Meetings with Palestinian Advocates of Nonviolent Resistance — February 21-22, 2010
On February 21, 2010, I returned to Israel and Palestine for a four-day visit at the invitation of the U. S. Department and the U. S.Consulate in Jerusalem. It was my first trip to the region since 1991 when I had spent most of my time in Israel as part of a delegation of African-American leaders who were sponsored by Project Interchange and the American Jewish Committee. On this visit, my focus was on my discussions with Palestinian advocates of nonviolent resistance in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, East Jerusalem, and Gaza (via videoconference). These meetings were arranged with the knowledgeable assistance of Cultural Affairs Officer Cynthia Harvey and Cultural Affairs Specialist Suzan Nammari, who accompanied me to each of my scheduled events.
After being met by an expeditor, Amir, at Ben Gurion International Airport, and then taken to the American Colony Hotel, where I was greeted by Cynthia, who discussed the final arrangements and limitations – namely,that I avoid protests. The hotel, located a few blocks from the Old City, was a small, attractive accommodation with amenities such as flat screen cable television and w-fi access. It was established early in the twentieth century by Americans who provided medical and other humanitarian services for Jerusalem’s residents, while remaining neutral in the city’s many military conflicts. This history, including its origin as the residence of the Turkish pasha in the Ottoman Empire, is conveyed in the historical photographs and wall hangings, reminders of the unique role that the American Colony and the hotel have played as a middle ground between predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem and the predominantly Jewish western part of the city. During my visit, I noticed the diversity of patrons in the hotel’s comfortable lobby and meetings rooms as well as its busy nighttime bar.
Monday began with a meeting at the Consulate with the Consul General and a briefing by a security officer who reiterated the warning against becoming involved in the frequent West Bank protests. Later in the morning, through a link with Al-zhar University, I participated in the Gaza videoconference (the State Department “urges U. S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization”). In this and subsequent meetings, the discussion was facilitated by a skilled translator (George), although many participants were conversant in English. Although physically separated from the approximately 15 Gaza students, professors, and activists, the discussion was cordial as well as frank. As in subsequent sessions, I briefly outlined my personal involvement in the African-American freedom struggle and explained my scholarly emphasis on bottom-up organizing rather than top-down leadership. I mentioned that, although I am closely associated with the King legacy through my editorship of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., I still greatly admire the grassroots perspective of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced snick), the brash, youthful group that challenged the system of white supremacy by mobilizing black residents of communities where segregation was most entrenched. The group in Gaza seemed receptive to suggestions based on my experience in and study of the African-American freedom struggle. Mohammed Abdalhadi later joined the Gandhi-Community, becoming the first member from the Gaza Strip.
I spent Monday afternoon in Bethlehem, where I noticed the dramatic changes that had occurred there since my 1991 visit. The Israeli security wall can hardly be ignored, although I heard that most international visitors are prevented by Israeli regulations from getting a close-up view. The moment I arrived at the offices of Zoughbi Zoughbi, founder and director of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre “Wi’am,” it was difficult for me to avoid staring at the wall while trying to understand its significance. Although it was justified as a security wall, I quickly noted that it was placed far from Israeli settlements along the boundaries of Bethlehem’s residential areas, separating its residents from the orchards where I was told Palestinians once went for family picnics. Land that once was part of Bethlehem was now part of the Israeli settlements that have been established since my previous visit atop the hills of east of Jerusalem. From the balcony of Zoughbi’s office, I could see the pastoral setting that was now accessible only from the settlements and noted the contrast with the nearby apartments crowded together in Bethlehem. As I talked with Zoughbi, we watched a group of young students walking beside the wall until they began throwing rocks at the guard tower. Zoughbi commented, “We have to offer them better alternatives.”
After a discussion with the nonviolent activists invited by Zoughbi, I talked with youthful camp leaders and a visiting group of Argentineans that included a young woman who had been born in Palestine but grew up in Argentina. The group then toured the Aida Refugee camp for young people whose families were displaced by the 1967 war, but my visit was cut short by the next event on my schedule. As I walked beside the wall to the camp, I noted the graffiti expressing anti-war sentiments and especially the misspelled message, “We Have Dreem.” During my previous visit, a tour of the Yad Vashem holocaust museum set a somber tone for the entire visit; this time, my first view of the wall served as a context for everything that followed.
I then went a session with Palestinians brought together by Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust (established in 1998) and one of the most prominent Palestinian proponents of nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The Holy Land Trust has its roots in the work of Mubarak Awad, who in 1984 established the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence and was expelled by Israel in 1988. Sami Awad, nephew of Mubarak, studied international peace and conflict
resolution at American University in Washington, D. C.. He often lectures in the United States and was recommended to me by Dr. Mary King, a SNCC veteran, former Peace Corps administrator, and an internationally-known expert on nonviolence principles and strategies. I had a productive exchange of ideas with Awad and his colleagues but regretted not being able to spend more time with them and not being able to observe the nonviolent Palestinian protest that was occurring nearby that day. In this discussion as well as others, I was often made aware of the sense of urgency felt by Palestinians as they observe more and more of the West Bank coming under Israeli control through settlements, the construction of the wall and highways for use by settlers, and the continued confiscation of Palestinian homes. More recently, there had been Palestinian protests against the designation of historical landmarks deemed important to Jewish history. (continued)