Aziz Abu Sarah was seven when he saw television reports of Palestinians throwing rocks at IDF soldiers. It was 1987 and the first time he heard the word intifada. He wasn’t clear what the differences were between Palestinians and Israelis or Muslims and Jews, though the words were starting to echo through his home. The Palestinian uprising against Israel was just about to burst into his east Jerusalem neighborhood of Eizariya.
At the time the village was small, with only a few hundred families. When his neighbors were suspected of joining the gangs of children and teenagers throwing stones at cars, buses or homes, Jewish neighbors would march into town in the hundreds with sticks, he remembers.
“They would come for revenge and we would run up on the roof to be safe. They would go house to house breaking windows, and we would call to each other from the roofs, reporting, ‘Now they are here, now they are there.’ We were lucky because we didn’t live close to the main road and had land around our house, so they never got to us, but I could see them and hear them, 200-300 meters away.”
By the time he was nine, Abu Sarah started packing an onion in his backpack. “It cleans your nose and can maybe save your life,” he explains. “I almost fainted a few times running away when Israeli soldiers were throwing tear gas.”
Over the following years of the first intifada, he would secretly join the rock throwers. And eventually – following tragedy after tragedy, including an intifada-related death in the family – he would join and then become a leader in the young vanguard of Fatah.
Abu Sarah, now 29, dedicated years of his young life to promoting violent resistance and revenge.
Until he discovered a different way to fight for Palestinian rights.
Why did you start throwing rocks at Israelis?
We were a group of kids who did not understand what we were doing. We saw it on TV, it seemed fun and we had nothing else to do. There was no city center, there were no playgrounds. In the beginning you just do it and it is not politically motivated. It seems fun, until the soldiers start to shoot at you.
Why were there Israeli soldiers in your neighborhood?
That’s a good question. We never knew. But we were in walking distance of a Jewish settlement, so they probably came to look for people who had thrown stones. They also came when we painted graffiti on our walls. They would make us wash it or paint over it though it was private property. But of course we just wrote on the wall again the next day. We also would tie stones to Palestinian flags and throw them up so they would get tangled around the electricity wires. The soldiers would make us take the flags down, which seemed dangerous. Luckily nobody in our neighborhood ever got electrocuted.
Did the stone throwing ever get you in trouble or hurt Israelis or damage their property?
Once a group of us went to the main street and broke the windows on an Israeli bus full of passengers. We thought it was very successful. But that night at 2 a.m., Israeli soldiers went door to door on the street where the bus was hit and every man there was punished. They took every man older than 16 into the freezing cold in his pajamas and made them stand outside until sunrise.
Actually, the kids on that street never threw stones again. And if we got close to that street, we got yelled at by those parents. The parents were against throwing stones – not for political reasons but because they saw that it was dangerous for the children and their families. The families even once contacted my parents when they saw me throwing rocks and I got grounded.
When did throwing stones become political for you?
Once we were driving and Israeli soldiers stopped the car and asked my father and all my brothers to step out and stand against the wall. The soldiers were violently kicking their feet apart, and my brother Fawsi was very angry and yelled that they didn’t have the right to beat him. A soldier raised his gun to my brother. My father shouted at Fawsi to quiet down. My parents freaked out because they were so afraid.
My father said that there were good relations between Jews and Arabs between 1967 and the 1980s, but then soldiers were stopping Arabs all the time. My father was a taxi driver and took a lot of professors and Jewish clients and when they would pass soldiers taking Arabs out of cars and pushing them against walls, even the Jewish professors would argue among themselves about it. And then in 1990 my brother got arrested.
Why was your brother arrested and how did that affect you?
It was Ramadan. We had woken up at 3:30 a.m. for a pre-fast meal and then gone back to sleep around 5 a.m. There was a bang on the door. You know from this violent banging that it is soldiers and that if you don’t open up quickly, they will break down the door. My father opened the door in his pajamas.
My four brothers and I shared one room. My sisters were in another room. The soldiers came into my room and checked everyone’s ID. And then they took my middle brother, Taysir. He was 18. One of the soldiers spoke Arabic; he said they were just going to ask him a few questions. Taysir got dressed and went freely with the soldiers. My mother was crying and we didn’t know what to do. Everyone was asking, what did he do? And we didn’t know.
