ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
Peace in the Holy Land
Palestinian peacemaker Sami Awad believes that loving the enemy can turn the Holy Land into holy ground.
The following is an exclusive print story from our archives. Sami Awad comes from a long lineage of Palestinian peace activists, and he is fighting for the peace of Jesus to win out in the land he calls home.
A chosen people, a promised land, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the wall, the two-state solution, settlements, terrorism, armageddon, and two people groups who feel their very existence is on the line: to call the conflict in the Holy Land “complicated” is a gross understatement.
“Peace in the Middle East” has become an implausible saying likened to the day pigs fly. We’re told it’s a hopeless cause and that 3,000 years of land rights and religious tension will continue until the end of time, or when Jesus returns, depending on your outlook. Fortunately for those living within the tension, there are a few people who have not given up on peace. Sami Awad is one of them.
On the darkest night of his life, Sami Awad lay in an Auschwitz bunker looking at the pictures children sketched on the walls: kids playing drums, riding bicycles, and kicking balls. In a place full of evil, the children of Auschwitz drew pictures to remind themselves of innocence.
By the time Sami traveled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, six decades had passed since the international horror of the Holocaust. He came to bear witness to the lives lost and to learn how fear motivated the war’s atrocities. What he discovered instead was a narrative of fear living on in the hearts of people today—including his own.
In many ways, Sami’s story begins not in the bunker where he underwent a spiritual transformation. It doesn’t even begin in Bethlehem where he grew up under Israeli military occupation. His story begins generations earlier, with an ancestry of peacemaking shaped by the teachings of Jesus. It was these teachings that set Sami on a journey out of fear and into love.
A family legacy
Sami’s father was raised in a Palestinian-Christian family in a diverse neighborhood in Jerusalem. For decades Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together peacefully. Then in 1948, war between an Arab coalition and the State of Israel shattered the peace. Sami’s grandfather was killed in this violence, shot by a sniper while raising a white flag on his roof to show that unarmed civilians lived below. The Awads buried his body in the courtyard of the house and fled.
Sami’s grandmother spent her life promoting peace, despite the injustice she experienced as a widow and refugee. “Revenge and retaliation have no place for us as a family and in our faith,” she often told her children and grandchildren.
Nearly twenty years after the Awads left their home, Israel took control of surrounding land, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead of officially declaring the occupied land part of Israel, the state created a system of military rule over Palestinians. Israeli soldiers as well as civilian “settlers” moved to the occupied territories. It was under this military occupation that Sami grew up. “I grew up in a dynamic of seeing my enemy as soldiers and settlers,” he says. To Sami, his grandmother’s message of reconciliation seemed flimsy in the face of this oppression.
When Sami was twelve, his uncle Mubarak founded the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence. Inspired by the work of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Mubarak taught peaceful resistance strategies to Palestinians. Sami joined his uncle’s nonviolent activities. Together, they planted trees in confiscated plots to show the connectedness of displaced farmers to their land. For the first time Sami met Israelis who were peace activists, committed to justice and freedom for Palestinians.
“That was the first time I began to feel personal empowerment—that I can do something, that I can resist the occupation, without being violent towards the other,” he says.
In 1987, a major civil revolt called Intifada broke out against the military occupation. Palestinians began to follow the orders of Palestinian nonviolent leadership instead of the Israeli army. The following year Mubarak was put on trial and deported because of his activism. “After the arrest of my uncle, I felt that, as a sixteen-year-old, I can do what he was doing,” Sami says. “I began to organize a lot of the demonstrations and protests.”
Despite the success and unity of Palestinian resistance, the Awads feared for their family’s safety, especially Sami’s. Because civilian arrests and deaths were on the rise the Awads moved to the United States to escape escalating violence. There Sami graduated from college and earned a master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. In 1996, a week after graduating, he boarded a plane back to Israel. He was eager to apply his education toward nonviolent resistance and carry on his uncle’s vision.
