“In the end it is a question of life or death. I think all human beings want to live. They want to enjoy life. It doesn’t matter what their religion or politics are; they want to live and allow others to live. When I speak of civil disobedience and nonviolence, I’m saying that I want to live, but I want you all to live with me. I think that is a powerful message.”
I’ve never met Mubarak but my path has crossed his repeatedly. I’be been in the office of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence in Jerusalem, but he had already been exiled by Israel. I spoke at Bethlehem Bible College where his brother Bishara was president and preached at the East Jerusalem Baptist Church pastored by another brother Alex. I’ve worked with Michael Beer of Nonviolence International, an organization founded and directed by Mubarak. Although we never met face-to-face I have seen his influence around the world.
The old man came to Mubarak Awad asking for help. The Israeli settlers near his home in Tekoa had put up a fence, seizing several acres of the land belonging to his village. The old man had heard Awad’s teaching about nonviolence. “You told us that if we are not afraid, anything is possible.” “Oh my God, did I say that!” Awad thought. He considered himself an educator, but this old man was pushing him beyond teaching to organizing action. Awad agreed to lead the villagers if they agreed not to bring guns or throw stones or run away if shot at or arrested. They mobilized 300 unarmed people to confront the armed settlers at the fence. “We refused to run….We were hugging each other,” he recalled as the military governor came and allowed the Palestinians to remove the fence.
Awad was born into an Arab Christian family in Jerusalem during the time of the British Mandate. When war broke out between the Arabs and the Jewish Zionists, his father was killed while trying to bring wounded civilians into their home so that Mubarak’s mother, who was a nurse, could care for them. When the fighting ended and the state of Israel was established, the family house was in an Israeli-occupied area. So the surviving Awads moved into the old city of Jerusalem, under Jordanian rule.
Mubarak’s mother taught him “that the one who killed your dad left a widow and seven kids. So don’t ever carry a gun and kill anyone.” When he was in secondary school the Jordianian soldiers began to drill students with guns. Awad refused to participate. The instructors tied him up with a gun in his hands and had all the other students spit on him.
In 1967 Awad gave up the right to Israeli citizenship and kept the Jordanian citizenship he obtained as a Palestinian prior to the 1967 war. The citizenship issue was later to become a key matter for his work. He moved back and forth between Jerusalem and the United States. While studying in the United States he married an American woman and became a U.S. citizen. He returned to the West Bank to direct an orphanage in the Christian town of Beit Jalla. Awad allowed the youth to join in protests against the Israeli occupation, resulting in him being jailed by the Israeli authorities. The Mennonites for whom he worked negotiated his release on the condition that he go back to the U.S. for further studies.
Awad retuned to Jerusalem in the early 1980s to set up a center to teach counseling skills to Palestinian educators. Nobody was interested in therapy. Instead politics related to the Israeli occupation was the only concern. So Awad decided to put on a three-day workshop on “how to get rid of the occupation.” Expecting 50 participants, over 400 people showed up including angry members of the Fatah movement in the Palestinian Liberation Organization who thought he was trying to replace their organization. Awad challenged participants saying, “We are under occupation because we choose to be under occupation,” and then he introduced the concepts of nonviolent resistance.
In 1985 Award established the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence. He taught nonviolence as a method for resisting the Israeli occupation. He was especially concerned to bring some of the teachings of nonviolence to the Arab world, so he translated many key works into Arabic, including Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolence and works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Given that the vast majority of Palestinians were Muslims he also translated the biography of Abdul Gaffar Khan into Arabic.
Following the successful action of removing the fence at Tekoa, Awad helped villages organize actions over disputed lands. He brought Palestinians together with Israeli peace activists to plant olive trees on the land, an action that reflected Zionist rituals of planting olive trees. Sometimes settlers ripped out the saplings, but Awad gave Palestinians the opportunity to begin practicing nonviolent ways of confronting the Israeli occupation. The center printed a list of 120 specific nonviolent things that people could do. The Israelis began to oppose what Awad and the center were saying, which created a positive response from Palestinians: “If the Israelis say this is something bad, for the Palestinians it is good.”
Awad developed a “12-age blueprint for passive resistance in the territories.” When the first Intifada erupted in late 1987 Awad began organizing nonviolent actions. He organized “popular resistance,” which referred to action involving the whole population in civil disobedience as contrasted to “armed struggle,” which was carried out by the PLO and other groups. Awad did not reject armed struggle outright, which earned him many critics outside the Palestinian community, but he encouraged Palestinians to see nonviolence as a way they could all participate. Demonstrations were organized along with strikes. Palestinians stopped paying rents to Israelis, and shop-keepers refused to collect sales taxes. Tax revenues from the occupied territories dropped by 40%.
The Israeli government ordered Awad to be deported. They viewed any action against Israeli rule as seditious whether it was violent or nonviolent. Awad’s citizenship became an issue. He appealed the expulsion, but the Israeli Supreme Court rejected his appeal. In 1988 Awad was forced to return to the U.S. Though he was deported, the bulk of the resistance by Palestinians during the first Intifada took up the actions Awad had proposed. However, though nonviolent resistance was practiced in a broad and systematic way by many Palestinians during the Intifada, Hamas was also organized then with a commitment to reinvigorate the violent struggle against Israel. Looking back Awad thinks the Intifada came too early. Nonviolent resistance requires a mobilization of the head and the heart, and not enough had been done to get people to shift their belief in the violent struggle to the dedication and commitment needed for nonviolent engagement in the face of Israeli force.
Back in Washington Awad formed Nonviolence International, an organization to promote nonviolent resistance and human rights. Nonviolence International developed training projects in a number of countries around the world. The vision and practice Awad had developed for use in the Palestinian struggle he shared with people in other struggles against injustice and repression. He also became a professor at American University, teaching in the Department of International Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The Palestinian resistance of the first Intifada included major nonviolent elements prompted by the vision and teaching of Awad and those influenced by him. The result was strengthening Palestinians through unity and common purpose while also encouraging splits within Israeli society about the occupation. These political shifts created the public pressure for a peace agreement. The Oslo Accords signed in 1993, limited as they were, may have been a high point in Palestinian progress. With the rising of more violent forms of resistance in the second Intifada, with suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel, Israeli military action increased in intensity. The barrier wall between Israel and Palestine was constructed on expropriated Palestinian land. The Palestinians became deeply divided between the PLO and Hamas. Turning away from the vision Mubarak Awad had been developing seems to have set back the progress Palestinians achieved earlier.
Through his academic teaching, his writing, and through the training programs of Nonviolence International, the work of spreading the understanding and practice of nonviolence continues for Awad.