We went to the Red Cross and asked them to help us. But the army told them it would take time to figure out where my brother was and why he was taken. Eventually my father hired a lawyer, and only 18 days after he was taken did my father find out that Taysir was in prison in Hebron. He went to go see him and found Taysir’s mouth full of blood, but my brother was a tough guy and said, “Don’t worry, I just broke a tooth that’s all.”
I saw him only once when he was in jail. There were two fences separating the prisoners and the families so you can’t touch each other. Hundreds of visitors are yelling across the fences and you can’t hear anything. Later they moved him to a prison in Beitunya near Ramallah. He was gone for 10 months.
What did you learn about his time in jail?
When he came home, everyone came to document what happened in jail – the PLO, Fatah, the Red Cross. He said he was interrogated for 18 days until he agreed to sign a confession that he had thrown rocks at Israeli soldiers. The confession listed how many times he threw rocks and at how many cars. They sentenced him without bringing him to a court.
He told us they tortured him during interrogation. He hadn’t told us before because he did not want to worry my parents while he was in jail. He said that he was forced to stand for a day or two at a time in a [metal] closet too narrow to sit down, with minimal food and water and no bathroom. He said he would bang on the door, preferring to irritate the soldiers and get beaten, so that he could stretch his legs that were in so much pain. They blindfolded him many times during interrogation and he never knew who was beating him. When he asked to see a doctor he was beaten again. At best he got Acamol [aspirin], though he was throwing up blood a lot.
The IDF was looking into this matter at press time.
Was it true that your brother was throwing rocks?
Unfortunately I will never know that. We never talked to each other about
these things. I did it and never told anyone, even my brothers. There were a lot of spies and everyone gets recruited by Israel. One time I was ordered to the Israeli police station and I was taken to a private room with a captain who spoke perfect Arabic and he had a plan for how I would work with them. If you need money they promise you money and if they have things against you they also use this to pressure you. But I said no. We never told anyone what we were doing in case we or they were caught and interrogated to confess. We couldn’t confess about our brothers if we didn’t know what they were doing.
How did your brother die?
I am the youngest of eight kids and he was like a parent to me. He took me to school, helped me when I got into trouble, talked to my teachers, followed my grades. But when he got out of prison, I told him that some kids stole my marbles and for the first time he told me I had to learn to take care of myself. I think he knew that he was dying. He was still throwing up blood, and within a few days of coming home he was in the hospital. All the beatings led to his death. At first the doctors said it was his spleen that had to be removed. But they discovered that his liver had also been damaged, and after the surgery he became unconscious. It was Ramadan again. He was hooked up to machines and he never woke up.
Who else close to you was killed during the intifada?
When my brother was in jail, there was a riot at the Aksa Mosque. The Palestinians were afraid radicals were trying to take it over, after extremists laid the cornerstone for building the Third Temple. Four thousand Palestinians went to protest and 21 Palestinians were killed, and my brother’s best friend was one of them. He was shot from above through his neck. I saw the body. In Islam the murdered are not washed and you do not change their clothes.
I was enraged. It gave me a clear vision that they hate us and we hate them. All I wanted to do was to get revenge on the soldiers. But my brother’s death was the final point of change for me. I crossed over from being a kid to being a person with a mission.
Did you decide to avenge your brother’s death?
My brother’s murder made me ask, what is my role? And in that moment it was clear. As a good brother, my duty was to take revenge and not to let go. It was the only available option. I kept this a secret from my parents. They were afraid something would happen to me and I had to be careful so that they would not have to go through that again, not that I cared about my life and death – hatred and revenge were much stronger. But I didn’t want to hurt my parents. It was a puzzle how I could get my revenge without paying any price.
Why did you join Fatah?
Of all the groups, my brother seemed the most fond of Fatah. Every Palestinian by now supported either Fatah or other groups, and I chose Fatah because my brother did. My family became more religious after he died, but I resented religion, blaming God. Fatah was secular. At first I was too young to join, but I went to their demonstrations, youth factions and meetings, I tried to meet people. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was more active.
