Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence work for peace
30 April 2007
`We can break this endless cycle of revenge, retaliation and punishment; the only way to do it is to listen to the pain of the other,` said Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew whose fourteen-year-old daughter was killed in a suicide attack in Jerusalem.
He and a Palestinian who had lost a brother in the conflict were speaking on behalf of the Bereaved Families Forum to 120 participants in the Universal Peace Federation`s Middle East Peace Initiative in Jerusalem April 10-16, 2007.
A graphic designer whose family has roots in Jerusalem dating back seven generations, Rami described the day his daughter Smadir died, September 4, 1997. When he heard the news of a suicide bombing near where his daughter and her friends were shopping on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he went running in the streets and then from hospital to hospital looking for her. Finally he found her body at the morgue. `It was a sight and time I will never ever be able to forget, and it changed my life completely,` he said.
He had been a young soldier during the Yom Kippur War in a company that had eleven tanks at the start of the war and only three at its close. He lost good friends and ended the war with the determination to look out after himself. He got married, and he and his wife had four children. After Smadir`s death, their house was filled for seven days and seven nights with thousands and thousands of people coming to pay condolences, during the Jewish period of mourning. On the eighth day he found himself alone facing the decision of what to do with the sea of anger within himself.
`I`m a Jew. I`m an Israeli. Before anything else, I am a human being,` Rami said. `There are only two options. The first is the obvious one: when someone kills your child you want to get angry. Most people choose the way of hatred and retaliation. But we are people, not animals; we can think. You ask yourself if killing anyone will bring her back, if causing pain to anyone will ease your pain.`
At first he thought he could go back to his normal life and pretend that nothing had happened. But life was not normal any more. Then he met Yitzhak Frankenthal, who co-founded the gatherings of bereaved families in 1995, after his son Arik was kidnapped and murdered.
Yitzhak invited Rami to come to a meeting, where he saw people he had long admired, such as Yaacov Guterman, a Holocaust survivor who lost his son Raz during the war in Lebanon. For the first time in his life he saw Palestinian bereaved families, and they shook his hand and cried with him. An old Arab lady had a picture of her six-year-old kid on her chest.
`I`m not a very religious person,` Rami reflected. `I cannot explain what happened to me that minute nine years ago. I know this: from that moment on I devote my life to go anywhere to speak to anyone, those who listen and those who do not want to listen, to convey one simple truth: we are not doomed. It is not our destiny to keep murdering. If I am listening to the pain of my brother here, whom I really love like my own brother, I can expect him to listen to my own pain. We can go on the long and difficult journey and together we can go to peace. We put cracks of hope in the wall of hatred and fear. We say that our blood is the same color. Our pain is the same pain. We paid the highest price possible. If we can talk to one another, anyone can.`
Rami is the son of a Holocaust survivor. As his grandparents were taken to the ovens in Europe, the free and civilized nations never lifted a finger. He expressed appreciation for people with open hearts who come to the Holy Land to listen, learn and work for peace.
The Bereaved Families Forum sends pairs of Jews and Palestinians to speak in high schools. In Israeli schools, they ask how many students in their audience had met a Palestinian before, and most of them never had. In Palestinian schools, the young people tell them they had never met an Israeli other than a soldier. Through the Bereaved Families Forum, young people have a new type of encounter. In 2006, they held meetings in more than 1,000 schools. Students tell them: `You opened a new way of thinking for us,` and `This changed my life.` The organization hosts a call-in radio program in Arabic and Hebrew on All for Peace Radio and a telephone hotline that gives Jews and Palestinians an opportunity to talk to each other. In four years, more than four million phone calls were placed. They also run summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian teens who have lost family members to violence.
Aziz Abu Sarah came with Rami to tell his family`s story. A fourth-generation resident of Jerusalem, Aziz is the Palestinian chairman of the Bereaved Families Forum.
`When people come here and spend a few days touring the Holy Land, they start feeling hopeless,` Aziz began. They see how people are living and don`t know any way to make a difference.
`I grew up in Bethany,` he explained. `It was a normal childhood, in a sense, but nothing is normal here. By the time I was seven I had been shot at. I saw a neighbor killed. If it`s not near your home, it`s not so close. When I was nine, soldiers came into our house looking for something and didn`t find it, so they took my older brother. We finally figured out that he was suspected of throwing stones. He was beaten during interrogation. They released him, but already his liver and spleen were damaged. We took him to the hospital where he had surgery. But a few days later he died.`
It was the brother closest in age to him, and they were very close. Aziz became very angry and very bitter. `I believed it was my duty to avenge my brother. I got involved very early in politics. I was an editor of a [Fatah] youth publication in Jerusalem by age sixteen. My writing was very much like the media you listen to today. It wasn`t anything good. I wanted to leave the country. All the anger and bitterness makes you empty within.`
At age eighteen, he was living in Jerusalem and didn`t speak a word of Hebrew because it was the language of his enemy. He had run away from every class in Hebrew for two years but finally decided to learn Hebrew, because he realized that if he wanted to succeed in life he realized he had to communicate in Hebrew. He went to the school where immigrants study Hebrew.
Previously, Aziz`s only encounter with the other side was with soldiers or settlers. In that class, he got to meet the other side. `In this conflict,` he explained, `people demonize the other side. If you demonize the other, you don`t feel bad when they are killed. That`s how a lot of people grow up. In the class the teacher was nice to me. The students were nice to me. They looked the same as me; they wanted to be my friends, and it made no sense of me. If you are sure of something all your life, it`s very unsettling. It was very redeeming and very refreshing to see that we are all human beings.`
He learned that he has the power of choice in his life. `Just because someone chose to kill my brother and act in a way that was very inhumane, I didn`t have to choose that. I grew up believing that I didn`t have a choice. So many people here don`t believe they have a choice.`
When he makes presentations in classrooms Aziz challenges the young people. They think that if someone bombs them, they have to bomb back. They don`t understand the alternatives they have. One side wants to kill all the Arabs. One side wants to throw all the Jews into the sea.
`Israelis want security, but the only way you can get what you want is to help others get what they want. We do a lot of dialogue work. We say we lost those who are close to us. We put our hatred and anger behind us. Rami is one of my closest friends. I think it is kind of ironic that a Palestinian can say an Israeli is one of my closest friends. If I`m in trouble, this is the one I call, and he has to help me out. We show people it is possible. If Rami and I can call each other brothers, anybody can.`
Aziz co-hosts a show on All For Peace Radio; he also runs an organization aimed at empowering Palestinian youth.
Joy Pople is Assistant Communications Director of the Universal Peace Federation