Documentary explores nonviolence as key to resolving Israeli-Palestinian divide

A Palestinian boy plasters black and white photographs taken by French street artist JR of Palestinians on Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Sept. 9. The project entails having Palestinian and Israeli portraits taken, then printed and pasted onto walls in Israel and the West Bank, as a way of making the two peoples view each other on a “basic level, as normal individuals.” (CNS/Reuters)

Sami Awad believes peace among Palestinians and Israelis ultimately can be achieved only through nonviolent means.

In a culture permeated by violence for generations, the Palestinian evangelical Christian knows that’s a tall order. But through the Holy Land Trust, which Awad co-founded in 1998 to promote Palestinian independence through nonviolent means, he sees a growing interest in the use of peaceful means to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the eventual resolution to the long simmering conflict.

Awad’s vision is profiled in the documentary film “Little Town of Bethlehem,” which made its online debut last night to a worldwide audience on the United Nations’ International Day of Peace in a program originating at The Catholic University of America.

The film opened a 12-day period being billed as Global Voices of Nonviolence in which communities around the world are focusing on peace and nonviolence in their lives. The period ends on the U.N.’s International Day of Nonviolence Oct. 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement who pioneered the practice of nonviolence to cause political change.

Director Jim Hanon was on hand for the debut of the 90-minute documentary which also tells the story of two other men who are seeking peace in the Middle East through nonviolence. He called for people to overcome their fear of “the other.”

“When we can overcome our fears and face what we need to face, we can become more human and extend humanity to others,” he said.

Hanon’s film also featured Yonatan Shapira, a Jew who once was a helicopter pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces until he signed a document saying he refused to fly missions that could result in civilian casualties, and Ahmad Al’azzeh, a Palestinian Muslim who trains others in peaceful activism as head of the nonviolence program at Holy Land Trust.

During a panel discussion after the showing, Awad said the biggest challenge of his work comes not from Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation for decades but from Christians who are skeptical that nonviolence will work.

“It is a big challenge how we as Christians respond to our own texts in the Bible on nonviolence,” he said.

Panelist Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America, pointed to the many references to peace found in the prayers and responses at Mass and in Scripture.

“The problem is,” she said, “how do you get our Christian communities to live the language of our faith?”

Other panelists included Atalia Omer, assistant professor of religion, conflict and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, who is Jewish, and Anas Malik, associate professor of political science at Xavier University, who is Muslim.

The program was sponsored by CUA’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

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