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WATCH: Aziz Abu Sarah, 'From Revenge to Reconciliation'

The murder of Aziz Abu Sarah’s brother had an enormous impact on him, and set him on a long political and personal journey from revenge to reconciliation. Watch him tell his story at a National Geographic Symposium.

I was ten years old when my brother Tayseer was tortured to death in an Israeli prison in 1990. Tayseer, 19 years old, was arrested from our  bedroom a year earlier on suspicion of throwing stones at Israeli cars. He refused to confess, and was therefore beaten repeatedly until he signed a confession. By then it was too late.

Tayseer’s murder was one of the most influential events in my life. He had been my closest friend and confidant, and for long time I lived refusing to accept his death. I grew up bitter and angry at those who killed him. I joined the Fatah youth movement and was extremely active as a writer and organizer in my teens. I wrote extensively against peace, negotiations and the Israelis in general. To me, Israel was represented by the soldiers who killed Tayseer, and those who stopped me every morning on my way to school. I believed I was pursuing justice, but in reality I was seeking revenge.

It was only when I decided to learn Hebrew in an Ulpan that my views changed. Though I was 18 years old, it was the first time I had sat in a room with Jewish Israelis who were not soldiers or settlers. I was able to meet Israelis invisible to average Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israelis who didn’t carry guns. Israelis who believed in the Palestinian right to self determination and freedom from occupation.

Since then, I have changed directions. I have decided to work for justice, peace and reconciliation. I have decided that it is not Israelis or Jews who I should be fighting, but rather hatred, fear, arrogance and ignorance. This didn’t mean that I compromised on seeking freedom for myself or my people. My dedication to ending the occupation has not changed. But I did change the tools that I use. I have become active in conflict resolution through education, business and nonviolence as alternatives to violence.

The restoration of hope and morality in a place savaged by conflict, oppression and injustice is a difficult mission and requires intensive work and perseverance of heart and mind. However, the alternative is bleak. I have decided to challenge the status quo. There is no reason a Jewish 18-year-old has to man a checkpoint instead of a desk at school and Palestinian 18-year-old spend his youth in prison instead of college.

The following video presents my journey in pursuing peace at a National Geographic Symposium, where I was named a 2011 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Cultural Educator.

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    1. Richard Witty

      A beautiful commitment. Thanks for writing.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Inspiring, Aziz.

      Reply to Comment
    3. alessandra

      grazie, thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    4. RichardNYC

      If only they were all more like you

      Reply to Comment
    5. Zvi

      Can there be a more noble cause than “The restoration of hope and morality in a place savaged by conflict, oppression and injustice”? There are others who are able to see beyond the stereotypes (ironically, I find that Israelis and Palestinians often have a far more nuanced view of the situation than do outsiders), but few are the people who are able to bring about true change…. This truly is “a difficult mission and requires intensive work and perseverance of heart and mind.” I wish you, and everyone else at 972, great success in this endeavor.

      Reply to Comment
    6. AYLA

      Aziz–you are among my heroes. Had it been my brother, I don’t know what would have become of me. Your story, his, made me weep.
      If only more people knew each other; they, too, could know the many wonderful people devoted to fighting hatred, fear, arrogance and ignorance, as you put so beautifully–the many people I am privileged to know. It is harder to be fearful, arrogant, ignorant, or hateful, when you know the people you believe you fear. Tragically, knowing each other is hardest for the people who grew up on this land. While others with more privilege to travel across lines often choose to sit in willful, distant ignorance, accepting what the media feeds them, people born right here have to work the hardest just to have coffee together.
      I cannot thank you enough for sharing from such a personal place; comment threads are not exactly a safe environment.
      if you want to organize something big, or know of anything, I will be there.

      Reply to Comment
    7. RichardNYC

      “I wish you, and everyone else at 972, great success in this endeavor.”
      –>I echo your sentiments, to the extent bloggers on 972 are actually working for peace. There are hardliners on 972 (Guarnieri, Dana) who are engaged in a very different enterprise.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Shoded Yam

      Mr. Abu Sarah,
      My heartfelt condolences to you and your family for what happened to your brother. I am ashamed as a Jew, I am ashamed as an Israeli, I am ashamed as someone who once wore the uniform of your brothers torturers, and finally I am ashamed as a human being. It is my sincere wish that you will find peace in this life

      Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      I just watched the video (had only read, before). It is brilliant. I am wondering: when you and your friends/colleagues from Bereaved Families arranged to talk in Israeli and Palestinians schools, were you ever denied the opportunity by the school? Did most welcome you?

