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Standing on the Side of Peace

How one man’s journey changed everything I knew about the Middle East conflict.
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In January 2008, a group of young men and women protested outside the Israeli Ministry of Justice, holding signs reading, “No to the killing of democracy!” and “Twelve citizens are dead … someone must be held responsible!” The protesters, who were calling for the just treatment of Palestinians, were Jewish Israelis.

I knew the young demonstrators from my years of work in Jerusalem. Our friend, Aseel Asleh, a peace activist, had been killed by the Israeli police eight years before, when he was 17 years old—along with 11 other unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel. The attorney general had just closed the case, after a grossly inadequate internal police investigation left their deaths unresolved. My friends wanted answers.

Growing up as a Jewish American, I had been taught that Israelis and Palestinians constituted two separate, irreconcilable sides in the Middle East conflict. It was not until I went to Jerusalem that I learned that there is a decades-long tradition of Palestinians and Israelis working together to confront the occupation and challenge oppression through nonviolent protest.

Sami’s Story

I first learned about Palestinian-Israeli partnerships from Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem. Sami’s story of resilience and transformation from a militant to a peace-builder inspired me from the start of our friendship.

Jen and Sami photo courtesy of Jen Marlowe

Sami Al Jundi with author Jen Marlowe outside the mosque of his mother’s destroyed village, Zakarriya.

Photo courtesy of Jen Marlowe.

I met Sami in June 2000, when I began working with a program he co-founded in Jerusalem for Israeli and Palestinian youth. He and I spent that summer and the next four years bringing young people together from all over the country to work on peace-building projects. In 2007, we began work on his memoir, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, recording in detail his earliest memories of living under occupation, his decade in Israeli prison, and his subsequent immersion in nonviolence and peacemaking.

Sami never thought about nonviolent activism until he went to prison. Growing up, he watched Israeli soldiers evict his family from their home, beat Palestinian teenagers during demonstrations, and kill one of his neighborhood heroes. He felt he had no choice but to become a fighter. When he was 18 years old, he and two friends built a bomb to be used against police. The bomb detonated prematurely, killing one friend and injuring Sami and the other. Sami was arrested, interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to 10 years in Israeli prison.

In prison, Sami read a collection of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., writings from Black Panther leader Angela Davis, and the teachings of Gandhi. He studied armed conflict and its impact. He concluded that war was disastrous for all humanity.

The sides in this conflict are defined not by nationality, but by those who take a stand against injustice, oppression, racism, and violence—and those who perpetrate or tolerate it.

It was in prison, ironically, that Sami first met Israelis who supported Palestinians’ struggle for freedom. Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear energy technician who leaked information to the press in 1986 about Israel’s nuclear weapons program, was in solitary confinement in the same prison. Sami and his fellow inmates shouted “Good morning, Vanunu!” each day as they passed his cell en route to the prison yard.

In 1987, Sami was transferred to a smaller prison. There, he befriended two members of an Israeli Marxist organization with ties to the Palestinian resistance movement. His new friends supported the Palestinian struggle to achieve statehood. Sami was tremendously excited by their political discourse. They were Israeli, he was Palestinian, yet they shared one basic ideal: They refused to live under occupation or to be occupiers. Sami began to consider the possibility that the struggle for Palestinian freedom might be undertaken with Israeli partnership.

A few years after Sami’s release in 1990, he ran into Hussam, an acquaintance who worked for the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Hussam invited him to the center, where he gave Sami a booklet by founder Mubarak Awad—a blueprint for direct nonviolent action. The booklet suggested concrete, nonviolent ways that Palestinians could block the occupation—such as stopping soldiers by linking their bodies together into a human chain or planting olive trees to mark Palestinian land as their own and stop its expropriation by Israeli soldiers. And, Awad wrote, whoever might accuse nonviolent adherents of cowardice should understand: Nonviolence does not protect one from the violence of an opponent. In fact, its effectiveness lies partially in revealing the oppressor’s unprovoked brutality. The book opened Sami’s mind: Here were ways that Palestinians could transform their reality without spilling blood. Sami returned to the Center the next day, and many more times in the days and weeks that followed.

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