“You may not kill anybody in the name of my child,” Robi Damelin said shortly after being told by the Israeli Army that her son, David, had been killed by a Palestinian sniper.
David, an active member of the Israeli peace movement and a talented musician, had been studying for his master’s degree in the Philosophy of Education when he was called up for reserve duty in 2002. It was the middle of the Second Palestinian Intifada. Reluctant to serve in the Occupied Territories but believing that he could prevent something terrible from happening by showing the soldiers under him to treat each Palestinian they encountered with respect, David went to his service.
“I feel like a sitting duck,” David told his mother just days before his death. “He never shared that kind of stuff with me. My children usually told me ridiculous stories, thinking I would believe them.” Filled with a sense of dread, Robi spent the early-morning hours on the day David was killed restless and unable to sit at home. That day, he and nine others were killed at a political checkpoint near the Ofra settlement in the West Bank. The sniper who fired on them that day was a young Palestinian man who, as a child, Robi emphasizes, had seen his uncle violently killed.
Two days after David and the others were killed, the checkpoint was removed.
“When someone dies, we like to say how special they were, how unique. My daughter Abir was a very normal girl. She didn’t have any special or unique talents. But she was mine,” explains Bassam Aramin. Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was killed by an Israeli soldier while walking in front of her school in Anata, East Jerusalem in 2007. She was 10 years old.
Bassam grew up in Hebron. At the age of 12, he saw a young Palestinian boy killed during a demonstration against Israeli soldiers. Filled with a desire for revenge, a 17-year-old Bassam joined a group of young men who were caught throwing grenades at soldiers. He spent seven years in Israeli prison. Several years later, he would go on to co-found the joint Israeli-Palestinian, nonviolent activist group Combatants for Peace. Two years after the first meetings of Combatants for Peace, his daughter, Abir, was killed. He joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum two days later.
One of Bassam’s proudest moments during his time in the Parents Circle, he said, was seeing his son Arab, only a child when his sister was killed but now a young man, stand on the stage of the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Memorial Day Ceremony in 2016, where he spoke about the importance of watching his father follow a path of nonviolence.
“He’s supposed to be in jail; maybe they would have killed him because he wanted to throw one stone. And what happened? How did he change himself? He followed in my steps through activities. Not through explaining. He needed to see my actions in the background. I say now, I already made peace. I made peace with myself. And I made peace with my son, which is enough.”
Bassam explains why revenge is not possible for him: “Even if I meet the murderer and ask him why was my daughter murdered, he won’t answer me. I will never find the answer.”
The stories of Bassam Aramin and Robi Damelin are just two of the 600 stories of loss that unite the Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families of the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF). Since its establishment, the 600 members — all of whom have lost a family member to the conflict — have undertaken a joint effort in the midst of ongoing violence to transform their incredible loss and pain into a catalyst for reconciliation and peace. They choose to convert anger and revenge, helplessness and despair into actions of hope. They operate education, public-awareness and advocacy projects that foster humanization and empathy towards both Israelis and Palestinians. PCFF’s[CMS1] overall objective is to drive a reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians as a necessary catalyst for a negotiated agreement.
The forum was founded in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal and a few Israeli families. In 1998, the first meeting between bereaved Palestinian families in Gaza and bereaved families in Israel took place. The Second Intifada made it almost impossible for Israeli families to continue meeting families in Gaza. Today, bereaved Palestinian families from the West Bank join bereaved Israeli families in advocating for an end to the occupation, the vital importance of nonviolence and reconciliation as a driving force for change. Membership in PCFF is not limited to parents of lost children. Bereaved brothers, sisters, spouses and children work with parents to challenge the widespread apathy and hopelessness that the Israeli and Palestinian public express about the prospect of a successful peace agreement.
PCFF members offer more than hope. Their work is courageous. The driving force behind it is that no other family should have to suffer the same pain. The goals of the Parents Circle are not therapeutic or focused on healing. As bereaved Israeli father Rami Elhanan says, “We need to deal with this pain 24 hours a day, forever, whatever happens.” Each member is guided by a conviction that if they — as those who have paid the highest price — can work together in their pain, then anyone can.
Participants share a commitment to do whatever they can to prevent others from experiencing the loss of a loved one. They serve as living examples of what is possible. Bassam explains, “Our goal is to prove that we can live together. It’s not ‘if we believe’ or ‘if we have hope,’ someday we will have peace. No. We have evidence. We are here. We are together. Hand in hand, side by side. And we are the evidence itself. We will continue to fight in our way and continue to act. We will be able to stand in front of our grandchildren, our sons, and say that we did everything possible to achieve peace.”
Member activism takes many forms. Every year on Israeli Memorial Day, a sacred and solemn 24 hours, PCFF co-hosts an Alternative Memorial Day Ceremony. The ceremony began with about 200 people. Now in its 15th year, Alternative Memorial Day draws audiences of more than 7,000 people. Members of PCFF take the stage together to explain the personal impact that each cycle of violence has on Israeli and Palestinian families. In the past three years, former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have personally intervened to deny permits to Palestinian participants of the ceremony. And each year, the Israeli High Court rules against such action. Each year, members of the PCFF face angry crowds who jeer, throw bottles and spit on them in protest of their joint ceremony.
