Detaining peace

The news that my friend Mohannad was been arrested last week hit me hard.
October 28, 2015

The news that my friend Mohannad was arrested last week hit me hard. We’d worked together over the summer, planning a three-day summer camp for Israeli and Palestinian children in Gush Etzion. He was the perfect choice to be the Palestinian coordinator of the camp: At 26, he was old enough to serve as a role model to both groups of kids and young enough to connect with them. His intelligent voice was a valuable addition to our planning discussions and his obvious leadership skills helped the camp run smoothly.

I don’t know what the circumstances of his arrest were. There is a grainy video of his arrest, shot by a neighbor, which shows Israeli soldiers leading Mohannad down Beit Ummar’s main street, hands bound in front of him, not resisting arrest. His parents and sister say he was taken from their home in the middle of the night and that he hadn’t been involved in any wrongdoing.

I tend to believe them. At camp, I watched Mohannad discipline Palestinian boys with an understanding arm around their shoulder, and navigate the lack of a common language with Israeli kids to be able to play the silly get-to-know-you games used by all summer camps. More importantly, Mohannad’s interactions with Israeli adults displayed a dual sense of strong Palestinian pride and a desire to step over a cultural red line to get to know the settlers. One day, we Israelis had invited the commander of the local Israel Defense Forces brigade (in civilian clothes) to visit the camp, to witness firsthand the possibilities of co-existence. He and Mohannad had a striking conversation as equals. 

But here’s the rub: Mohannad’s also got a past. Like many natives of Beit Ummar, he spent much of his teenage years clashing with Israel. One of the worst aspects (for me) of Mohannad’s arrest is the fact that we hadn’t managed to sit down for the coffee we’d talked repeatedly about, so I still don’t know his whole story. But I do know that as a teenager he took part in violence, and by the time he was in his early 20s, he was serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence in Israel. I don’t know what his crime was, but Mohannad’s father, Khaled Abu Awwad, a foremost figure in promoting tolerance and peace among Israelis and Palestinians, admitted to me that the jail time was not unfair.

“Obviously, I am worried about my son,” he said, “but not only about his physical safety in jail. Like all Palestinian families, ours has known more than our share of violence and loss — my brother was killed by a settler in 2001, when Mohannad was 10 or 11. But we’ve all come away from that experience with a deep commitment to nonviolence and co-existence, and I’ve worked really hard with Mohannad to put him on that path since he got out of jail. Now, the situation is totally out of my hands, and I’m worried that another stint in jail could cement the anger he still harbors.”

Even before speaking to Khaled, I understood the danger Mohannad now faces, and not only the dangers to his physical wellbeing. Back in August, it was clear that participating in a program with not only Israelis, but also with settlers, required a tremendous leap of faith from Mohannad, an enormous inner effort that flew in the face of much of his life experience and education. His participation at camp seemed to be a part of a journey he had undertaken rather than an expression of a deeper truth he had internalized. Two-and-a-half years after his release from prison, his eyes still burned with anger and resentment. There is a very real danger that a tough, long jail term could push him back away from co-existence and toward violence. 

On the other hand, it is hard to argue against his re-arrest, even as a purely preventative measure — an outrageous statement, to be sure, but a good description of the mood in Israel over the past week. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with an average of four stabbings a day over the past week (and more stone and Molotov cocktail attacks on the roads than can be listed here), the atmosphere here in Israel certainly feels like an emergency situation at the moment. 

Furthermore, Israeli authorities are officially unaware of his involvement at Judur/Shorashim. They’d have to be: The conditions of Mohannad’s release from prison included his prohibiting of entering spaces not only where Jews and Arabs congregate, such as the Rami Levi supermarket, but also of being around Jews at all. 

Ultimately, there are more questions than answers right now. Mohannad has not been able to contact his family (he has been in contact with a lawyer) since his arrest, but he has a hearing scheduled for later this week. I will attend the session and try to have a word with him. There may not be much I can do, but at least I can let him know that I care.

Andrew Friedman is a resident of Efrat and an activist in Shorashim/Judur, a Palestinian-Israeli initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation.

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