Two-Fold Motivation: Anger and Humour

This year, Nabila Espanioly shared the international Aachen Peace Prize with the Jewish-Israeli historian and peace activist Reuven Moskowitz. Espanioly has been an energetic campaigner for peace between Israel and Palestine on the basis of the two-state solution.

photo: Grassroot Church Initiative
Award ceremony

​​"If you've got an itch, you have to scratch it yourself." This Arab proverb sums up Nabila Espanioly's outlook on life. Don't accept the role of the victim; take active measures to change things for the better; use your strength! This is what she demands of herself, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel and as a woman in Arab society. And so, for more than three decades now, the psychologist has been an energetic campaigner for the civil rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel; for peace between Israel and Palestine on the basis of the two-state solution; and for equal rights for women.

This year, Nabila Espanioly shared the international Aachen Peace Prize with the Jewish-Israeli historian and peace activist Reuven Moskowitz. She was given the prize in recognition of her efforts to promote peace and human rights in the Middle East. After the awards ceremony in early September, she was invited to Bonn by the Israel/Palestine Working Group. Martina Sabra took the opportunity to conduct a lengthy interview with Nabila Espanioly, who studied in Bamberg (among other places), and who speaks fluent German.

A two-fold motivation: anger and humour

In Bonn, she had spent two and a half hours reporting on the Middle East conflict, and most of the audience would happily have listened to her for longer. Despite decades of often nerve-wracking attempts to promote a just solution for both Israelis and Palestinians, Nabila Espanioly has never lost her highly infectious sense of humour. But another source of her motivation is anger : "What keeps me going is my rage. I am often furious." She says she was brought up to respect other people's human rights: "These values were communicated to me by my parents, by my teachers, such as the poet Tawfiq Zayyad, and - last, not least - by my Christian upbringing."

After receiving her award in Aachen, Nabila Espanioly accepted the invitation from the Arbeitskreis Israel-Palästina to speak in Bonn. She has known and admired her co-prizewinner, the Jewish Israeli Reuven Moskowitz, for many years: "We have often worked together; for example, when he accompanied groups on educational trips to "At-Tufula", our centre in Nazareth, so that these visitors could acquire information on the difficult situation of the Palestinians in Israel. And we often teamed up to organise peace demonstrations in Israel and the occupied territories."

Second Palestinian-Israeli duo to win peace prize in Germany in 2003

Nabila Espanioly and Reuven Moskowitz are the second Palestinian-Israeli duo to receive a high-profile peace price in Germany this year: in June, the world-famous Palestinian poet Machmud Darwisch and the Jewish-Israeli psychoanalyst Dan Bar-On were awarded the Erich Maria Remarque Prize by the city of Osnabrück. How does it feel for a Palestinian to receive a peace prize in Germany, while her compatriots in the Israeli-occupied territories face an increasingly hopeless situation, and while the German government does little to support the Palestinians' right to determine their own future and achieve a viable Palestinian state? Nabila Espanioly responds with a smile: "The Aachen Peace Initiative, which awards the prize, is one of only a few groups in Germany that are trying to ensure the voices of the others are also heard. And that's why I have no problem accepting the prize."

She certainly doesn't feel that the prize is a kind of alibi: "But I do feel it's too much of an honour for me alone, and that's one reason why I passed it on immediately to a group of men and women who are fighting for similar objectives. And I want to use the prize so that voices are heard that some would prefer to see silenced: Palestinians in Israel, the peace movement in Israel, the women, the children, the suffering Palestinians, the sensible, reasonable Jewish Israelis - all those who feel rage or fear in the face of the occupation. These are the people to whom I want to give a voice."

"Stay close to the wall, where it's safe"

The far-flung clan of the Espaniolys has existed in Nazareth for centuries, and has indeed lent its name to an entire area of the city: "Hay Spanioly", the Spanish Quarter, is part of Nazareth's picturesque Old Town. Nabila was born in 1955, "as the seventh child in a family of eight daughters and two sons". At that time, Galilee was still under military rule. In order to travel from one town or village to another, inhabitants of the Palestinian areas required written permission from the Israeli army, which was only granted as a matter of political goodwill. Piece by piece, Palestinian land, once the very basis of the people's life, was confiscated almost entirely by the Israeli state. Many Palestinians - especially members of the older generation - felt helpless, and did their best to fit in with the status quo. Nabila Espanioly remembers: "They used to pronounce a proverb to us children and young people: 'Stay close to the wall, where it's safe'. In other words: 'No experiments'."

