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Source: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
8 December 2011

Khaled Abu Awwad: “Everyone must think of the other”

Khaled Abu Awwad has lost two brothers, one of his sons was left handicapped and another is languishing in jail but he still believes that the way of peace and reconciliation is the right approach. The winner of the 2011 Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence says, “I do not believe that there is any other possible way to achieve our demands, bring about justice in the region and for everyone to live in peace, regardless of nationality.”

Interview conducted by Khaled Abu Hijleh, UNESCO Courier

Could you tell us something about the non-governmental organization Al-Tariq (“The Way” — the Palestinian Institution for Development and Democracy)? And what is the role of the Parents Circle — Families Forum?

When I first began working for the Palestinian branch of the Parents Circle – Families Forum in 2001-2002, we were a group of Arab individuals establishing links with an Israeli group working for peace and reconciliation. During those first years, from 2001 to 2005, I noticed that what each side wanted, alongside the joint action, was to work within its own community. Together with a group of friends, I began to feel that there was a need to found a Palestinian organization capable of talking to the Palestinian public. That was how the idea of setting up Al-Tariq started.

Al-Tariq has links with the Parents Circle — Families Forum but has a wider scope. At the PCFF, we represent bereaved families on the Palestinian side who believe in the message of peace and reconciliation, whereas Al-Tariq reaches out more widely to embrace diverse sections of Palestinian society.

In spite of the tragic events in your life — the killing of your two brothers in 2002 and the arrest of your eldest son two years ago – you did not consider resorting to radical options. On the contrary, you took up the cause of peace and reconciliation. How do you explain that?

When I decided to follow the path of calling for mutual respect between the two peoples and for the recognition of mutual right, I saw that each side would begin to think about the other, not in terms of trying to get as much as possible but on the basis that, if you have a claim, you must consider whether or not that claim threatens the survival and continuation of the other party. That is the basis of my approach, which is an expression of my deep belief in this principle. I had seen people at joint meetings with Israelis talking about peace, reconciliation and recognition of the right of the other side but at meetings where no Israelis were present, they expressed completely different sentiments. I call this putting one thing on the table and something else beneath it. It has been a source of distress to me and caused me to lose respect for such people. From the start, it has been my belief that I have to be straight with every one of my people. When I put forward and defend an issue, I must first be honest and believe in it before communicating it to anyone else. I have complete confidence that that is the light which can guide us to a just solution.

The death of my brother Youssef in 2000 was a turning point. And two years later, another brother Thayeb died ten days after being wounded. My son, Muayyad, was seriously wounded and left handicapped. All of this was a harsh test for me and my commitment to my path. When my son was wounded, I was in a meeting with some young Israelis, talking about non-violence, reconciliation and mutual respect. When word came that my son had been wounded, my Israeli partner told the youngsters, “We came to give you hope but there are those who are trying to kill that hope.” For my part, I told the youngsters that this incident should not be a reason to lose hope in the path on which we are travelling.

My second son, Muhannad, was arrested in 2009 and is still in prison. This has also had an impact, as he was arrested arbitrarily, in an extra-judicial manner. All of these events were a trial for me. I would continually ask myself, “Am I really travelling on the right path?” And that is to say nothing about all the incidents which every Palestinian experiences. Everyone who lives in or visits Palestine knows that the Palestinians suffer from disruptions, psychological pressure and frustration from morning to night — and even while asleep — because of Israeli practices. As such, everyone who has faith in our path must sit down with himself every day and try to recall positive events, look to the future and work up the energy to enable him to continue on the path. For I do not believe that there is any other possible way to achieve our demands, bring about justice in the region and for everyone to live in peace, regardless of nationality.

Your activity is basically peaceful and community-based. How do you believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved? Are you optimistic?

I believe that the optimistic point of view is preferable to the pessimistic. Pessimism is a frustration and exhaustion of energy, and whatever you want to achieve, either as an individual or as a people, needs energy and strength. I mean the inner strength inside each one of us. Optimism always makes a man stronger.

