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, I was greeted by Cynthia, who discussed the final arrangements and limitations – namely, that I avoid protests. A few blocks from the Old City, the hotel was small, attractive accommodation with amenities such as flat screen cable television and wi-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, wall hangings, and reminders of the unique role that the American Colony and the hotel has 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.
On Tuesday, the second day of my visit, we traveled to the offices of the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development (PANORAMA) in Ramallah, the city where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters. Established in 1991, Panorama has a wide range of programs, and my visit to its office enabled me to meet with staff members as well as other prominent figures in the Palestinian nonviolent movement. The roundtable discussion gave me a chance to share ideas with a variety of activists seeking, through different means, to bringing about a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I talked briefly with a man who had spent ten years in Israeli jails yet remained committed to nonviolent resistance. But I also noted the expressions of frustration among the Palestinians with the lack of progress and with the failure of the United States to act in an even-handed manner in the Middle East or act effectively to prevent Israeli violations of international law. I had a brief chat with Claire Dibsy-Ayad of Seeds of Peace, which has a camp in Maine to bring together children from areas of conflict, including the Middle East; Claire later joined the Gandhi-King Community. I also had a chance to talk to Cairo Arafat, the mother of a Stanford student who participated in my 2008 Gandhi seminar in India. She works as a CRC researcher for Save The Children and with the Palestinian Authority in the Prime Minister's office for Media Affairs. Although Cairo made plans to meet with me again in Jerusalem, she was unable to come, sending the following message: “It was a good seminar. Everyone commented that it gave them support at a time where we feel events are moving too slowly or regressing. I tried to make it to Jerusalem, but got turned back at two checkpoints. . . . There is an article in today's newspaper on your trip and insight. They note that there is a general change in USA understanding of the Palestinian issue.”
Following lunch at PANORAMA, I talked with professors and academics in a crowded classroom at Birzeit University, located on a recently-build campus near Ramallah. This academic audience seemed to be quite interested the history of the African-American freedom struggle and in exploring the lessons that Palestinians might learn from that struggle. But I surmised that few members of the audience were currently engaged in nonviolent activism against the occupation, and thus the questions were less probing than at my other meetings.
We left the Ramallah area for the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem to attend a session of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO forum. The meeting was intended to bring together Palestinians with representatives of Israeli Peace NGO’s, but nearly all of the attendees were Palestinian. The tone was more contentious than at my previous meetings involving only Palestinians. When one of the Palestinians expressed his grievances, a self-described ultra-orthodox rabbi, who had been invited by one of the regular Israeli participants, responded by saying that eighty percent of Israelis were willing to give up land for peace but that eighty percent also did not believe that peace would result from giving up land. Therefore, he suggested, it was up to the Palestinians to demonstrate that peace would be the result of the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian, who mentioned he had spent time in Israeli jails, was far from satisfied with this response, insisting that it was not the task of Palestinians to provide sufficient assurance to satisfy Israelis. After the meeting broke up, the two talked briefly with me and one another, but there was no indication they found common ground. After the meeting, I was interviewed for the Palestinian journal mentioned above.
Wednesday, the third and final day of my visit, began with a drive to Hebron where an extended meeting with nonviolent activists had been organized by Library on Wheels for Nonviolence and Peace (lownp), another off-shoot of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. The Library’s founder is sociologist Nafez Assaily, who had worked with Mubarak Awad before the latter’s expulsion by Israel. I talked with Nafez, his Italian volunteer Paula, and others associated with the Library on Wheels, including academics form Hebron University, government officials, and a number of American representatives of the Jerusalem consulate. The discussions followed the general pattern of those elsewhere, although some participants expressed particularly intense resentment against vicious Israeli settlement activities in the Hebron area. I was encouraged to observe these activities for myself, although the restrictions of my visit prevented me from doing so. I saw some possibilities for future collaboration with the Library regarding the dissemination of educational materials and left behind several books (unfortunately nothing in Arabic).
After completing my scheduled events, I returned to the American Colony Hotel, where I had planned to meet Lucy Nusseibeh, founder and director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND) and another veteran of Mubarak Awad’s Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Because she was delayed, I met first with her associate Adel Ruished, who talked with me as we walked through the Old City (my only chance to be a tourist on this visit). After Adel and I concluded our walking conversation, he returned with me to the hotel where I met with Lucy. My talk with her in the hotel bar with Lucy lasted more than an hour until Cynthia and the expeditor arrived to make certain I got to the airport. Because MEND has conducted nonviolence workshops in West Bank communities, Mary King had recommended Lucy as an extremely knowledgeable expert on Palestinian nonviolent activism, and both Adel and Lucy provided me with very useful historical background information. Their insights, in addition to Mary King’s A Quiet Revolution, helped me to make sense of my experiences on this visit.
