He was dubbed the Palestinian Gandhi at the start of the first uprising in the West Bank and Gaza for his nonviolent approach to throwing off Israel’s occupation. He organized tax strikes against Israel and a boycott of Israeli goods. In places where Israelis planned settlements, he had Palestinians plant olive trees.
Now, exactly 25 years later, Mubarak Awad still sees civil disobedience as the Palestinians’ best hope for independence. He still believes in the idea of two countries, one Palestinian and one Israeli, existing separately and sharing a peaceful border.
But like growing numbers of Palestinians—and Israelis—he has creeping doubts about the feasibility of the two-state plan.
“At the time, I was very hopeful,” Awad told The Daily Beast in an interview from Washington, D.C., where he teaches at American University, “and then things didn’t work out.”
It’s the paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian condition at the end of 2012. Surveys consistently point to majorities on both sides supporting an agreement for a separate Israel and Palestine.
But they also suggest that most Palestinians and Israelis believe the moment for such a deal may have passed—that successive rounds of violence coupled with Jewish settlement expansion and Palestinian political divisions have killed the two-state solution.
For Palestinians the cognitive dissonance has caused a rising despair and a grasping for other solutions, including the old program of a single, bi-national state for Israelis and Palestinians.
Among Israelis, it has prompted a firm embrace of the status quo, however troubled and unsettled it is, and a preference for politicians who are not inclined toward dramatic peace moves.
They include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely expected to continue leading Israel after elections next month.
Awad, a Christian Palestinian who emigrated to the United States after the 1967 war, says he has not lost hope. During the 1980s, Awad organized civil disobedience campaigns that helped power the initial months of the first intifada (uprising), starting in late 1987.
The uprising marked the first organized Palestinian effort to force Israel to quit the West Bank and Gaza, which it had occupied in the 1967 war. It included waves of demonstrations and some attacks on Israelis—mainly with stones and petrol bombs.
Israel deported Awad back to the U.S. in 1988, fearing what he says was the transformative potential of civil disobedience. In a second uprising starting in 2000, Palestinians deployed much more violent methods, including bus bombings and suicide attacks.
“In nonviolence you have to be very patient, very calculated, and working not only with your own people but with allies on the opposite side,” Awad said, explaining the challenge of sustaining a civil-disobedience campaign.
“When guns are available and there’s widespread frustration, it’s always tempting to go back to violence,” he said.
Awad, who runs a nonviolence program in Washington, said he sees some positive trends among Palestinians. He pointed to weekly protests in the West Bank against Israel’s barrier, which encroaches on Palestinian farmland in many areas.
In some cases, the protests have helped force Israel to redraw the route of the barrier.
But while polls point to broad Palestinian support of the demonstrations, they also reveal deep skepticism among Palestinians regarding the prospects of ending settlement expansion or changing the reality in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel has settled some 550,000 people in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967. In the latest move, Netanyahu announced this month he would develop an area of the West Bank known as E1, potentially blocking Palestinian contiguity in the territory.
Khalil Shikaki, who runs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said about 70 percent of Israelis and Palestinians support the two-state solution. But at least 60 percent of Palestinians believe it’s no longer viable.
Among Israelis, the skeptics number around 50 percent, according to polls.
“With no agreement on a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in sight, one-state dynamics are gaining momentum—a development that will be difficult to reverse or even contain,” Shikaki wrote in a report earlier this year titled The Future of Israel-Palestine: A One-State Reality in the Making.
“In the medium and long term, no one will benefit,” the report said.