Standing on the Side of Peace
How one man’s journey changed everything I knew about the Middle East conflict.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sami’s affiliation with the center gave him the chance to see firsthand that it was possible for people to change their own beliefs and take action. He met Peter Weinberger, a Jewish American college student who came to volunteer at the center. As a teenager, Peter flirted with militant Zionism. After encountering a poem by the preeminent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Peter decided to try to understand Palestinian reality for himself. Sami took Peter all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He showed him where Israeli settlements were expanding onto Palestinian land and pointed out new checkpoints, signaling heightened Israeli military intrusion into Palestinian communities. Sami watched Peter slowly grow into an advocate for Palestinian rights.
In December 1995, Sami attended a nonviolent action in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Under the Oslo Accords, Israeli troops had begun pulling out of Bethlehem. The residents of Dheisheh were tearing down the high metal fence that the military built years earlier, cordoning off the refugee camp from the main road. When Sami arrived at Dheisheh, he heard activists speaking an array of languages, including Hebrew. He was quietly thrilled to witness Israelis working with Palestinians to rip apart a barrier that represented Israeli control over Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
In 1996, Sami co-founded a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue group with Hussam and two French Israeli women. The group, composed of peace activists from Jerusalem, met weekly. There, he befriended an Israeli American named Yoel, and they often attended nonviolent demonstrations together against demolition of Palestinian homes or settlement expansion. Sami recognized a distinct dynamic that Yoel brought to the actions. Yoel, unlike Sami, could confront the soldiers without risking arrest or beating.
Breaking Down Barriers
Jewish Israelis such as Yoel are afforded a protection that Palestinians are not. Israeli peace activists often use this privilege to challenge the occupation or to protect Palestinians, who don’t have that status. Though growing numbers of Israelis have been arrested and injured by the Israeli military in recent years, the stark power imbalance remains. Power and privilege raise complex questions in the peace and justice movement, and some joint peace initiatives are regarded with skepticism, especially when the initiatives do not tackle the root causes of injustice.
But in recent years, more and more Israelis have joined Palestinians in directly confronting the state and its military. They are challenging some of the most egregious manifestations of the occupation. In 2004, Israel began construction of a section of a separation barrier in the village of Bil’in. The barrier often meanders deep into the West Bank, expropriating large swathes of land to Israel and separating many Palestinian villagers from their orchards. Since 2005, Bil’in residents have organized weekly demonstrations against the barrier. I have gone to many of these demonstrations and marched toward the barrier with Palestinians, Israelis, and activists from all over the world. Each time, we met a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets. We demonstrated in Bil’in on New Year’s Eve 2010. The next morning, I attended the funeral of one of the villagers, 36-year-old Jawaher Abu Rahma, who collapsed and died after she was overcome by tear gas. The Palestinians and Israelis who had marched together the day before stood silently in the Bil’in cemetery as Jawaher was laid into the ground.
Bil’in is not the only example. Every week, Palestinians and Israelis demonstrate together against home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, against Israeli settlement expansion in Nabi Saleh in the West Bank, and against the repeated destruction of Al-Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert. The actions are expanding in scope and numbers and have achieved small victories: The barrier has been rerouted in the villages Budrus and Bil’in.
New Signs of Hope
The growing movement contains a kernel of hope in a bleak political landscape. It is this hope I felt when I heard about the protest that my Jewish Israeli friends staged in January 2008, demanding justice for the murder of 17-year-old Aseel and the 11 other Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Aseel’s older sister, Nardeen, wrote a letter to the demonstrators:
“Dear friends … of Aseel, of mine, of ours,
“In these difficult days there is nothing more comforting and calming than to read, to hear, and to see you demonstrating for Aseel and for justice … I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be your friend, and I’m proud to be on your side in this struggle.”
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. Both sides include Palestinians and Israelis.
Today, the nonviolence movement has expanded beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine and is breaking open new possibilities for Palestinians to obtain justice. On the 2011 anniversaries of the May 15 “Nakba” (a day that commemorates the 1948 expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians) and of the June 1967 war, thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees attempted to cross from Lebanon and Syria to return to their homes inside Israel. Approximately 35 were reportedly shot and killed. Starting in 2008, activists have sailed boats into the region, seeking to break the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip; Israelis and Jewish Americans have been on board many of the boats. Finally, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiative has grown steadily since Palestinian civil society first called for a boycott of Israeli products and institutions in 2005. Ironically, the number of Israelis who accept BDS as a nonviolent strategy may actually swell in the wake of a new Israeli law criminalizing those who support boycotts. Even Israelis who don’t identify as left-wing activists are speaking out against the new law, characterizing it as an undemocratic silencing of political dissent.
The United Nations will likely vote in September 2011 to recognize a Palestinian state. And, though this move may spark ever-harsher repression by Israel, I expect it to lead to new fronts of nonviolent resistance and new forms of Palestinian-Israeli partnership.
As these developments unfold, I remember something Sami Al Jundi said to me: It is better for all our children if every child’s needs and rights are secured. If we want to build a better future for our children, we must work on our dreams together.
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