      Reply to Comment
    10. ilan Solomons

      Incredible journey. Amazing story we need more courageous and brave people like you Aziz.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Rebecca

      Truly inspiring. Aziz’s moving personal story reminds me of my own “turning point” experience as an American Jewish high school student in Jerusalem around the time of the first Intifada. We were taken to hear Daoud Kuttab speak in East Jerusalem, and it was my first exposure to the Palestinian viewpoint. I was surprised at how reasonable and relatable his comments were. That was the beginning of many years of studying Arabic, traveling and living in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza. Eventually I came to believe – not just understand, but really feel – that the Palestinians and even the wider Arab world should be viewed as part of the extended family of the Jewish people. I think they deserve not just equal and respectful treatment as human beings (which sadly is far from the reality in Israel today) but even a preferential status in our community life as our close neighbors and partners in the Middle East. I’m not naive, but still hoping that more and more people will come to see the relationship between Jews and Arabs this way.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ilana

      Everyone, everywhere should watch this.

      Reply to Comment
    13. alessandra

      this is the second time I’m watching the video. and again I want to say “grazie”, thanks. I cannot express enough how I felt watching it, some tears and some laughter, some “silly me I am” and some “oh I need to share this with as many people I know”, and stop being caught into useless polemics. these stories give me some hope. Aziz is right, we are involved even if we live thousand km away. grazie, I hope that your example will spread from both sides.

      Reply to Comment
    14. James Adler

      Whew, Aziz. Stunning. And another exemplar, like you, of human values can’t help coming to mind– Gazan doctor Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish. As so many say, you are an inspiration. If everyone were like you, our earth would be fertile, & filled up only with pruning forks and ploughshares.

      All consolations and blessings upon you.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Anna Lerner

      Very inspiring. Thank you so much. I hope that your story and your message reaches a large and diverse audience. And that they “arm” themselves with many spoons and buckets. As I will too.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Henry Weinstein

      To Aziz
      Thanks for posting your message on 972.
      We need to get out the One Side vs the Other Side blame war, but how many are “we”?
      We need to meet people from the other side with whom we can talk without being accused of supporting the dark side.
      We need to talk to each other to prove “we” is not a useful idiotic fiction, but something possible, worth to challenge our preconceptions, something to handle with care & patience.
      But the question again, if I was an Israeli Jew following 972 blog (I’m not: I’m French, never been to Israel), would be: where are the Palestinians who share your vision on this thread?
      Apologize if my words sound harsh, it’s a genuine question, Aziz.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Henry Weinstein

      To Aziz
      I have something personal to say. To you and others. It’s about the word “holocaust”.
      Each time I read or hear this word, it hurts me inside. I know it’s the common word used in English. Most commenters on 972 use this word without thinking about his meaning.
      This word is obscene.
      What happened wasn’t an holocaust. It wasn’t mass human sacrifices to some pagan Moloch. It was a genocide planified to annihilate the European Jews. With no other reason than the will to annihilate / erase.
      So to use the word “holocaust” is to say six millions’ human beings tagged Jews were immolated to the Nazi ideology. It seems almost rational. As if Evil was the other side of God / Allah.
      It’s obscene. Abominable.
      In France we say “la Shoah”. You probably all heard of Claude Lanzman’s film. Shoah means annihilation & total destruction. That’s what happened to the European Jews.
      I hope the Israelis use this biblical word and not a modern Hebrew word meaning “holocaust”.

      Reply to Comment
    18. DeeDee

      @Henry Weinstein

      There are many Palestinians who share Aziz’s image and you’ll be surprised if I tell you it’s the majority of Palestinians…

      Do you think the Majority of Israelis support peace? But I have to stop here for a second, Thank you Aziz for sharing your personal story, it tells a lot about you!

      Before I go into talking about peace, I need and have to mention that a peace without justice means nothing to us Palestinians.

      Even the UN bid with all it’s propaganda by the PA doesn’t mean much to us unless in brings justice to Palestinians! I don’t want to go into the blaming here, but we all need to endorce and accept the fact that there are Occupied and occupier, oppressed and oppresser, if we do not understand and see this reality peace will never be achieved!

