Nasri Sabarna

Nasri Sabarna, mayor of Beit Ummar

Teacher and rebel

It was the 7th of June 1967, and we knew the Israelis were coming, and most of the residents of my town, Beit Ummar (near Gush Etzion), had already fled to Jordan. No men could be seen on the streets. My mother hung up a white flag on the roof while my father hid in a cave behind our home. I was eight and I will never forget the sight - women and children were sitting under a tree on the street when two or three jeeps arrived. I remember that they announced that the town was under curfew and that it was forbidden to leave the homes from nightfall till morning.

Five years later I saw the soldiers demolishing the homes of town residents who had been arrested by the Israeli authorities because of their activities. It's only natural to hate the occupation; no man would consent to simply bear it. At the age of thirteen I was arrested for a month, at age nineteen I was arrested again for two months for demonstrating and two years later I was arrested once again for a month for being an activist in the An-Najah National University in Nablus. Following this I was also placed under a house arrest a few times.

In April of 1982 I married Hanaa, a relative of mine from Beit Ummar. The day following the wedding I was arrested for two months and charged with political activity because I was a member of Fatah. During the First Intifada, organized at the time by a joint leadership affiliated with the PLO, I was an English teacher at a school in Beit Ummar. We encouraged the students at our school to demonstrate against the occupation and resist it. Most of the demonstrations were organized by young boys who fought the soldiers using rocks only.

In February of 1988, after the army had killed three youngsters and had injured sixty five, curfew was imposed on Beit Ummar which lasted for sixteen days. The soldiers ruined cars, tractors and the walls of courtyards bordering the roads, in wake of the throwing of Molotov cocktails at Israeli cars. We, the activists, received food from neighboring villages, handing it out at night to the residents. I had an additional task - to recruit more people for the Intifada.


The ultra-Orthodox and the priest

In the month of May 1988 soldiers appeared in my house, took me to a forest near Kfar Etzion and started breaking my bones with clubs. They said nothing. That was Rabin's (who was then minister of defense) policy - to break our bones. When they had finished, they dumped me near Beit Ummar. The residents evacuated me to the Al-Makassed hospital, where Moshe Hirsch, a member of the Neturei Karta group (an ultra-Orthodox extremist group opposing Zionism) visited me. It was then that I understood that our conflict is with the Zionist movement rather than with the Jewish faith.

That year I was arrested for three years, and in 1993 I was sent to 18 months of administrative detention (with no trial). I was mostly detained in the Hebron, Ramallah and Ktzi'ot prisons. I taught the other prisoners how to read and write and some of these students of mine have a Masters degree today, and are university teachers themselves. After my release, I discovered that a Palestinian priest had taken it upon himself to take care of all my family's needs during those six years I was imprisoned. He is one I respect him till this very day.


Woman power

The First Intifada united the nation. It achieved a number of things, the most important of which was Israeli acknowledgment of the Palestinian people. The statement that Palestine is a land with no nation for a nation with no land - was suddenly null and void. Today, when the head of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas, and Netanyahu meet, both flags are visible. During the First Intifada many youngsters were killed because they had hung up or hoisted the flag of Palestine.

In 1994 I went back to school as a principal. Did I talk with my students about suicide bombings? No. In war one doesn't distinguish between soldiers and civilians; when the Israelis fight they also do not distinguish. In 1997 I left the school and was appointed as manager in one of the departments of the Ministry of Interior in Hebron, a position I held for ten years.

My Master's thesis dealt with the capabilities of English teachers in the Hebron region, and I discovered that female teachers were far more competent than male teachers. I understood that the key lay in the hands of women. Imagine a boy who studies with a woman teacher who is gentle and thoughtful, as opposed to a boy studying with a man who is constantly frustrated about his financial situation. I implemented a policy in which the entire teaching staff of the first five grades was composed of women only. And in so doing we were able to bring down the violence in Beit Ummar. By the way, I myself have six sons and two daughters.


The Israeli Peace Activist

Five years ago there was an incident: A girl from Beit Ummar fell from her mother's hand into boiling water and sustained burns to her entire body. Dr. Hillel Cohen of Hebrew University in Jerusalem took care of the child's hospitalization in an Israeli hospital up until her recovery. For that entire time he hosted her family in his own home. We respect him at Beit Ummar for what he did.

I started holding meetings in my home, with Hillel and other Israelis. We would often have one side imagine what it was like in the other's shoes. These Israelis helped us solving our problems during times when Jewish settlers attacked our farmers and many times they helped when military authorities or the settlers attacked our homes in the village. Some of them arrive till this very day to help us with agricultural work. In wake of these meetings I started to believe in non-violent protest.

Since the year 2008 I have been the mayor of Beit Ummar, appointed by the Palestinian government. One day a vehicle belonging to a family of settlers overturned near our town. We immediately went out to scene of the accident with our doctors and offered medical assistance to the injured. On another occasion people from the town told me that a young Israeli from Kfar Etzion had been apprehended, after losing his way. I imagined his life was in danger and so I hurried with friends to the area. After we had found him, I took him in my car and handed him over to the cooperation and liaison office.

Eliaz Cohen from Kfat Etzion heard about me because of these cases. During our first meeting in the narratives workshop of the Parents Circle Families Forum, in which he also took part, he immediately got up and greeted me with warmth.

In our discussions, the case of the two men from Beit Ummar, who had entered Kfar Etzion and were killed, came up. The Israelis claim that the two men had attacked the settlement, but I am not so sure. Maybe they had gotten lost, were then taken into the settlement and killed there.

The important thing is that I found Eliaz attentive to my suffering as a Palestinian. He is the only settler I meet with. It did not change my view about settlers: they have ruined my life and the future of my children. I would like to see the settlers inside Israel and not in the West Bank. I think I did change some of the views of settler Eliaz Cohen regarding the way in which the conflict can be solved. I know I cannot change his entire worldview, but one must toil for the sake of peace.

In the meetings of the Parents Circle Families Forum, I came to the realization that we, Palestinians, are not responsible for the suffering of the Jews in other countries. It is us who suffered and we continue to suffer because of it. Now we must find the solution to a future in which we can live in freedom, security and tranquility on this soil. This will only be possible if we establish two states for two nations, with east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.


* Nasri Sabarna articipated in the film group. The group was filmed during the workshop for "TWO SIDED STORY" by Tor Ben Mayor.

 * Edited by Nasri Sabarna

The Reconciliation Center Web site is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsability of the Parents Circle - Families Forum and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.