Overall, my visit was as productive as possible, given its brevity. This was due to the careful preparations of Cynthia, Suzan, and their Palestinian organizational contacts who invited a wide range of representative activists to my sessions. This produced a crowded three-day schedule that never gave me the sense that I was wasting any time. With few exceptions, I was able to meet all of the Palestinian nonviolence proponents that I had heard about or read about. The audiences were attentive and cordial, welcoming my insights derived from experience and research, while also occasionally advising me that their struggle was different from the African-American struggle or the South African struggle. While accepting that all struggles are unique, I think I was able to present a persuasive argument, using the example of Gandhi’s impact on King and the African-American struggle, that each sustained freedom struggle has learned valuable lessons from proceeding ones.
Since leaving late Wednesday evening, I have maintained contact with a number of the people I met during the visit. As of March 14, there were seven Palestinians (and two Israelis) among the 1008 members of the online Gandhi-King Community that I established several years ago (two of the Palestinians are college students living outside the Middle East, one in the United States and one in the Netherlands). In addition, I have received e-mails from several other attendees at the meetings on my schedule.
In conclusion, I admire the steadfast commitment to nonviolence displayed by my hosts and the other nonviolent groups with which I had contact, but I wondered how widely that commitment is shared by other Palestinians, especially Muslims, who were under-represented in groups with whom I met (Mubarak Awad is a Christian, as are many of his closest associates). Nonetheless, I left with some hopeful impressions of the Palestinian nonviolent movement. First, it is a broad-based movement rather than simply a collection of individual advocates of nonviolence. I was encouraged that Palestinians have formed a variety of organizations that are exploring different paths to nonviolent solutions to the conflict with Israel. Second, many of the activists I met stressed that progress will require changes within Palestinian communities as well as changes in relations with Israel, and they have focused much of their attention on reducing the level of internal violence within Palestinian communities. Third, although many activists mentioned the need for a Gandhi-like figure to serve as the international symbol of their movement, most shared my belief that an effective movement needs to be built from the grassroots rather than through reliance on a single charismatic leader comparable to King, Gandhi, or Mandela. Indeed, the likelihood that emergent leaders would face expulsion or imprisonment by Israel may provide another reason for Palestinians to avoid reliance on top-down models of struggle. The diversity of grassroots leadership is a strong point of the Palestinian resistance movement; yet I believe that at least one spokesperson with international visibility and local credibility will emerge from grassroots activism that he or she did not create.
Despite these reasons for optimism, I recognize that the Palestinian movement faces many challenges. A military occupation is difficult to overcome through nonviolent means, since military forces can severely restrict the press coverage on which nonviolent resistance relies and can equate nonviolent resistance violence, thereby justifying a violent response. Moreover, many of the Palestinian activists are convinced that their appeals to global public opinion are frustrated by a double standard that ignores or downplays Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. Whether this is due to Western guilt about the holocaust or Western fear of Islamic terrorism, the result has been that Israel’s invasion of Gaza prompted no protests in Western nations comparable to the outrage that resulted from the South African apartheid regime’s suppression of black South African protesters. Although the emergence of a charismatic Palestinian advocate of nonviolent resistance might attract more international support, I believe that the immediate need for Palestinians is to develop dramatic tactics that will attract popular support in Palestine and then take advantage of new communications technologies, such as the internet, to reach a global audience of sympathizers and potential supporters. Palestinians will probably develop their own King-like figure only after the appearance of a figure comparable to Rosa Parks, who in 1955 initiated a sustained boycott movement by acting on her own. Given the recent upsurge of Palestinian protest activity, it seems likely that Palestinian activists are in the process of adapting traditional nonviolent strategies to develop innovative tactics that are appropriate to their circumstances, capable of attracting international attention, and able to provide a powerful expression of the Palestinian aspiration for enduring peace and reconciliation with Israel.
Because the Palestinian struggle has global significance as a test for strategies of nonviolent resistance, I hope and expect return to the Occupied Territories for additional discussions with Palestinian activists. Among the possibilities I discussed with Consulate officials was to return in March 2011 for a Palestinian production of my play, “Passages of Martin Luther King,” which was performed in Beijing by the National Theatre of China in 2007.