Were you also angry at Israel about other things?
There were many things. In my east Jerusalem school, three of the students had been killed. And I was not happy about Oslo, about the idea of making peace with the people who had killed my brother. At 16 I was supposed to get my Jerusalem ID at the Interior Ministry. But they said no, that I lived in the West Bank and legally I could not enter Jerusalem unless I proved I lived in Jerusalem. I had been in school in Jerusalem since I was 10 [and Bethany was in east Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives], but they stopped letting me through the checkpoints to go to school. The rules were getting tighter and things kept piling up.
Israel also decided around that time to separate Bethany [Eizariya] from Jerusalem. My parents were afraid that we would lose our Jerusalem ID [and be unable to travel freely], so one by one, my brothers got apartments in Jerusalem. It cost the family a lot of money. I loved my house in Bethany and at first I refused to move. I was very angry and it just gave me more fuel about resistance. I could see that through Oslo we were losing more and more.
What role was a teenager able to play in the uprising besides throwing rocks?
Fatah had a strong youth movement and I was very active. I threw rocks until I was about 16, but then I realized that if I got arrested it would not help. I had a talent for writing, so I found my way to power and influence through writing about resistance as one of five student leaders of Fatah youth.
I argued that we should never compromise on anything and fight until the end for our land, for our country and for our freedom. I was also apologetic about terrorism and wrote that Israel was the terrorist, not us. I could have easily gone to prison for what I wrote. It was similar to what the Jews believed though, that violence as murder is unjust but if someone is taking something that is yours or attacking you, then you are allowed and must do anything to defend yourself. I was against suicide attacks, though. I believed we should fight, but not against civilians. Not because I cared about Israeli civilians, but I just didn’t think that it would serve our cause. I argued that an armed struggle must be tactical.
By the time I was 17 and 18, the student leaders had enough power to open or close schools and bring thousands of people to demonstrations. I also had the power to reach thousands of people through my writing in Fatah youth magazines [and in] political statements. We printed thousands of copies and spread them all over and read them in classrooms.
When you got older, what about Fatah made you think you needed to find a new direction?
I liked that Fatah was secular and had a vision, but felt I had little future to rise in the ranks and become a decision maker. The Fatah leadership was limited to a few older veterans in the organization. I didn’t want to be just a member with no influence. I also started to think about my future. I tried to get a scholarship to study abroad but couldn’t. I was stuck here with no plan and was emotionally exhausted from the weight of my hatred.
What did you do next?
I realized that despite my fears about normalization [with Israel] that in the Palestinian sector workers without training made a maximum salary of NIS 20 to NIS 30 a day and in Israel they made NIS 100 to NIS 120 a day. So I went to study Hebrew for one year.
How did meeting Jewish peers affect you?
It was my first interaction with the Jewish community other than soldiers or settlers. I expected Jewish people to be aggressive and mean like the [soldiers and settlers] I had met. I had so many stereotypes and didn’t trust anyone. I told myself that I was there just to learn. But the people [in that particular ulpan] were so friendly and I felt very welcomed. I didn’t feel looked down on, and that was the first time I met Jews who didn’t treat me like I was an enemy or a threat. It was strange because Jews were supposed to be bad in my book.
That didn’t mean I was willing to engage in peace work. But suddenly there was a complication in my thinking and I opened up enough to learn and make Jewish friends. Also in class we read Jewish newspapers. This transformed a lot of my thinking. I was seeing the same incidents reported so differently in Jewish and Arab newspapers; and I started to explore the Jewish narrative.
What did you learn about Jewish history that surprised you?
In a lot of conversations the Holocaust kept coming up. I had no idea what they were talking about. We didn’t learn about it growing up. What I did grow up with was this idea that acknowledging someone else’s pain denies your pain. I had started studying tourism studies and business and so I heard about the Yad Vashem museum. I felt a lot of resistance about going there and thought, why learn about your enemies’ suffering that they use against you? But then I thought that you can’t argue about something if you don’t know about it.
