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Gandhis of Olive Country

Another path to peace? Palestinians revel in Gandhi and the nonviolent struggle.

By Aimee Ginsburg in Ramallah and Bethlehem

I‘m sitting with Robert Hirschfield at the corner ice-cream shop, tall windows facing the street, steaming mint tea in our glass mugs. Outside, a large group of angry young PLO Supporters are waving their fists and their kaffiyas, shouting slogans against the Hamas’ massacre of 14 Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) members in Gaza. We are in Ramallah, the interim capital of Palestine, two American Jewish writers, and I am thinking we are crazy. Hirschfield, 68, is comfortable. He has been travelling through Palestine for a month now, researching his book on Palestinian non-violence. He likes it here. “There is an aliveness, an open and present friendliness, a warmth,” he says. Outside, the shouting gets louder. I, sorry to say, think of Daniel Pearl; Hirschfield of Mahatma Gandhi.

It was the visit of Arun Gandhi-the Mahatma’s grandson-to Palestine in 2004 that first caught Hirschfield’s interest. “In the United States,” Hirschfield says, “Palestinians are seldom portrayed as anything other than terrorists. Sure the terror is real, and Israel must defend herself. But why stigmatise the whole of the Palestinian people?” It was this point Arun Gandhi addressed on his Palestine visit. “Imaging yourselves marching by the thousands behind your leaders, demanding the right to be treated as human beings,” he had asked a large audience of Palestinians and their Israeli sympathizers. “Sit at the roadblocks and sing your songs. March to the wall and dance your danced.”

No mass march followed this perhaps naïve plea, but Arun’s message was absorbed, part of a continuing Palestinian debate on the viability of a nonviolent (NV) resolution to the Israeli occupation. “We are looking forward to a Palestinian satyagraha,” answered Hanna Amireh, of the PLO executive committee, to Arun. “In spite of the fact that Palestine might not be ready for Mahatma Gandhi should find an abiding place in the Palestinian struggle for freedom.”

The most well-publicized NV “revolt” is happening at the village of Bil’in. When Israel confiscated, in 2004, several thousands of acres of this village to build the security wall between the two counties from north to south, hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis started coming to weekly Friday NV resistance actions here. It included chaining themselves to olive trees and holding weddings on the confiscated land. Some 800 have been injured, many have been arrested, The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled in their favour, but only partially. The protests continue. Abdullah Abu Rahma, the director of the coalition at Bil’in, told Hirschfield, “What Gandhi did for his people, I want to do for mine.”

“The history of Palestinian NV is long and courageous, but not well-known,” says Hirschfield, a writer’s writer whose discovery of the Palestinian NV movement has developed into an intensely personal passion, leading him all the way from New York’s Lower East Side to the towns and alleyways of Palestine. “It is not quite a story of ahimsa, not in the spiritual sense. Usually, NV activism has been used here as a way to an end. But,” he adds, “certainly, there are many who choose NV because it is just that-nonviolent.”

We are joined at the Ramallah ice-cream shop by Hizami Jabri, a 36 year-old father of five young girls, who has served two terms in Israeli jails and was shot in his shoulder during a violent agitation. “I started to ask myself, how could I have a good life? How could my people have a good life? This violence, it cannot bring a good life,” says Jabri, a member of the Palestine Authority’s preventative security force by day, an NV trainer for the NOG MEND (Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy) after hours. He tells us, as many do, that the success of NV in India gives him strength, inspiration. There is shy pride in his hazel eyes when he says, “My daughters have taught NV conflict resolution to all the other kids in the neighbourhood. They are a new generation.”

Hirschfield tells us of another NGO called Combatants for Peace, which unites Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters in NV actions against the Israeli occupation. One Palestinian leader of this group, Bassam Aramin, an ex-Fatah fighter who served years in Israeli jails, lost his 10-year-old daughter to a stray Israeli bullet last spring but has not changed his mind about his path; Aramin’s Israeli counterpart, Arik, lost his sister in a Palestinian suicide attack. Hirschfield has written about these men in one of his powerful essays: “They are fighters wanting to reframe the fight, wanting a future for their children emptied of the wall posters posters of martyrs.”

My crash course on the history of the Palestine NV movement is set to stunning scenery, seen through the windows of the small local buses. Beige and olive hillsides meet the cream blue sky in a clearly marked line; an ageing man with a child on his back walks slowly through a fallow field. Hirschfield, his white hair worn in an Einstein-like halo, tells me that most Palestinian NV resistance (dating back as far as 1936) has emerged from the grassroots, not taught by a leader or a specific ideology. But the NV technique received a boost during the 1988 uprising (the Intifada,) when the underground leadership called the people to use organized, classic NV tactic-boycotts of Israeli goods, tax strikes, planting vegetable gardens, even knitting and sewing their own clothes. The people responded, a peace process did result, but not any real liberation. Now, after one more (extremely violent) ‘intifada’, inter-Palestinian violence is at an all-time high.

We have reached Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, through a massive and intimidating checkpost. We are visiting the Holy Land Trust (HLT), one of the several Palestinian NGOS dedicated to strengthening and promoting NV on the ‘West Bank’. In the hallway, a billboard carries a photo of Mahatma Gandhi with the quote: “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.” On the hallway bookshelf, a well-worn set of Gandhi’s writings, brought back by Mubarak Awad-called Abu Gandhi (See box)- from his India yatra some 25 years ago. “I do not believe Gandhi would agree to definitions such as ‘Gandhian’,” says Sami Awad, Mubarak’s nephew and the executive director of the HLT. “This term holds a sense of division, separateness. But the HLT is founded on the philosophy and the work of Gandhi-in the political, social and spiritual sense.” The windows look out over a valley where a large, clustered Israeli settlement blocks the view of the olive groves on the ancient white rock slopes.

