.
Sojourners: What is the role of nonviolence in the liberation struggle and search for peace and security in Palestine and the broader Middle East?
Sami Awad: Nonviolence is the only option that Palestinians should engage in and the only option we have, in terms of resisting occupation. At certain points, I could have seen it as a strategic option, where people look at it and say, is it the right way to engage in or not to engage in? But now, I have come to the conclusion where I see it as the only option that Palestinians should engage in. It’s very important for us to realize this and focus all our efforts on nonviolence.
From a strategic point of view, we understand our strength. The strength of the Palestinians is in the people. We don’t have weapons. We don’t have armies. We don’t have training in military warfare. But we do have the power to unite the community, and the struggle for liberation and the struggle to end occupation is something that people can be united around.
What are the foundations for your philosophy of nonviolence? I grew up in a Christian family, which always said that reconciliation and seeking peace is the way we should go. The struggle for me was balancing my upbringing with an occupation that was treating us as Palestinians in a very unjust way. The question “How do you resist this injustice but not engage in violence” was always a challenge for me.
My uncle, Mubarak Awad, established the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in the mid-’80s. As a teenager, I started finding myself in that center, where I could really be engaged in standing up and saying no to the occupation and no to injustice, but in ways that also addressed my own faith-based background, which is not to engage in violence toward those who do this to us.
How was the Holy Land Trust born? The first Palestinian uprising broke out in 1987. In 1988, Mubarak was arrested and deported by the Israeli government. His arrest and deportation was a turning point in my life, when I decided that I would commit my life to studying and practicing nonviolence. I began to ask, what was the threat that the other side saw in nonviolence?—especially when the Israeli High Court declared Mubarak, a nonviolence activist, a threat to the national security of Israel. Why would they deport a peace activist, who probably had more Israeli friends than Palestinian friends?
After studying in the U.S., I returned to Palestine in 1996 to continue the work that my uncle was engaged in. That was the time of the Oslo peace process, which people were very optimistic about and hopeful that it would lead to a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. But the peace process was not achieving the peace that both sides wanted to achieve. So in 1998, the idea of the Holy Land Trust emerged, the goal of which was to strengthen the community for the future.
What can we do as Palestinians, living under occupation, that would liberate us from the mindset of being the victims, of blaming everybody for what is happening to us and not taking responsibility? It is up to us to achieve the goals that we want. We should not wait for anybody else to do this—especially we should not wait for the Israelis to come over and say, “We’re going to end the occupation and have peace with you.” The Israeli government is not going to do that anytime soon. Neither are the U.S. or the Europeans. It has to be born from within. This was the launch of Holy Land Trust, which said: We want the right peace for both sides that also addresses the issues of justice to both communities.
Was the Israeli Supreme Court correct? Is nonviolence a threat to the occupation, to the established order? I think it is, yes. The Israeli establishment is founded on the military being the might of the nation; everything has to do with the military, with control of others. Everything also has to be related to fear and how to implant fear in the community in order to achieve your political goals.
This is where nonviolence becomes very important: Israeli society is born out of fear. We understand the fear that the Jews had in the Holocaust, and even centuries before that. The Israeli government manipulates the fear that exists within the Israeli Jewish community in order to achieve its political agenda. Once this fear is broken—once the Israelis look at Palestinians without fear, as people seeking their basic human rights, seeking to live in freedom, and not as a threat to their own freedom—then that whole structure begins to collapse.
Tell us about your trip to Poland a few years ago. I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a Palestinian, I felt it was very important for me to not just talk about it, but to really see where the Jewish community came from, especially in this century. It was a 10-day retreat for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. I was the only Palestinian. We went there to pray and to see, as close as we can, the experience of the Holocaust. It was a very moving event, probably one of the highlights of my life. We even got permission to sleep in one of the bunkers on a cold November night. It was me, an American, and a Muslim Turk who stayed there overnight, in the “children’s bunker,” where they kept the children before they sent them to the death chambers.
For me, it was very important just to live this experience, and to see that, yes, there is fear that exists in the Jewish community. This is where nonviolence becomes very important for healing old historic wounds. It cannot be done through violence, and it cannot be done through threatening to engage in violence. Only nonviolence can create an opportunity for the Israeli Jewish community to be healed from the wounds that it faced during the Holocaust.
Because of your commitment to nonviolence, do you find allies in the Israeli community? There are many Israeli organizations that are actively involved in direct action, resisting the occupation through nonviolence—such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Breaking the Silence, which is an organization of former members of the Israeli army. There are Israelis who say, we will no longer remain silent to the injustice that we’re doing to the Palestinians or in the face of what we are being told by the Israeli military regarding Palestinians. There are several Israeli organizations in this regard that are doing incredible work.
What populations do you work with through the Holy Land Trust? We have both Christians and Muslims who work in our office, and we serve the Christian and Muslim communities. I can actually say with pride that we have more Muslims that we are working with on issues of nonviolence than Christians. We have 40 trainers, for example, who work with us in nonviolence training. Out of the 40, 38 of them are Muslims who are fully committed to Islam and also very committed to nonviolence and to promoting and preaching nonviolence in the Palestinian community.
When it comes to nonviolence, it’s not just about resisting the occupation, but it’s about community building. For example, we bring Christian and Muslim leaders to work together on issues that face the Palestinian community itself that can be related to religious issues. Sometimes you have conflicts that happen between Christian families and Muslim families, which is very normal. We’re trying to work with the community so that normal conflicts don’t escalate into becoming religious conflicts. This has been very successful in the Bethlehem area, with these leaders working together in resolving conflicts in nonviolent ways to uplift both communities.