I knew that there was a Palestinian argument too, not if the Holocaust happened or not, but about how many actually died, but I thought that argument was nonsense. Still, I had a lot of anxiety about going to the museum and I thought, why do this? I didn’t tell anybody. But I went at the beginning of the second intifada and it was very moving. It was very hard to believe that people could do that. The best thing about the museum was that walking through, you forget about Arab and Jewish and focus on the reality of what humans can do to each other. I forgot about ID cards and stigmas and religions and nationalities and connected on a human level – that was very influential.
It also helped me to understand the Israeli psyche. Israeli friends had always talked as if they were the weak ones and I didn’t understand how they could say that – they were the ones with the power and with the guns. But I started to understand that they still experience that fear and feeling that the world is against them. In this there are a lot of similarities in the Israeli and Palestinian psyche. So this history gave me the ability to have empathy and sympathy and not to see that as a weakness but as strength, to realize that you can relate to a person that you disagree with, and that empathizing with their pain and fear and disagreeing with their actions are two different topics.
Your parents, devout Muslims, also started to know Jewish people around this time as well. How did that influence you?
My parents had started being involved with the Bereaved Parents Circle [a group of parents of every religion who have lost children in the conflict]. At first they did not want to go and only went because they felt obligated to the person who invited them, a doctor whose father was shot and killed by settlers in Ras el-Amud. But my mother was very moved by the first meeting. People shared their stories and it was translated into Arabic. It made her cry all day. She said that she realized that there was no difference between the Israeli and the Palestinian mother who had lost a child – that they had the same pain. The stories made her remember her own pain, but also connected her as a mother to the Jewish mothers.
They invited me to come with them and I was skeptical of NGOs and their ability to help the community because in Palestinian culture there is often corruption. I also went with a pessimistic attitude that nothing is going to change, but I was surprised that as these Israelis and Palestinians were talking about their brothers that they lost, the attitude started as hostile but slowly started to turn toward empathy.
There were girls in hijabs and 17-year-old guys trying to be tough. And I thought that these people had never before met an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier. I didn’t expect them to change right away, but there was dead silence at one point and I did see that an alternative road that didn’t exist before was opening up and that this was what happened to me in the ulpan. I started giving lectures with Israelis who lost family members, sometimes two lectures a day, hundreds of lectures a year, all over Israel, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Did you also start talking to Palestinians about the Holocaust?
There were a lot of Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors in the Parents Circle and again the subject kept coming up. In one meeting, my dad raised his hand and said, “I don’t understand really what happened or how many people were affected.” The room was very quiet. Someone stood up and said, “Okay, let’s get a bus and go to Yad Vashem.”
We got a big group of Palestinians from all over the territories and filled two buses. It wasn’t easy to convince them and it was a very bold decision to go together with survivors. But people were moved and going with people they knew who had been through this had a big influence on them. This was around 2007.
What did you do last Holocaust Remembrance Day?
I rented Schindler’s List for the first time. [For an article Abu Sarah wrote on the subject, he was awarded on November 16 the 2009 Common Ground Middle East journalism award, the Eliav Sartawi Prize.]
What did you do after September 11?
I bought my parents photos and memorials of the Twin Towers and they put them around their apartment to commemorate the people who died.
What did you end up doing professionally?
I became director of international relations for the Bereaved Parents Circle
and then chairman. We sponsored a lot of new programs for Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other. I also cofounded an organization in the West Bank called Al-Tariq, which promotes nonviolence, democracy and leadership training for Palestinian youth.
You used to promote revolution through violence. What is your ideology now?
These organizations promote reconciliation. If we, who lost family members, can get past our anger, then the excuse that others can’t do it is too weak. I’m very pragmatic. I think that nonviolence and working together – Israelis and Palestinians – is more effective.
The majority of Palestinians today are not actively involved in any struggle for freedom. I try to tell them that they can do something, it could be talking, it could be blogging, it could be organizing events. If we decide to do nothing, then we have given up. In the first intifada everyone was active. But there has been a tremendous loss of hope, and a rise in pessimism.