Olive trees in Palestine have special significance-they give their first fruit after 70 years. When one plants and tends to a new olive tree, it is an act of unselfish love towards future generate-one Palestine is covered in olive groves, but thousands have been cut to build the Wall. Replanting new olive tree has become a major form of civil disobedience, along with rebuilding demolished houses, demonstrating at the Wall, and boycotting Israeli goods. “I am often reminded of the famous quote by Gandhi,” says Awad, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, the great thing about this quote is the fact that Gandhi did not say-then they fight you, then THEY LOSE. Gandhi said, then YOU WIN. In NV, there are no losers, only winners.”

THESE days, there are never enough seats in the NV trainings give by HLT, MEND, Wi’am and others to supply the rapidly growing demand from women, villagers, PLO fighters, even once a clandestine unit of Hamas. Over the course of three days, 50 or more participants learn to recognize and express their anger; nonviolent conflict resolution; and strategies for civil disobedience. “It’s amazing,” says Eilda Zaghmout Bandak, the 26-year-old charismatic executive officer of HLT, participants immediately begin to apply these techniques in their daily lives. We have always felt so helpless, at the mercy of others. Now we feel empowered.”

This good news remains under-reported, even in Israel, where there is a majority support for an independent Palestinian country. Three years ago, wealthy American businesspeople’ sponsored The Gandhi Campaign: the Hollywood film, Gandhi, dubbed in Arabic, was shown in towns and villages across Palestine and Gaza, with the hope that it will inspire NV. (Ben Kingsley, the movie’s star, was guest of honour at the premiere). The next day, Avishai Margalit, a writer for Israel’s Left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, asked Palestinian friends if there ever could be a Palestinian Gandhi, and why Mubarak Awad had ‘failed’. “Nonviolent struggle is perceived in Palestine as unmanly,” his friends told him. “There is a strong belief that what was taken by force must be regained by force.” The ‘left-wing’ Israeli blogger Ran HaCohen wrote in response: “The Palestinians don’t have to watch the Gandhi film. There are thousands of Palestinian Gandhis out there. Whole villages that demonstrate daily and peacefully against the robbery of their land and livelihood. Still, the only voice we hear is the voice of commentators and movie stars wondering, ‘Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”

Hirschfield would agree. He is writing his book about theses emarkable people, and about his mother as well, a deeply orthodox Jew who lost 25 members of her family in the Holocaust. “My mother was appalled by the violence in the world. She taught me that I must use my life to my power to heal this world. Israel’s actions in Palestine fill me with anger, and with immense sadness.” “He is one of many, one both sides of the grey wall, dedicated to tearing it down by being, as Gandhi famously said, the change they want to see.

(Aimee Ginsburg has been living in India for the Past 11 years and is the India correspondent for Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Achronot. She accompanied Robert Hirschfield to Palestine for researching his book on Palestinian nonviolence.)


THE MAN WHO BROUGHT THE MAHATMA TO PALESTINE

In between all the violence, Mubarak Awad has slowly brought the Gandhi way to bear MUBARAK Awad, a bear-like men with white hair now, used to drive in from Jerusalem into the West Bank, where he would set down in town centres his pictures of Gandhi, his pamphlets and books by the Mahatma, like a village woman selling her mint. Seeing him sitting all alone in the heat, Palestinians would take pity on him, offering him food and drink, a place to stay for the night. “People would say to me, ‘You are a pacifist. We are not pacifists.” I met him in his office on the American University campus, remembering the seventies. A Palestinian exile, Awad teachers a course on nonviolence. “I told them, ‘It is you who are passive. You are under occupation, and you are doing nothing’.”

Awad did not hear about Gandhi till he was in his late twenties. He had to go all the way to Bluffton College in Ohio to learn from his professors about Gandhi. They were Mennonites, Christian peace activists like he would become. Back in Jerusalem in 1985, he rented a hall at the YMCA. He told the overflowing crowd, “We are under occupation because we choose to be under occupation. If we don’t want to be under occupation, let’s do what Gandhi did.”

The next day, Israeli security forces threatened to close down the YMCA if Awad was allowed to give a second talk. The battle between the state of Israel and Mubarak Awad had officially begun. It was to end in a Jerusalem courtroom three-and-a-half year later, in 1988, when the Israeli high court sustained Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s order expelling him from the territory.

The Israelis were vexed by Awad because the language of nonviolence that he spoke was politically lyrical, unpredictable, even comical. He got Palestinian farmers to defend their olive trees with Gandhian methods (no violence towards soldiers, no running away, no resisting arrest.) He appeared uninvited on military bases to try to win over the hearts of soldiers. At his trial, he threatened to convert to Judaism if expelled, and return to Israel under the Law of Return.

He was to India once, on pilgrimage, to meet Abdul Ghaffar Khan. He wanted to meet a Muslim leader who believed in nonviolence, so as to set before the Muslims of Palestine someone they could relate to more than the Hindu Gandhi, or the Christian Dr King. “Khan was very old. May be in his nineties. He was lying down, He was very tall. Boy, was he tall! He greeted me with his eyes. That was all. He couldn’t talk.”

wad talks a lot. At the end of his trial, he spoke these words to the court: “Uprooting me from my family, land, friends and culture is a disgrace. As a Palestinian, I have never hated you. I don’t hate you now. I will never hate you.”

Robert Hirschfield

Source: Outlook, March, 2008