God’s heart for the Holy Land
The millennium was approaching and violence in the Holy Land was still on the rise. A group of peacemakers, Sami included, began to ask how Bethlehem would celebrate the birth of Jesus 2,000 years before. These conversations—and the urgent need for a solution to the unrest—led Sami to found Holy Land Trust in 1998. Originally, the organization existed to shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promote peaceful resistance.
One of Holy Land Trust’s first initiatives was to sponsor a reenactment of the Journey of the Magi. Called Pilgrimage of Peace, the journey brought together Christians from around the world to retrace the wise men’s route to Bethlehem. For three months the group walked and rode camels across the Middle East, stopping in communities to pray and deliver humanitarian aid. In October 2000, as the Magi crossed the Syrian desert, the Oslo peace process—negotiations to create a two-state solution—collapsed. The Second Intifada had begun.
“I said the word ‘against’ one time too many times for Jesus. You know that Jesus doesn’t stand against anybody.”
Unlike the first, the Second Intifada was marred by violence on both sides. Palestinians moved into armed resistance. “That’s when we started seeing some of the suicide attacks that happened in Israel itself…buses, restaurants, things like that,” Sami says. The Magi ended their pilgrimage in the midst of the Intifada on Christmas Day 2000. Ten thousand people welcomed them into Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem.
Spurred on by both the Pilgrimage of Peace and the Second Intifada, Holy Land Trust launched trainings in nonviolent resistance strategies. The group provided practical lessons and resources to challenge oppressive structures instead of individuals. “Many Palestinians welcomed us and many Palestinians rejected us,” Sami says. “Many Israelis welcomed us and many Israelis rejected us.” Protestors were monitored, beaten, and arrested. They walked toward armed soldiers with their hands raised only to be handcuffed and thrown in prison.
As God often does, God broke through to Sami at a seemingly inopportune time. Just as Holy Land Trust was gaining momentum Sami heard God ask, “Is this the peacemaking that I want you to engage in?” Of course it is, Sami thought. Jesus would practice nonviolence. Jesus would stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, against injustice, against occupation. But as Sami puts it, “I said the word ‘against’ one time too many times for Jesus. You know that Jesus doesn’t stand against anybody.”
Sami turned to Scripture for wisdom, planning to read through the entire New Testament. He only made it five chapters. “I came across Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, and I was flipping through it very quickly. And then I literally froze at the verse that says, Love your enemies.” He closed his Bible.
“I tried to forget that I even read this verse…and I couldn’t. For weeks I struggled with it.” He knew he loved Jesus and wanted to follow Him. He knew, too, that following meant taking Christ’s words seriously.
“You cannot pick and choose what you want to follow based on your agendas or ideologies,” he says. He wondered if there was a different way Jesus called Israelis and Palestinians to sow peace in the Holy Land. For the first time, he envisioned a form of peacemaking built not on resisting his enemies or even negotiating with them, but loving them.
Turning the narrative on its head
In the midst of wrestling with Jesus’ command, Sami received an email. Jewish friends from the U.S. invited him to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat, a multicultural, nondenominational gathering at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. At the retreat, Sami would come face-to-face with the horrors endured by millions of Jewish men, women, and children during the Holocaust. He initially resisted. “When you’re oppressed, you never want to see the humanity of your oppressor or even create a space where there is compassion for your oppressor,” he says. Yet in that moment, he understood he had elevated his people’s suffering over the Israelis’. “It was clear that this was a message from God that I needed to go there.”
The entire retreat shook Sami to his core, but nothing so much as his night in the bunker. He requested to sleep there along with two other men: a Muslim from Turkey and a Jew from the U.S. They were placed in a room where children stayed after being separated from their families. The night was frigid and though they bundled in sleeping bags and winter clothing, cold seeped through to their skin. They imagined the children who lay in the same bunks with nothing but their own bodies to stay warm. All through the night the three men prayed and meditated together. At sunrise they returned to the rest of the group.
“It was one of the neurologically darkest places I’ve ever been to,” Sami says about the experience. “I cried more in Auschwitz then I have ever cried in my life in one place. It shifted everything in me.”