I look to Martin Luther King and his civil rights strategy. He reached out to every white person – not in anger or blame, but by appealing to their conscience, to their higher morals. He reminded white people that the founding fathers believed and the constitution says that all men are equal. He emphasized short-term goals as a way to achieve freedom. He didn’t just oppose segregation in general, but targeted specific buses to boycott. If they had boycotted all whites that would not have worked. We must learn from these past struggles for freedom. And our nonviolent movement should have a clear vision with short-term goals. People will be more motivated to participate in positive ways once they have a reason to believe it can succeed.
You invest a lot of time in reaching out to teenagers rather than people already involved in violent organizations. Why?
Most of the mainstream people you meet are not liberals and left-wingers like the people you meet at peace workshops. We get Palestinian kids off the street and focus on values, like how to treat classmates and how to do conflict resolution and how to end disputes. This way of thinking trickles down into society. If you don’t do it on a local level it will not work on the national level.
Many Palestinian students at this age, 18 to 20, are depressed and suicidal, and the way they are treated at a checkpoint may determine if someone becomes a suicide bomber or not. It’s the easiest path to take the path of revenge because you don’t need to think. Reconciliation usually only happens after a peace deal, but now I can talk to a Palestinian and an Israeli and if tomorrow someone they know gets killed, they are going to have to rethink how to respond.
The problem in many peace meetings is that they get right away into politics and that ruins it. You have to know each other first. What we have learned is that the power of personal storytelling and narrative can transform people more than statements and philosophies. Once we paired Arab and Jewish teenagers to tell each other traumatic experiences. And when they had to get up in front of the group and tell the other person’s story, they broke down crying. When you tell the story as your own story, something shifts.
What do you tell kids today about revenge?
In all the years I was acting and writing I was fully convinced I was right. I thought I was free. But everything I did was a reaction to my brother’s death. Every time you react without thinking, you are controlled by your enemy. That means I wasn’t in control – the soldiers who killed my brother were in control. My life was being directed by my enemy. When you act out of revenge, you become like your enemy. You make the decisions that he made. You become a monster.
Anger and bitterness destroy you, transform you and move into every area of your life, because hatred and racism and revenge have no end. They will eventually take you completely. You can get many more people to listen to you when you take the path of hate and revenge. The other choice, the other path, is much harder but is more effective in the long run.
What do you think about the terms pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, and can you be both?
I think you cannot be pro-Israel if you are not pro-Palestinian, they are so connected. The idea that you must be against the other is absurd. If you are pro-Israel, what does that mean? I think it means that you care about Israel’s security, democracy, its freedom. And that does not translate into anti-Palestinian. If anything, if there is stability and freedom and security and democracy for Palestine, that will translate to the same for Israel.
What does “occupation” mean to you?
I don’t agree with the common Palestinian definition of occupation that is stealing land. To me it’s much more and means that our freedom is limited – freedom of travel, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom to have culture, freedom to own land. People say that Gaza is not occupied because Israelis are not living there anymore. But there is still occupation in Gaza – the border is sealed. Fishermen need permits. Israel controls the electricity and water. If Israel controls all our resources and even our air, then it is still occupied and we are still prisoners. Occupation is control over someone else’s life.
I am talking about the 1967 borders. Christians and Muslims in the West Bank cannot even pray in Jerusalem and there is no freedom to go into Israel to work, even though our economies are still intertwined. Even in east Jerusalem, people celebrating Palestinian culture were stopped by Israeli police.
You said Martin Luther King appealed to the higher morals of the whites. What are the higher morals of the Jews that you would appeal to?
In the Bible, King David came to Jerusalem and the site that he wanted for the Temple was owned by the Jebusites. The Jebusites offered him the land for free, but David refused and insisted on buying it. Also, the prophet Habakkuk said, “Woe to him who builds a city in bloodshed and establishes a town by crime.”
What is your reaction to Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposal that Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state?
It’s not fair to set conditions at the last minute before negotiations. The idea of negotiations is to discuss options. We have never talked about this in negotiations before and we cannot talk about it until it is defined what the idea of a Jewish state means to Palestinians and without offering the Palestinians a state.
