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Sami Awad’s Back Pages

by Dexter Van Zile (July 2012)

Sami Awad, the scion of a prominent family of Arab Christians from the West Bank is to pro-Palestinian propaganda what Bruce Springsteen was to rock and roll in the early 1970s – its future.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

After having watched Sami in action at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem in March, I had some hope that Sami would transcend the propagandistic legacy left by the previous generation of Palestinian Christian leaders.

Now I’m not so sure.

I was hopeful because during his talk, Awad spoke about a trip he made to a death camp in Eastern Europe in an effort to understand the Holocaust and its impact on the Israeli mindset. He acknowledged that previously he was too permissive of others who chose violence as a way to liberate the Palestinian. And he described his goal of founding the Holy Land Trust (HLT), a peacemaking organization headquartered in Bethlehem. The idea behind HLT’s founding, Awad said, was to strengthen Palestinians and Israelis.

Sami’s speech at the 2012 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference was a marked change in tone from the message offered by the previous generation of Palestinian Christians such as Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb and even members of his own family, most notably his uncles, Alex and Mubarak. With varying degrees of ferocity and effectiveness, these folks had worked to demonize Israel and distract outside observers from the misdeeds of Hamas and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Eventually, people realized that these folks were not peacemakers, but propagandists.

For this, we can thank Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Ateek was the person most responsible for damaging the credibility of Palestinian Christian peacemaking.

His use of anti-Jewish invective from the New Testament to demonize Israel and his efforts to downplay the horrors of suicide bombing during the Second Intifada hindered the ability of all Palestinian Christians to hide their anti-Israel activism under the cloak of peacemaking. That’s why Ateek (and his cohort Mitri Raheb) were not invited to speak at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in 2012 after speaking at the event in 2010.

The presence of folks like Ateek and Raheb would undermine the whole point of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference – to give the next generation of Palestinian Christians a chance to connect with Christians in the U.S. without having to labor under the burdens placed on them by the previous generation.

Sami made good use of the opportunity afforded to him by the conference which was organized by Bethlehem Bible College led by his father, Bishara Awad. At the event, which was attended by approximately 600 Evangelical Protestants from around the world, Sami presented himself as someone who can offer up a genuine message of peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. After hearing him talk, audience members had reason to think that just maybe, Sami would not traffic in the demonization and self-pity that have been the hallmark of Palestinian Christian messaging under the likes of Ateek.

I’m not sure this hope is justified. Awad’s previous public statements suggest he might be something else altogether – a skilled propagandist who offers the same anti-Israel narrative we have been hearing from Palestinian Christians for the past several decades. He does it in a much softer voice and regretful tone than Naim Ateek, but he does it just the same.

Awad spoke at the National Leadership Conference for the Vineyard Church held in Galveston, Texas in 2009. During his talk, he propounded the importance of non-violence, telling the audience that he has had confrontations with Palestinian militants (read terrorists) about the effectiveness of violence in achieving their goals of liberation. The question posed to them, Awad said, is “’What have you achieved by engaging in violence?’ We talk about liberation. ‘How many inches of land have you liberated?’”

These confrontations, Awad said, have “resulted in groups like Hamas actually coming back to us and saying, all right, what is this non-violence that you’re talking about? We’ve actually done training in non-violence for Hamas leaders and other militant groups as well.”

In response, Vineyard Pastor Rich Nathan, who was interviewing Awad said, “Amen. Amen.” And the audience applauded.

Awad’s statement, and the audience is response, is deeply disturbing for a number of reasons. First, during the 2006 election, Hamas bragged about having driven Israel from the Gaza Strip through the use of violence, so that group’s answer to Awad’s question “How many inches of land have you liberated?” is “How about 141 square miles!” The fact is, from Hamas’s perspective, violence worked, and will continue to work again. Apparently the folks who applauded Awad’s work with Hamas and “other militant groups” seemed to have missed that point, as did his interviewer, Rich Nathan.

The audience also missed a more esoteric issue. Awad admitted to teaching leaders of Hamas, a totalitarian Islamist group and other militant groups (Islamic Jihad, perhaps?) in how to use the tactics of non-violence to further their goals, but provided no evidence to even suggest that he convinced these organizations to give up their goal of Israel’s destruction.

In other words, Awad’s group, the Holy Land Trust, has taught Hamas and other militant groups that seek Israel’s destruction how to speak the language of peace activists in the West and appeal to the conscience of human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe.

That is not a good thing. That’s a bad thing. People who are truly interested in peace do not give totalitarian Islamists media training. But that is what Holy Land Trust did.

Instead of giving non-violence training to Hamas leaders, Holy Land Trust should be giving non-violence training to Palestinians so they can confront Hamas leaders. Instead, Awad’s HLT equips them.

If you want to understand how totalitarian groups can use the techniques of non-violence to achieve their goals, consider the release of Khader Adhan, a man who, in 2007, called for Palestinians to become suicide bombers. (“Who among you will have his body parts blown all over?” Sick, sick stuff.) Five years later, using the tactics of non-violence – a hunger strike – Adhan was able to achieve his release from Israeli detention.

And guess what? At the height of the controversy Sami Awad posted articles on his Facebook page highlighting Adhan’s hunger strike. The headline to one of the articles, published in Huffington Post, declared Adhan a “Selfless Palestinian Hero.”

In his successful effort to gain his release from administrative detention, Adhan invoked Western notions of human rights, rights he has not interest in according to Jews, as is evidenced by his membership in Islamic Jihad and his above-mentioned call for young Palestinian men to blow themselves up. This is authoritarian, antisemitic fascism.

If Awad cannot denounce Adhan, he has no right to call himself a peacemaker.

Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

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