In 1966, military rule in Galilee was ended. Nonetheless, the Palestinian minority - in official parlance, "Israeli Arabs" - were still disadvantaged in many ways: in the assignment of development funds from local authorities, in the field of education, and in their professional lives. The second generation - Nabila's - was no longer prepared to accept this: "In my case, the light went on when I tried to matriculate as a student of Social Work in Haifa: I was turned down. When I turned to my sister, she said, 'Nabila, don't you realise you have to fight for everything?'" Nabila resolved to take up the struggle and was eventually admitted to university; later, she even got a job as a government-employed social worker. But her active commitment to the rights of Palestinians soon got her into trouble. "I lost my job three times, and I'm sure Israel's internal secret service had something to do with it", she says. At the beginning of the Eighties, Nabila Espanioly went to Germany to study.In 1987, she returned and founded "At-Tufula", a centre for women and children in Nazareth. One of her goals was to improve the care and education of pre-school children in the Palestinian areas of Israel. The centre is now supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Nabila Espanioly sees it as one of At-Tufula’s main tasks to assist children in the development of their personal and cultural identity: "We produce children's books and educational materials that enable the children to perceive their Palestinian identity, and to reflect upon it. For if one wishes to co-exist with the other Israel, the Jewish Israel, one has to exist in the first place." She is also a founder member of "Mosawa" (Equal Rights), a joint Palestinian-Israeli organisation based in Haifa.

Taxation without representation

Mosawa campaigns for the civil rights of Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinians, who make up around one fifth of the Jewish state’s population and who still feel like second class citizens. “Although we pay taxes like everyone else, Palestinian towns and villages are, on average, much more poorly developed”, says Nabila Espanioly. “Entire villages have been declared illegal by the Israeli government. They have no water, no electricity and no social services.” She says that Palestinian parents receive lower child benefit payments, despite paying the same social insurance contributions. Palestinian schools are far less well-equipped, and it is very difficult for Palestinians to acquire access to a university.

Right now, Mosawa is also campaigning against a new Israeli law, which stipulates that Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza will no longer acquire Israeli citizenship when they marry Palestinians from Israel: “This means that the married couples affected will no longer be able to live together in Israel, but will be forced instead to move to the occupied territories, or even to go abroad. The law affects 21,000 individuals; i.e., around 100,000 people, when one includes their families!”

Palestinians must be recognised as a national minority

Nabila Espanioly demands that Israel’s Palestinians be recognised as a national minority: “I’m a Palestinian, not an Israeli Arab, but the reactionary forces in Israel refuse to refer to us as Palestinians. For that would mean admitting that this country used to be Palestine, and that non-Jews also have a right to live here on an equal footing.” In 1948, Israel expelled 750,000 Palestinians and destroyed almost every Palestinian town and village. Nabila Espanioly insists that Israel must acknowledge this historical injustice and accept responsibility for it: “Until they do so, we cannot look to the future.” She herself, however, sees her own future in Nazareth, where she has bought a flat: “When we have a Palestinian state, then I’d like to have a Palestinian passport. But I wouldn’t leave Nazareth. I want to live in Israel, but as a citizen with equal rights.”

Since the Eighties, Nabila Espanioly has been politically active, not just as a Palestinian but as a feminist: “Female Palestinians in Israel are subjected to three separate kinds of discrimination: as members of the Palestinian minority, as women in Israel and as women in conservative Palestinian society.” Today, she works alongside Jewish and Palestinian women to oppose violence against women, and to promote equal rights in the workplace. Together with the international organisation “Women in Black” and the Israeli-Palestinian “Women’s Coalition for Peace”, Nabila Espanioly coordinates campaigns against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and organises aid convoys for the areas cut off from the outside world. “The terror inflicted on civilians by Hamas and Jihad is a dreadful thing, and I am completely against these attacks”, say Nabila Espanioly. “But you have to recognise that Israel is also carrying out acts of terrorism.

Hamas and Jihad playing into Sharon's hands

Ariel Sharon still believes that he can use military methods to destroy the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination; and Hamas and Jihad are playing into his hands.” For Nabila Espanioly, there is only one solution: two independent states - Israel and Palestine. And she demands that the United States and Europe play a more active role than they have done hitherto: “We can’t manage this alone; we need pressure from outside.” This, she emphasises, includes pressure from Germany. She understands Germany’s feeling of responsibility towards Israel and the Jews since the mass murders of the Nazi period; but she insists that that these feelings of guilt must not be exploited to smother all criticism of the way Israel treats the Palestinians - or to reject the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

Martina Sabra

© 2003,

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