Peace prize

“How I discovered the power of nonviolence”: Luxembourg Peace Prize winner

Taghyeer co-founder, Ali Abu Awwad, shared the award for Outstanding Male Peace Activist at this year’s Luxembourg Peace Prize. Photo: Maison Moderne

Taghyeer co-founder, Ali Abu Awwad, shared the award for Outstanding Male Peace Activist at this year’s Luxembourg Peace Prize. Photo: Maison Moderne

Delano sat down with Ali Abu Awwad, co-founder of the Palestinian nonviolence movement Taghyeer, to discuss his work promoting peace. Awwad was awarded Outstanding Male Peace Activist with Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin at the Luxembourg Peace Prize.

Tell me about your experience in Palestine. How did you discover nonviolence?

I was born and raised in the West Bank. I come from a highly politically engaged family on my mother's side, with her being one of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation alongside Yasser Arafat. Since my family are refugees from 1948, we have always been a target for Israeli security forces. Living under constant military control has created a painful past and an uncertain future for me.

In 1987, I found myself taking to the streets, throwing stones as a form of expression. This eventually led to my imprisonment, where my mother and I served years in an Israeli prison. It was during this time that I first discovered the power of nonviolence. My mother and I decided to embark on a hunger strike in prison, enduring 17 days of starvation in order to see each other. And it worked. So, I started learning about nonviolence in prison. It was also where I improved my English language skills and became proficient in Hebrew.

After four years, my mother and I were released through the Oslo Peace Initiative. We tried to switch our identity from being part of a revolution to becoming citizens by achieving our goal of independence. But this didn’t happen. Yet we were still convinced that armed struggle and violence would not lead us anywhere; it would only create more harm. When the Second Intifada started as a consequence of this failure, we struggled to find a meaningful role to play, as the military groups predominantly led the movement. Moreover, we found it difficult to continue pursuing peace, as our previous attempts had proven unsuccessful.

You mentioned a personal tragedy during the award ceremony. How did this motivate your decision to start Taghyeer?

One day, I was gravely wounded by a settler in the West Bank, and I was evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. While there I received news that my older brother Yousef, who was 31 years old at the time, had been stopped by a group of Israeli soldiers near Hebron and brutally killed. When something like this happens, it feels like the end of the world. My life has always been about the sacrifices I have to make, but losing him was different from losing land, pride, or dreams. It's only natural to feel a desire for revenge in such circumstances. When someone inflicts such deep pain throughout your life, it may seem like they deserve to be hurt in return.

However, the issue goes beyond this personal reaction. The loss of a loved one is much greater--it becomes a political issue. My brother wasn’t killed simply because his name was Yousef. He was killed because he was a Palestinian. He wasn’t a criminal, a terrorist, or armed. Who on earth has the right to take his life? At the same time, how can I seek revenge when injustices continue to occur every day? So, I turned to the nonviolence education I received in prison. But I struggled to find a platform, structure, or plan to practice nonviolence in a way that wouldn't make me feel like a traitor to my people. I felt trapped.

Then, one day, my mother hosted a group of bereaved Israeli parents, and it was a truly surreal experience. Seeing my mother, who is considered a hero in our area, hosting Israelis was something I could never have imagined. It was shocking for me to witness an Israeli, without a uniform or weapons, sitting respectfully. It was even more surprising to see a Jewish person crying in my home. They used to scream, shout, and swear, but I had never seen them cry. It was a truly new experience. Seeing them as victims, people who had lost someone, added complexity to my life. It was difficult to let go of the feeling of being a victim myself. And it is within this struggle that my journey of leadership began.

What type of activities and projects does Taghyeer engage in to promote nonviolence? What role do women play?

We focus on addressing social community issues, starting from collecting garbage from the streets to constructing nonviolence centres in highly volatile areas. We firmly believe that women play a crucial role in ending the injustices we face. In fact, 75% of the activists at Taghyeer are women. We believe in women’s leadership, not to empower them, but because they are inherently powerful. 

Women are now taking the lead and establishing the woman movement within our overall movement, serving as an independent platform for female leadership. We work extensively with youth, providing nonviolence workshops and practical training. We train them on promoting citizenship, nonviolence, steadfastness, development, resistance, and strategic action against injustices.

To support this, we are establishing nonviolence labs as pilot projects, with the assistance of the US embassy. Our partnership with the Quakers, specifically the Alternative to Violence Project, has also been invaluable. They visit us annually to train individuals, and they have already trained nine teachers and three schools to create nonviolence resources. These trained teachers will guide the children and their families in community action, aiming to foster social change and create an environment conducive to political solutions.

We are currently developing a nonviolence charter, seeking partnership and unity within our society. Our aim is to have organisations, activists, and even politicians sign onto the charter, establishing a unified national voice for nonviolence. Additionally, we responded to crises such as the covid pandemic by providing essential services and food. Moreover, we utilise the land as a resource to foster innovation and avoid becoming victims trapped in disputes over land. Instead, we see the land as a valuable asset for life and progress.

What kind of economic and social opportunities does Taghyeer create for young people in Palestine?

We are trying to build partnerships now and foster connections between the economy, social change and political change. Our aim is to collaborate with partners who can support and participate in projects that promote these objectives, including engaging with the diaspora. Specifically, we have initiated efforts in the United States to promote the establishment of a Palestinian nonviolence agency for the Palestinian diaspora, with the goal of encouraging investment in Palestine. This initiative holds the potential to create opportunities, generate employment, and contribute to positive change. This will promote opportunities and jobs. Our intention is to change the status quo within our society.

How can people who want to support the nonviolence movement in Palestine help?

I have three messages to convey. Firstly, please refrain from treating Palestinians solely as victims and Israeli Jewish people as mere survivors. Instead, view us as partners deserving of respect and work towards implementing sustainable nonviolence systems that can foster a new model of life.

Secondly, it is crucial to stop taking sides that come at the expense of our collective future. While it may be easy to adopt a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine stance, we do not need outsiders to create conflict in their own countries. Instead, be pro-solution by supporting the movement we are leading today. This movement has the potential to grow on a massive scale, exerting enough pressure on political leaders to take the necessary and sometimes painful steps towards finding a solution.

Thirdly, if you are not actively involved, please refrain from investing in this conflict. We look to the world as a neutral third party to contribute to the resolution of incitement and hatred. If you possess resources or skills that can aid us, we extend an open invitation for you to join and assist us. We recognise that we cannot accomplish this alone and appreciate any support we receive.