Describe the situation for Christians in the Bethlehem area and throughout the West Bank. The estimated number of the entire Christian community in Bethlehem is about 40,000 people. If we look at the whole Palestinian area, the whole Christian population is maybe 65,000 to 70,000, in total. The Christian population is very small. Politically, it’s very active and viable. Economically, it’s very strong as well. But, due mostly to the occupation and the procedures of the Israeli government toward Palestinians in general, more and more Christians in Palestine are saying that they do not see a future for themselves, they do not see any hope for their families. Many Christians, as well as Muslims, are leaving. Of course, having such a small minority, it affects us much more when a single family leaves.
The occupation has never differentiated between Christian and Muslim, unless it was an opportunity to create friction between Christians and Muslims. This is something that’s very important to know: When it comes to land confiscation, Christian land is taken as much as Muslim land. When it comes to destroying homes, Christian homes have been destroyed as well as Muslim homes. Christian activists are being arrested as well as Muslim activists. Violent or nonviolent, they are being arrested by the Israeli government.
The opportunity for creating friction between Christians and Muslims happens, for example, in the issuing of permits. In order for Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, to travel from Bethlehem to our holy sites in Jerusalem, we need permits. On Christian feasts such as Christmas or Easter, the Israeli military will issue many permits for Christians to go and to visit the holy sites. On Muslim holidays, they will not issue as many permits as they issue to the Christians. These are the things that begin to create friction between Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem. We try to address this and to show that it’s not the intention of Christians to have discrimination against Muslims or vice versa. It is the policy of the Israeli occupation that tries to create this division between the two.
What is the role of the Palestine News Network? We established the Palestine News Network as a press agency, because we felt that there wasn’t much news coming out from Palestine to the international community, and also to the Palestinian community itself. You know the famous statement in the press, “If it bleeds, it leads.” This is not just in the Western press. It’s also in our local press. With PNN we sought to establish a news source that focuses on all the news that happens in Palestine. We don’t ignore and neglect, of course, when violence happens. But we also make sure that when nonviolence takes place, or when social programs or community events take place in Palestine, then we make these issues apparent to the global community and to the Palestinian community itself.
PNN, we could say, is another tool of nonviolence. It’s a way to show the human face of the Palestinian community and our struggle that we face on a daily basis.
What message do you think North American Christians need to hear about the Middle East and about Palestine? The most important message is that the American Christian community needs to be involved in the Middle East not as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli or vice versa. As Christians, we are responsible to engage in issues that protect and promote human rights. When we see injustice, we need to put an end to that injustice. We need to be peacemakers, as the Lord has called us to be. We should not be biased toward one or the other. But it is also our responsibility, as Christians, to be standing with those who are facing difficulties. American Christians should not ignore the incredible potential that they have to achieve peace in the Middle East.
We should not say this is a conflict between Jews and Muslims. We Christians have historic rights; we too have historic claim to the Holy Land where Jesus was born. And we should not just come in and visit as tourists and go back to our homes. We should say, this is our Holy Land as well, and we will work to achieve peace between all communities and to uplift Christ in that area of the world.
Do you have anything to say to Christian Zionists? I would say to the Christian Zionists and the extreme Right that we are taught by our Lord to love our enemy and to have compassion for all those who are suffering. We should not remain silent when we see this happen. This is God’s Holy Land; there are Jews, Christians, and Muslims who live there; we are all descendants of Abraham, and we should engage in promoting the Holy Land to be that light of hope to the global community.
Why do you do what you do? This is my calling. I was born in the U.S., so I could have easily decided to stay here in a very comfortable place with a comfortable job. But even when I was studying here, every day I woke up with this deep sense of calling. I really feel this is where God wants me to be: In the Holy Land, to serve the community there, to provide hope in a place where there is so much hopelessness.
I believe peace is possible, and I believe both communities want peace. In their hearts, they really want to achieve a sense of peaceful coexistence and equality between both communities. If I am able to do a small part in this, then I will do that. I truly feel that this is where God wants me to be.
Where do you find hope? When young Palestinian men and women come up to us and say, “We understand that violence is not an option, and we believe that our past engagement in violence did not achieve results, and we want to learn about nonviolence”—this gives me hope.
More and more U.S. Christians are calling us or coming to the Middle East and saying, “We want to know what’s going on. We have been blind for so many years. We have wrongfully accused Palestinians of one thing or the other. We want to know the true story.” I would say this gives me the greatest amount of hope, especially when they come from the conservative churches in the U.S. to engage in pilgrimage, to engage in the spiritual experience, but at the same time saying, “We want to know what we can do to promote and to engage in peace in the Middle East.”
Do you see a movement of nonviolence growing in the Middle East? Yes. I do not want to say that there is a nonviolent movement happening now. But I’m seeing more and more Palestinians, and more in the Palestinian leadership itself—we’re talking about the high level of the president and the prime minister—who are saying that our future is in nonviolence. The potential is there, and the grassroots work is being done by Holy Land Trust and many other organizations.
The great majority of Palestinians now understand that nonviolence is the only option for us for the future. Now it’s just about having the leadership become committed to engaging in nonviolence.
We might have to sacrifice a lot at this point to engage in nonviolence, including many political positions or economic positions that we have. This is where the challenge comes in. How much are we ready to sacrifice now to have a better future, for freedom in Palestine and peace between Palestine and Israel?