Photo: Val_Yankin/Shutterstock

Abu Karsh: Interview With a Palestinian Nonviolence Activist

Jerusalem Interviews Activism
by Robert Hirschfield Jan 28, 2014

Rising to greet me, Osama Abu Karsh, of Ramallah, squashed out his cigarette. In a minute, he’d light up another. Interviewing Palestinian nonviolence activists can be dangerous to your health. His ridiculously tiny table seemed purposely designed to inflict a mischievous intimacy on unsuspecting strangers.

All around us, in the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, up the hill from the walled city, young Americans and Europeans were involved in a lot of noisy backslapping. Abu Karsh sat without moving at all. He was the lobby’s still point. Was his aura of solitude the result of his years in prison? Slender, delicate-boned, he didn’t strike one as the political activist type, except maybe for the liquid intensity of his eyes.

When the first intifada broke out, in December of 1988, Abu Karsh was 14. Many Palestinians remember the first intifada as the nonviolent intifada, with its tax resistance campaign, its boycott of Israeli textiles, its largely peaceful street demonstrations. Israelis remember that uprising differently. They remember encounters with tough young Palestinian street fighters like Abu Karsh.

“I got involved by throwing stones at soldiers, by throwing Molotov cocktails at jeeps. Then, they arrested me. I was in jail for three years.” During his interrogation, he was beaten, had his hands raised for hours at a time over his head, and was made to sit outdoors in the cold winter rain. “After that, your skin becomes very dry.” His voice was matter of fact. He did not make eye contact when he spoke of his prison experience. He addressed his words to my left shoulder. The only time his voice skidded into emotion was when he spoke of his dry skin. Maybe it is only through reduction that the truly terrible could be expressed.

How was it possible, I asked Abu Karsh, to see the harshest face Israel shows Palestinians, and to think it can be softened through dialogue? “It didn’t happen overnight. It took a long time. I certainly didn’t believe in dialogue as a teenager. But I did see how nonviolence could work while I was in jail. We had daily lectures from Fatah leaders in jail. At first, the Israelis refused to allow them. But we went on hunger strikes, and they backed down.”

“People are tired of all the violence: the Israeli violence, the violence between Hamas and Fatah. People are now willing to hear about nonviolence.”

A successful political experiment in a cold prison laboratory, a stepping stone to an ideology. Easier to understand than the shift in consciousness that grafted itself on to the shattered youth of Abu Karsh, a member now of Combatants For Peace, an action/dialogue group of former Israeli and Palestinian fighters, and the Palestinian organization, MEND (Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy.)

“Psychologically, it was hard for me to talk to the Israelis. How could it not be? Even when I met with Israeli ex-fighters for the first time many years later (in the winter of 2005) it was very hard. There was a lot of mistrust, a lot of fear. We were afraid of them, and they were afraid of us.” That seemed to surprise Abu Karsh, that Israelis would fear Palestinians.

After jail and completing school (he graduated Birzeit University with a BA in sociology), in the reflective season of Oslo, Abu Karsh re-thought his root assumption about the conflict. “I was 24 years old. I was working with Fatah youth at Birzeit. I was taking part in the dialogue that was taking place at the time between Fatah youth and Labor Party youth. I got to thinking that the path of dialogue with Israelis, the path of nonviolence, was the only way to achieve peace. Armed struggle was not going to work. We tried it. We needed to try something else.”

Abu Karsh takes the pragmatic approach to nonviolence. An enlightened pragmatism motivates many Palestinian activists, but not all. In Bethlehem, Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, has in his possession a vast collection of threadbare books by Gandhi. “I grew up with a Christian sense of loving your enemy. I believe in nonviolence spiritually, philosophically, as well as politically.”

Abu Karsh had to excuse himself from time to time to answer his cell phone. During breaks, I tried to put myself in his skin. Not always a comfortable place to be, I was sure. Scabbed with memories of prison beatings. Marginalized from the bitterly framed and deeply held beliefs of many in his community about Palestinian resistance. The violence of the second intifada horrified him.

“I searched for ways to struggle peacefully. In 2002, I went with some other Fatah people to Lucy Nusseibeh, the Director of MEND, and asked her for nonviolence training. MEND is a grassroots organization that reaches out to ordinary Palestinians.” I nodded. I was familiar with MEND. Lucy Nusseibeh has been a friend since I met her at a café in Cambridge, near Harvard Yard, in the spring of 2005. I had seen her in her office in Beit Hanina talking to young women in hijabs about nonviolence.

“How do Palestinians respond to nonviolence organizers like yourself?” I asked him. “There is resistance,” he acknowledged, “but not as much as before. People are tired of all the violence: the Israeli violence, the violence between Hamas and Fatah. People are now willing to hear about nonviolence.” I had heard from Awad and Nusseibeh that they got more requests for nonviolent trainings than they had trainers to accommodate them. Abu Karsh said, “For the 40th anniversary of the occupation, Combatants For Peace organized a nonviolent protest demonstration in Anata. Twelve thousand Palestinians demonstrated. There would have been more, but soldiers turned people back at the checkpoints.”

He blew a thoughtful stream of smoke across the table. He knits together victory and adversity with seamless tranquility. I think of the popular Palestinian word, samoud. Steadfastness. “Twelve thousand,” I repeated, trying to remember an article I never read.

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