In 2019, bereaved son Yuval Rahamim took the stage to explain that “the hole that suddenly opened up in our lives will never be filled. The wound will continue to bleed until the end of our lives, to rip our families apart and even pass from generation to generation […]. I come here every year. I’m moved to be with the thousands of courageous men and women who are not afraid to believe that there is a different way, that we have partners to speak to, and that pain has neither nationality nor flag.”
In 2016, bereaved Palestinian brother Arab Aramin described why he joined the ceremony. “Over the years, I have faced many difficulties and various challenges. There are feelings of hatred and fear, and a deep desire for revenge. It wasn’t easy for me to find my place in these meetings. But with time, I found the light to guide me on my dark path. It was the light of God that has given me his grace through a man whose humanity is hard to put into words. My father, Bassam — he taught me to rise above the past and to always aspire to life. … He taught me that I am not a man who kills, and that vengeance is the way of the weak and cowardly. We will fight for a noble cause, and we will fight for life and not death.”
Many members are also active in PCFF’s public-education programs. Since its establishment in 1994, PCFF has initiated as many as 7,000 Dialogue Meetings for some 200,000 Israelis, Palestinians and international audiences. Each meeting is led by a pair of bereaved members —one Israeli, one Palestinian — who share their story of loss, and their choice of nonviolence and reconciliation. These meetings have a profound impact on their audiences. Youth have told members that they carried stories of PCFF throughout their army service, reminded of the impact that violence has on Palestinian and Israeli families. Members have also trained more than 200 Israeli teachers to work with youth and deepen their understanding of the conflict as it currently manifests.
Robi explains why PCFF’s Dialogue Meetings for Palestinians and Israelis are so vital. “When David was killed, I was interviewed by a lot of the newspapers. And I understood that this man didn’t kill David because he was David. If he’d known him, he could never have killed him. If you don’t know, you fear. Or you hate. You know, if you go into an average Israeli classroom and you ask the kids, ‘Who of you have ever met a Palestinian?’ Nobody. Or maybe one in the class.” Robi describes the impact this experience has on students: “the emotional breakthrough is one of the most important parts of the work that we do. Because until you see that humanity on the other side, you cannot possibly ever give up being right. And this is a big problem. We’re so busy being right that neither of us is succeeding.”
PCFF’s flagship program, the Parallel Narrative Experience (PNE) has produced 39 cohorts. For the past 15 years, bereaved members have led 80 hour-long education modules for Palestinian and Israeli adults. Each cohort explores their personal, national and historical conflict narratives. They visit the destroyed Palestinian village of Lifta and Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The groups work together to move beyond exclusive truths about the conflict and gain a greater understanding about the present day impacts of the occupation. There are more than 1,500 alumni of the PNE. Many of them regularly participate in and plan solidarity actions as peacebuilders.
In January 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration abruptly withdrew USAID funding for peace and reconciliation programs in Israel and Palestine. This was a political effort to drive the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. As a result of the Trump administration’s dangerous actions, PCFF lost one-third of its operating budget overnight, including core funding for the PNE program. This is devastating for Israeli and Palestinian society, as hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians will no longer have the opportunity to experience the possibility of hope. Yet alumni remain in contact with one another. They believe that change is possible, despite persistent narratives about the inevitable failure of peace.
Bereaved Palestinian son Mazen Faraj joined PCFF after meeting Rami. Mazen explains why he chose the path of peace after his father was killed by Israeli soldiers on his way home one night. “All my life as a Palestinian, I knew the Israelis very well. As settlers. As soldiers. As the people who treat us so hard in Israeli jail. I never met them as human beings. In 2005, it was the first time in my life that an Israeli respected me as a human being and as a Palestinian. It was the first time that an Israeli recognized that there will be freedom for this man. I can tell you that this was a new way, a new journey of reconciliation with the other side. It does not mean forgetting and forgiving. I will never forget what has happened to me. And I don’t have a right to forgive what has happened to my father. But in the middle, there is a way of knowing each other, understanding each other and, the most important thing, respecting each other. This is what is missing in our conflict, in our land: respect and humanity.
Bereaved Israeli father Rami Elhanan explains that after his 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing, he did not have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Joining PCFF put him on a journey that he continues today. He gets his strength from the impact that his, Bassam’s, Robi’s, Mazen’s and 600 other stories have on those who are willing to listen. He describes this impact as being “like walking into the open mouth of an active volcano. When they see us [together], this puts the first crack in the wall. A little light comes in. No one can listen to us and remain the same.”
Rami reminds everyone that “the occupation has taken away our kids. We have paid the price of the occupation. There is a straight, very sharp line connecting every victim of terror in this Holy Land of ours and every illegal settlement in this country. What we are trying to do is to show people the price of the domination of one people over another. We need to learn how to live in peace. We need to learn how to share this land, instead of sharing the graves under it.”
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