It is well-known that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conventional conflict. And it is certainly not a simple one, given its national, religious and linguistic complications, all of which increase the divisions, complicate the issue and diminish opportunities for mutual understanding, discussion and debate. But the situation cannot last forever. As long as there is a people and that people have a dream, there must come a time when the dream will come true. It is, perhaps, more important to ask: “What is the price to be paid by the peoples of the region between now and the time when a solution is finally reached?” It is precisely this that has to be focused on the most. To anyone who says that it is only by war or by force or by eradicating the other side that rights can be won or dreams achieved, I say, “That is not so”. For one side cannot eradicate the other. We cannot kill their dreams and they are unable to kill ours. We must divide this place among us all and live in peace or all of us will live in hell.

Last year, you were named one of the 500 most influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, an independent non-governmental organization based in Amman, Jordan. What are your comments?

A statistician at the Centre named me as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. I have no direct connection to this Centre. I believe that this statistic was most likely a product of the Centre’s research. Over the last ten years, I have been an extremely active participant in conferences and events in Palestine, Israel and internationally. Perhaps that is the reason why they arrived at their conclusion. However, anything that boosts my capacity to keep working to reduce the gaps between peoples’ perspectives certainly makes me happy.

“Crack in the Wall” is a joint project between Al-Tariq and the Parents Circle — Families Forum, using social networks and the technology of the new media. How would you describe the role of social networks in peace-building and conflict resolution and is it possible to universalize the experiment?

I believe that it is possible to universalize the experiment, which is based on a creative idea relating to our work in this region of the world in spite of all the difficulties which we have faced and continue to face.

Notice that calling the project “Crack in the Wall” means that, alongside physical walls of cement, there are also mental and psychological walls. Any conflict between two parties creates walls of hatred and loathing and walls of disrespect for and non-recognition of the other. This is the idea behind the project. We believe that power lies in the Palestinian street, where there are many who are silent, although their thoughts and ideas are not so very different from ours. In order to open a door or, at least, a window, to those people, making them actively involved and allowing their views to be heard above the conflict, we thought it a good idea to use modern telecommunication technology and open a gap in the wall to empower those Palestinians and Israelis who seek dialogue with the other side by listening to the views of the other and having their voice heard by the other side.

We believe that leaders can reach and sign any agreement but for an agreement to work on the ground, it must have mass support.

With Anarkali Honaryar (Afghanistan), you are to be awarded the 2011 Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. What lies behind this achievement and how will it affect your future plans?

Winning this award has given me greater self-confidence and increased my belief in the path I am following. Furthermore, it will increase our degree of influence in the community for adopting the process of reconciliation and abandoning violence between the contending sides in our region.

Do you believe that the Arab Spring has had an effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How will both sides react to the peaceful change which the Arab region has undergone?

As regards the Arab Spring, I believe, along with many Israelis, that it is not possible to live in peace if the Israeli people do not realize that they must be a part of the societies of this region. They must coexist with these societies and there must be a process of reconciliation between the Israeli people and the peoples of the region. Events in the Arab region have strengthened the view which says that we cannot impose our existence and respect by force. Our existence and respect will be imposed by mutual understanding and mutual consent. I call upon all Israelis – Government and people — to understand this and to understand that the Palestinian people are the bridge to the hearts of the Arab nation. The process of reconciliation between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is the way to draw a new map in the Middle East, in which Israel is a fully integrated part and not an imposition by force.

My last question concerns the contribution of UNESCO to peace-building around the world and the accession of Palestine as a full Member State at the organization’s last general conference: what in your view is the importance of this historic event?

When the Palestinian leadership turned to the United Nations for recognition of the State of Palestine, it became inevitable. Not all sections of the Palestinian people are equally patient in the face of absence of achievement. By resolving to accept Palestinian membership, UNESCO showed itself to be the international organization which understood best the importance of respecting the Palestinian dream. Twenty years of fruitless negotiations had killed hope in the hearts of many. With this achievement, however, the dream and the hope have been returned to every Palestinian.

We trust that other organizations will recognize Palestine as UNESCO has done, even without its existence as an actual State on the ground, as the moral achievement will have great impact in, at least, giving the Palestinians hope.

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