So first I think you need to define, what is a Jewish state? Then you need to define what the rights would be of Arabs living in a Jewish state. Would they lose those rights that they do have? The way Israeli Arabs are treated now does not give them confidence to feel that they would be equal citizens and be treated well under a Jewish state. The refugee situation must also be addressed. Israel also needs to recognize its role in the nakba. All of these issues – including that of a Jewish state – should be included in negotiations, not in unilateral demands.
What is the right address for the refugee situation?
Israelis say that the blame of refugee conditions is on Arab states. There is enough blame for everyone. And there is a price to countries for accepting Palestinian refugees, just as there is a price in Israel for accepting refugees. The suffering of the refugees is often forgotten by Israelis and Palestinian politicians. They need opportunities and now they cannot even come to the West Bank, they need an Israeli visa.
Everyone knows the refugees are not coming back to Israel, but they should have the right to come to Palestine and to visit the homes they lost. There is a difference between giving up rights and having a right and not using it. It would be honorable for them to receive a real compensation so that they can start their lives over; I don’t care who pays this compensation but it is Israel’s responsibility to work with Palestinians and Arabs to find a solution – the conflict will not end before the refugee problem is solved.
You went to the J Street conference. How was it?
There were some great discussions but most of them were in the hallways. I was one of very few Palestinians there. One of the panels I led was about boycotts. I took Edward Said’s position that they are not the best option. It hasn’t been effective and just because they were effective in South Africa doesn’t mean they will be effective in Israel. There are similarities and differences. There are complications for people who observe boycotts, but the major issue is that when you boycott Israel you are lumping everyone together, so even those who agreed with you before will start to feel attacked.
Instead I suggest people put their money into helping the failing Palestinian economy. Politicians always focus on industrial zones, big investments into big factories with cheap labor. The rate of unemployment is going down, but the level of poverty is staying high. So I suggest smaller investments to help build the middle class. We don’t just want a state but a thriving state. We need a functional middle class or it will become a police state run by a few people who control everything.
You are now dividing your time between Jerusalem and Washington DC. What are your newest projects?
I became director of Middle East projects at the Center of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington DC. I also cofounded Mejdi, to help Palestinian nonprofit organizations become self-sustaining through business initiatives. We help them raise money through alternative tours to learn about Israeli and Palestinian culture and people without propaganda. We also promote small Palestinian businesses that are socially responsible, import Palestinian products and support equal joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians. We also connect investors to small businesses – not through loans but through investments.
Do you have enemies?
Definitely. There are radicals on both sides. I always get angry e-mails. Some Palestinians say I’m selling out or compromising or hurting their case. And some Israelis say I am trying to trick them and can’t be trusted. When I come to schools, there are students who want to beat me, even before I start to talk. Some students walk out before I talk. I find it interesting that it is the radicals on both sides who find me an enemy, but I am not bothered by that. It helps me to remember that I was once in their place and once saw many people as my enemies. Obviously if I can change, anybody can change.
Once I was at a school in Hadera. There was one Israeli kid who was so angry and violent during the whole talk – his uncle had just been killed a few months earlier in a terror attack. He made it clear that he was waiting to graduate and go to the military to get his revenge. This talk went two-thirds of an hour over time. Eventually he started to open up. He talked about his uncle and broke down. The wound was very fresh. In the end he said that the meeting had confused him and now he didn’t know what to do.
As for the Palestinians who are my enemies, I do what I do as a devoted Palestinian caring about the Palestinian future through nonviolence, with the goal of a Palestinian state. I try to show them that nonviolence and reconciliation can also be patriotism
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Abu Sarah is now the director of ME projects at George Mason University – http://gmu.edu/departments/crdc/aziz.html
A Palestinian remembers the Holocaust
by Aziz Abu Sarah
07 May 2009 — Common Ground News
“Some part of me feared that if I sympathized with ‘the enemy’, my right to struggle for justice might be taken away,” writes Aziz Abu Sarah about acknowledging Jewish pain over the Holocaust.
“Now I know this is nonsense: you are stronger when you let humanity overcome enmity.”