      I personaly know I disagree with Aziz based on ideological terms, I am a one stater if I may say.. And if you want examples on peaceful/ unarmed and popular resistance they are endless, you will be surprised of the amount of compassion and willingness to find a solution amongst Palestinians.

      We have said it so many times, it only takes: Israelis to stop occupation, give the Palestinians the right to return (as this is the core issue), and be willing to live in equality with Palestinians in one state! I am as many other will be more than happy, but the question remains will Israeli be willing to deattach from the zionisim idea of having a country for jewish citizens only!!!!???

      Reply to Comment
    19. AYLA

      @Rebecca–I feel that familial connection, too, very deeply. It is, in fact, true. @Henry–if it makes you feel any better, for those of us who grew up with the term “holocaust”, it carries the same weight and associations as “Shoah”, maybe even stronger, since it’s the word that always went along with the images. For the moment, it’s our globally understood language; I’m sorry it sounds so hurtful to someone accustomed to “Shoah”; that’s important for us to know. If it’s important to you and others, maybe start working to change that within the Jewish community, starting with the Shoah museums themselves. For now, I would personally continue to choose the language people know, and trust that their associations are as grave as my own.

      Reply to Comment
    20. chana

      aziz, you made us laugh, you made us cry but above all you and people like you make us see hope for a better future.
      In brotherhood

      Reply to Comment
    21. Jessica

      Thank you so much for this, Aziz. I’ve seen many articles and interviews of you. But, this write-up and video really gets to the essence of the conflict, in my opinion. You are sooooo right that it’s not even just an Israeli-Palestinian “thing” – it is a human thing. We build these walls in our minds of fear, hatred, and ignorance and the injustices, killing, and physical barriers we see are just manifestations of these invisible walls we create. Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for seeing this and working towards the root of the conflict. You have so much courage and insight … and you inspire many.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Richard Witty

      I think the reason that Aziz’s post is so admired, even beyond the recognition of charitableness, is that Jews and Israelis have experienced so much denunciation that they/we literally crave communication that we are accepted as human beings.

      Reply to Comment
    23. AYLA

      That’s such an important response, Richard Witty. I know from talking to Palestinians that many feel the same way. Given the affect of Aziz’s talk, imagine the power of us all simply saying: I accept you, rather than waiting for someone to first say it to us.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Richard Witty

      Thanks Ayla.

      It definitely goes both ways. I’m certain that Palestinians relish genuine human respect, in word and in practice.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Rchard Witty

      An attitude of sympathy is considered an obstacle to those that are at war, from whatever perspective.

      Reply to Comment
    26. Ben Israel

      Dee, I certainly respect your desire for peace and reconciliation, but if your view insisting on a “single state” is the dominant view of the Palestinians community, and more importantly, the Palestinian leadership, then you are condemning everyone here to endless conflict. There is only ONE way to peace…and that is a compromise peace with the Arabs recognizing the existence of a Jewish state AND the historical connection of the Jewish people to the country. Why is your way bound to end up in endless conflict?
      (1) We look around at the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states of the Middle East and what do we see, a long of failed states with endless internal conflicts…Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Turkey (Kurds and Cyprus problem).
      It is not possible to point to a single, multi-ethnic Arab country that is a success.
      (2) Minority religious groups under pressure and declining in population throughout the region….and particularly Christians in Iraq and Egypt and the virtual disappearance of all the ancient Jewish communities of the region.
      (3) The elections in Tunisia (a relatively liberal and secular country) show, not the dominance of liberal, secular forces but rather of Islamist forces. Egypt and other countries are following in this path. Thus, religious minorities must expect more pressure on them throughout the Middle East.
      (4) Almost half of the Jews in Israel come from the Arab countries of the Middle East. They do not generally have fond memories of their experiences and have no desire to live in a country in which there will be strong Arab and Islamic political forces competing in the public arena.

      Thus, I repeat, the ONLY possible way to peace is through a compromise peace between the Palestinians and other Arabs and a Jewish state, DEFINED as such, just as the Palestinians define themselves as an ARAB state with MUSLIM religious influence in the public sphere.

