Will Sami Awad Do the Right Thing?

Sami Awad speaks at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in 2014.
Sami Awad speaks at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in 2014. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a pro-Palestinian organization headquartered in Bethlehem, has a decision to make. Will he proceed with a festival that provides cover for anti-Israel activism? Or will he do the right thing and cancel the festival, slated to begin on Thursday, to avoid exacerbating the tension caused by the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers last week?

Here’s the background.

Thursday June 19, 2014 marks the first day of Bet Lahem Live, a four-day festival that has been at least a year in the planning. It’s the signature event of Awad’s organization, Holy Land Trust.

The conference, which takes place in Bethlehem, strives to give young people from North America and Europe a more positive view of Palestinian society and promote tourism in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

It also gives Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem a chance to engage in a kinder, gentler form of anti-Israel propagandizing, using the city of Jesus’ birth as a strategic asset in the propaganda war against Israel.

During last year’s festival, the local used the festival as a pretext to complain that the “tourism sector in Palestine is being constrained by Israel: the illegal occupation of their land, the lack of Palestinian sovereignty over their borders and the imposed restrictions to movement create difficulties to tourism.”

There is no evidence evidence that the organizers of the Bet Lahem Live Festival were interested in drawing attention to the kleptocrats and theocrats that have stymied the development of Palestinian society for the past several decades.

The message of Bet Lahem Live to young privileged Westerners is “Let’s party with the Palestinians, so that their authenticity rubs off on us. Let’s dance while Palestinian leaders incite hostility toward Jews and steal money that is supposed to be spent on the people they lead. And let’s beat up on Israel while we’re at it.” In sum, the festival combines Western consumerism with anti-Zionism and unreflective support for the Palestinian cause.

But this year, there’s a problem, a big problem.

Thursday, the first day of the festival, will also mark the one-week anniversary of the kidnapping of three young Jews by Hamas. Their exact location is unknown, but Hebron is the most logical guess.

The IDF is looking for the teens and according to some reports, the Palestinian Authority is assisting with the search. (The reports of the PA helping out in the search need to be taken with a grain of salt, however, because PA leaders have previously encouraged the kidnapping of Israelis.)

Palestinians are celebrating the kidnapping, as if it is a shared national achievement over which they all be proud. They are handing out pastries. Who knows, maybe they will hand them out at Awad’s festival. (To be fair, Awad did condemn the kidnapping in a tweet.)

The question facing Awad is whether he should proceed with the conference, postpone it, or cancel it altogether. Given that the conference is only two days away, it’s unlikely that Awad will cancel the conference because to do so would present a serious financial setback and a logistical nightmare for the Holy Land Trust.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good arguments in favor of canceling the event altogether. First, providing security for Awad’s festival will divert badly manpower the PA should be devoting to looking for the kidnapping victims, (assuming the PA is serious about finding them). The PA should also be working to prevent attacks against Israelis, like the one that reportedly took place near the Gush Etzion tunnel on Sunday.

Then there’s the safety of the people who show up for the conference.

It’s not Awad’s fault, but the festival he has organized is taking place during a period of increased tension. In February, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning in reference to the West Bank stating in part, “Demonstrations and violent incidents can occur without warning, and vehicles are regularly targeted by rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire on West Bank roads.  U.S citizens have been killed in such attacks.” The agency recommended “that U.S. citizens, for their own safety, avoid all demonstrations.”

But avoiding demonstrations is easier said than done. In March, Palestinian rock throwers clashed with Israeli soldiers during the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference attended by 600 Christians from the United States and Europe.

The clash erupted without warning during the conference and tear gas made its way into the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental in Bethlehem. Conference attendees took pictures of the Palestinian rock throwers through the hotel windows.

Attendees at the Christ at the 2014 Checkpoint Conference watch as Palestinians throw rocks at Israeli soldiers in March.
Attendees at the Christ at the 2014 Checkpoint Conference watch as Palestinians throw rocks at Israeli soldiers in March. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

As far as clashes go, it was pretty low-key. But this took place during a time of relative calm. The circumstances have changed since then. Given the increased tensions, it’s a different security environment for the people attending the Bet Lahem Live festival.

Finally, there is the propriety. Is it right for a celebration – a festival – to proceed in Bethlehem while three Jewish teenagers, Gilad Shaar, 19 and Naftali Frankel and Eyal Yifrach, both 16, are being held hostage by Hamas a few miles away in Hebron?

This is a particularly poignant issue given Sami Awad’s role in organizing the conference, for Awad himself has given “non-violence” training to members of Hamas and other terror groups. He boasted about in 2009 and was praised for it at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2012.

Clearly, whatever Awad told Hamas about the value of non-violence, the organization did not take it to heart.

Maybe instead of emceeing the conference, Awad should be canvassing his friends in Hamas, encouraging them to release the hostages they have taken.

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