In Auschwitz, Sami confronted the inexpressible suffering experienced by Holocaust victims. He witnessed the tragedy and the trauma born out of one of the world’s most evil events. And he discovered how this narrative of fear continues to inform the self-protective posture of people throughout the world.
“I say in all seriousness that it was in Auschwitz that I discovered my enemy,” he says. But his enemy, he was surprised to find, was no longer the Israelis who had oppressed his people. “[It was] the narrative of fear, trauma, and mistrust that was born out of the Holocaust.”
This narrative of fear is in no way exclusive to Jews and Israelis. One of the most pivotal connections Sami made in Auschwitz was how his own actions—and the actions of Palestinians—also stem from fear and trauma, rather than a desire for peace. “One of the most common things that Palestinians and Israelis have together is the existential threat. We both feel like our existence is on the line and we are fighting each other for our existence,” he says. “The traumas of the past create the reality of violence today.”
A new compassion for Israelis bloomed inside him. As God transformed his heart, Sami realized his nonviolence was motivated by hatred, not love. “I did nonviolence because I wanted to resist them, but I also wanted to expose them,” he says. “[I thought] if I am nonviolent, then the world will see them for how violent they are.” Juxtaposed against Jesus’ call to love, his approach to peacemaking began to appear antithetical to real reconciliation.
Sami has said, “Fear is the greatest motivator of human behavior.” Nowhere does this ring more true than in the complex and longstanding conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. But when he turned the narrative on its head, viewing the struggle from a lens of love instead of fear, everything changed. Rather than wanting to defeat his enemy, Sami wanted to join them in their healing. Out of a history of terror and trauma, he thought, God could bring renewal.
“For the first time, he envisioned a form of peacemaking built not on resisting his enemies or even negotiating with them, but loving them.”
Teaching, proclaiming, and healing
When Sami returned from Auschwitz he shifted the focus of Holy Land Trust. In many ways, his transformation made the work more difficult. He stopped going to certain areas and organizing protests. Though nonviolence remained a tenant of Holy Land Trust’s mission, the group began seeking holistic ways to cultivate peace. Sami returned to Matthew’s Gospel and looked closer at Jesus’ ministry in the Holy Land. Matthew 4:23 answers the question, “What did Jesus do every day?” with this description:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Those three verbs—teaching, proclaiming, and healing—have become the axis upon which Holy Land Trust moves. “I started seeing that the healing work wasn’t just for the sake of healing,” Sami says. “The healing work that Jesus did was also about liberating people from the constraints of the past.”
This type of healing creates empathy and understanding for the humanity of others. “When it’s two-dimensional, I see a soldier shooting at me. When it becomes multi-dimensional, I begin to see the narratives that he grew up in,” says Sami. “And if I begin to address these things, and heal them…this person becomes transformed in how he begins to see me as well.”
It is for this healing work that Holy Land Trust now exists. No longer a political organization, it now seeks unity between the various religions and communities in the Holy Land. “We are bringing Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, and Israelis to understand the traumas that they carry and to begin engaging in the healing process of these traumas,” Sami says.
“Healing work wasn’t just for the sake of healing,” Sami says. “The healing work that Jesus did was also about liberating people from the constraints of the past.”
Theologian Scott Bader-Saye has written, “Following Jesus will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good.”
As Sami followed Jesus—first deeper into the Gospels, then to Auschwitz, then back to Israel—he discovered that surrendering fear and self-preservation flung open the door to freedom. After all, perfect love casts out fear. This love allows us to forsake the illusion of security in favor of restoration. It liberates us to welcome the stranger. And it reveals our enemy was our neighbor all along.
The rift between Israelis and Palestinians can appear yawning, too wide to cross and too deep to heal. Conflict in the Holy Land can seem intractable—until you bring Jesus into the equation. Today, Sami stakes his hope in God’s power to free people from fear and restore them to right relationship with God and with others.
Loving the enemy makes peace in the Holy Land possible. It’s what turns the Holy Land into holy ground.
Photos by Gregory Woodman and Joel Parker.
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