      Reply to Comment
    27. RichardNYC

      “There are many Palestinians who share Aziz’s image and you’ll be surprised if I tell you it’s the majority of Palestinians…”
      –>Maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t think Aziz is insisting on right of return and the end of Zionist Israel. I think the point of his whole project is getting people to understand that Palestinians and Israelis need to accept each other’s right to a national existence in their own country. It seems you think its reasonable to expect Israel’s to forfeit their country as long as Palestinians use nonviolent tactics against them. That’s not what peace means. Peace means abandoning your goal of defeating Zionism, and Zionism abandoning its goal of taking over the West Bank.

      Reply to Comment
    28. AYLA

      @Deedee–I have Israeli citizenship and live in Israel, and I share your vision entirely: one state, for all her citizens equally, palestinian right of return. It pains me that I have the right, as an american who moved here, and the many palestinians forced to leave in ’48 do not, and most have not even been permitted to visit. My friend’s father was forced to leave, and my friend–who has been permitted to visit as a student–says that although his family has made a very good life for themselves in Jordan, his father would return in a heartbeat to his old land. I do not represent the average Israeli, but at the same time, I can absolutely promise you: Neither do Ben Israel or Richard NYC. By the way, I want what you want not only for you, but also for myself. This way, I don’t get cut off from parts of the land, or the people whom I consider brothers (not just pc language–I feel this, from knowing people); this way we can know each other, and share in each other’s cultures that are so interconnected. It won’t be easy, but, it is not easy now, either. I’d prefer to be in the struggle of togetherness than the struggle of separateness. Whatever you do, do not let these two convince you that they are where things stand. They are not. The more we get out and work together the way that Aziz is doing, the more we benefit from feeling the hope that comes from working with others who are open. If you live on this land, maybe we can meet. If not, I wish you the right to return. Take care.

      Reply to Comment
    29. RichardNYC

      “I do not represent the average Israeli, but at the same time, I can absolutely promise you: Neither do Ben Israel or Richard NYC.”
      –>I’m not Israeli, but I think that two-states + no right of return is a pretty typical Israeli viewpoint. When your entire society prefers separateness, and you’re struggling for togetherness with people who you do not properly understand, you’re an obstacle to peace. Pure intentions do not make your policy preferences morally sound. Even Noam Chomsky recognizes the supreme importance of pragmatism in this conflict. That you do not makes you more dangerous than many people on the right.

      Reply to Comment
    30. Mitchell Cohen

      RichardNYC is right. Unless you vote to the left of Meretz, you are voting for a party that calls for the two state solution. I have a distant cousin who ran for a spot on the Meretz party and participated in the signing of the Geneva Initiative, which called for a two state solution based on the ’67 borders, with some adjustments (i.e. land swaps). Agree or disagree that is the “typical Israeli” viewpoint.

      Reply to Comment
    31. Jessica

      @AYLA & RICHARDNYC, Hearing Ayla’s voice is so refreshing to me because I’m in the same boat, and unfortunately, I know we are in the minority. Like Ayla, I have met people with similar stories. One of my closest friends here is Arab-Israeli (although she would consider herself Palestinian) – and I always thought the idea of a “movement of solidarity” for a 2-state solution seemed self-contradictory. How can we struggle together in an effort to make two separate nations? It would pain me when I would hear Palestinians say they don’t think they can live with Israelis (because they don’t trust them) and need their own state. After some time of talking to different kinds of people and thinking, I’ve come to a new understanding … that most people do not think and feel like me and Ayla and in order for our kind of vision to work, enough people need to want to live together under a secular democracy. It’s an ideal, but I agree with Richard in that it’s not likely a feasible reality. Nowadays, I am really for any solution where the majority of people can feel satisfied enough and safe enough to live their lives in peace. If it means having 2 different states, fine enough … but we will still need to face another. We will still need to get past the barriers in our minds if we want long-lasting peace. We need to recognize the other as human first and try to build from there, and if we can’t, I don’t believe any solution on the ground will have long-lasting effects.

      Reply to Comment
    32. AYLA


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    33. Ben Israel

      Although I do not claim to have the majority of Israelis behind all of my views, most Israelis are much closer to my side than to Ayla’s.

      Reply to Comment
    34. Tislam. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t think I could do that without getting *some* revenge first.

