Two bereaved parents – one Israeli, the other Palestinian – told a Washington-area audience this week how they have managed to channel their grief over the deaths of their children in Israeli-Palestinian violence into a conviction that both peoples must reconcile.
Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin, activists with the 600-family Parents Circle Families Forum composed of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost close family members in the conflict, said they do not wish for revenge. They believe that for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to succeed, the cycle of violence must be broken. That will require a structured process of reconciliation between the two peoples, much like the one in South Africa.
“When you recognize the humanity of the other – that’s the beginning of the end of the conflict,” Damelin, a South African-born Israeli, told about 50 people Sept. 9 at Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
In 2002, Damelin’s 28-year-old son David was studying for a master’s degree in philosophy. While doing his army reserve service at a West Bank checkpoint, a Palestinian sniper killed him and nine others.
“When the soldiers came to me to tell me that David was dead, I told them, ‘You may not kill anyone in the name of my child,’” she said.
Later, when she learned that the army had caught David’s killer, Damelin, a peace activist, faced a “difficult test.”
“It’s easy to go around the world talking about peace and reconciliation. But could I walk the walk?” she said.
After soul searching, she wrote to the parents of the man who had killed her son. They replied, writing that they would pass her letter to their son. Damelin said she waited years without hearing from him. But she wanted to meet her son’s killer and recently received permission from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to see him in prison, Damelin said. She is now waiting for permission from the police. “We hope we won’t wait long.”
If the prison meeting does take place, Damelin will be accompanied by Aramin, her partner on the stage at Bethesda Jewish Congregation, who will act as mediator. Thirty years ago, Aramin was in an Israeli jail himself.
Born in the West Bank, Aramin began skirmishing with Israeli soldiers as a boy, eventually leading a group of young fighters. “At 16, we found weapons – hand grenades and Kalashnikovs,” he said. “At 17, we were arrested.”
Aramin drew the lightest sentence of the group, seven years in prison. It was only then that he began to discover humanity in the people he only knew as soldiers and oppressors.
In prison he learned Hebrew. “Because my enemy speaks Hebrew, I want to learn Hebrew to kill my enemy,” he said.
Prisoners were forced to watch Schindler’s List. Aramin said he looked forward to watching a film about the Holocaust, because watching Jews die felt like revenge to him. Instead, “after a few minutes, I found myself crying.”
He began to understand the trauma the Holocaust inflicted on Jews and Israelis and how Israeli actions reflected that trauma.
Long talks with one of his guards allowed him to see at least one Israeli as a human being. “I changed his mind and I saw he also changed my mind,” Aramin said.
Still, when he was released in 1992, “I still believed in armed struggle.”
The world seemed to have changed. The Madrid Conference of 1991 was followed by the Oslo Accords of 1993. Peace seemed possible. “Suddenly we had a Palestinian Authority. I started to be active on [the Palestinian] side. I said, ‘We need to change our way.’”
The first joint meeting of like-minded Israelis and Palestinians took place in 2005.
Then one morning in 2007, two of Aramin’s daughters were standing outside their school in East Jerusalem. “A jeep of the Border Police went by. There was one shot.” His daughter Abir was wounded. She died in Hadassah Hospital.
Aramin said he does not seek revenge in his daughter’s death. He said it is this position that allows him to call for reconciliation with Israelis. “We are the people who have paid the price. So we have the right to talk.”
But after the casualties on both sides during this summer’s Gaza war, the Parents Circle had to regroup. On Sept. 6, 200 members met in Beit Jala near Bethlehem to determine whether there was still enough trust between Israelis and Palestinians to continue, Damelin said. They agreed that there was.
Damelin has studied the reconciliation process in South Africa. Audience member Joyce Schwartz asked the speakers whether there is hope on either the Israeli or Palestinian side for politicians to change the dynamics of the conflict.
“We have been doing a lot of work promoting the idea of reconciliation in the Knesset,” Damelin said. Admitting that while there are no leaders with the stature of South African President Nelson Mandela, she added, “You do need leaders, but you need people to make those leaders.”
Audience member Aseel Saied said that a friend of her sister’s had been shot and killed in their hometown of Ramallah, on the West Bank. “We are a pro-peace family,” she said. “But my sister is losing hope. What can I tell her?”
“We are human beings,” Aramin said. “We are more than our pain. We are more than our humanity. We can choose another way.”