      Reply to Comment
    35. Henry Weinstein

      To Deedee
      I wrote something to you in answer, I don’t pretend at all it’s a breaking speech: the first part is propelled by humor (sincere apologize if you don’t find it funny), the second part is my hum viewpoint, very similar to Aziz, on what can be done at the present time, the third part is a very concise political digest (to help you to visualize from where I speak, before of being accused of Zionist witchcraft).
      By the way I have a dear friend from Sri-Lanka named Didi, he lives in Paris.
      Let’s go.
      1. Well look above Deedee, seems you are the only one on this thread. I mean, the only Palestinian willing to interact with the rest of us! Maybe you are a spokesman, speaking in the name of the majority of Palestinians on 972. After all you finish your comment by saying: “We have said it so many times, it only takes Israelis to stop occupation, give the Palestinians the right of return (…), and be willing to live in equality with Palestinians in one state”. Here we are again, Deedee, in The De-Legitimizing Zone… For you the solution to end the conflict is very simple: Israelis should first end Israel, and then everything will be fine for the Palestinians! Happy end.
      And you ask me if I think “the majority of Israelis support peace?”, i.e this miraculous solution: well, I don’t think so, Israelis are not Lemmings you know, sounds like “Israel Rest In Peace R.I.P” your solution. It would be easier to build a Time Machine, Deedee. But then again, the problem would be to convince the Israelis to do the Time travel, back in the roaring 40s…
      Good luck.
      2. More seriously, I agree with Aziz to say good people (with a brain) from each side should try to find ways to break the cycle of violence (and violence begins with propaganda, according to me), and that’s mean for me to explain that each side has to accept to make compromises. What can the good people do at the present time apart from struggling together to prevent their respective corrupted extremists & cynical politicians to worsen the conflict?
      What’s worth to promote “peace” without first having promote the possibility of peace? What means peace if hatred is still the only common denominator?
      3. Political digest
      I’m against the occupation of the Left Bank, against the blockade of Gaza, against the present Israeli status of Jerusalem (against the annexion of East-Jerusalem). That doesn’t mean I think it’s easy to get out of this mess.
      I’m not against (even if it took me a lot of time being French to understand the Israeli viewpoint) Israel defined as a Jewish democratic state, I’m against Israel defined as the ‘democratic’ state of the Jewish people: I see no good reason to deny complete equality & full Israeli citizenship to Palestinian Israelis and all non-Jew Israeli citizens.
      I’m not ashamed by the Israeli Jews.
      That’s I think, but Hey Deedee I’m just a French guy, and it’s just a comment.

      Reply to Comment
    36. Ben Israel,
      Your Declaration of Indpendence asserts unlimitted ingress for Jews; the ingathering is, in my view, constitutional law. It also enshrines “justice as envisioned by the Prophets” (maybe not exact quote). But, wihtin the same few lines, in guarantees full equality in political and social rights, irrespective of sex, race, or religion (that inclusion of “sex” is rather amazing considering it was 1948-9). You have natural born Arabs. They must be given full equality in these rights (and they are not at the momment); which means they cannot be expunged. So what you can get from “Jewish State” is real, but not total. Your Declaration has comprimise built within it. Use it; there is your way out.

      Reply to Comment
    37. Moriel Rothman

      Beautiful, Aziz. Thank you, you are an inspiration to me– as a peacemaker and as a human being.

      Reply to Comment
    38. Bosko

      Ayla said …
      ” I share your vision entirely: one state, for all her citizens equally, palestinian right of return”
      Oh great … Even if one ignores the countless lessons of history inplaces like Rwanda, the Balkans, Lebanon, Cyprus etc even then, one can only shake one’s head in disbelief. Israel hasn’t already got enough division within itself between the left, the right, the settlers, the religious, the secular, the rich and the poor, Ashkenazim, Sephardim and what not? What Israel needs now is to bring in millions of people who fought a bloody war with the Jewish people for nearly 100 years. And that will improve everyone’s lot? The mind boggles. Is it a full moon out there?

      Reply to Comment
    39. Bosko

      Having said that. I too loved the video and more people should be doing what Aziz is doing. Building bridges between people will bring peace eventually. But lets keep a sense of perspective. There is a whole lot of difference between acknowledging each other’s humanity and building a one state solution. At least in our generation. As to what the future might bring? Well … That’s up to our kids. Let’s learn to crawl before we can walk …

      Reply to Comment
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