Tent of reconciliation
Even amidst the surreal "emergency routine" declared at the onset of Operation Protective Edge, the tent in front of Tel-Aviv's Cinematheque sticks out from its surroundings.
A group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families who lost loved ones over the years set up the tent on the operation's second day. Their goal is to send a simple message: " Let's talk."
Their personal tragedies lend emphasis to a powerful statement: If we can talk to each other, so can you. You the people, you the leaders. They come back day after day, sit through sirens and rockets under the naked sky, in the heat and smog. Their presence, though small, is of great political importance.
This is how protest movements start in times of war: small and marginalized. Busy Israeli leaders should take an occasional glance at that tent: This is a first crack in the otherwise solid consensus around Operation Protective Edge. History shows that such cracks can widen rapidly.
Strangely enough, this temporary dwelling has become the most optimistic spot in the "city that never stops." Tel Aviv has not stopped, but it has certainly slowed down over the last week. Amid the atmosphere of violence, sirens and explosions, it's the bereaved families that offer a different discourse, a ray of hope and a glimpse at what reconciliation could look like.
They're not calling for an end to war nor criticizing the government. Yet even the subtle call for dialogue rather than a duel may be too much in this sensitive atmosphere Passers-by sometimes curse them, sometimes call them traitors. Bereaved families, a sacred cow in the Israeli ethos, lose their status when they decide to speak out.
But they accept this trade-off with equanimity.
"I'm not even sure my son, Ziv, who was killed in the army in 1996 would agree with my activities," says Yonah Bar-Gur, "but especially now, with rockets and bombs falling, we must make our voices heard. We are the voice of the silent majority that has no leader."
Officer Guy Sarig was killed by a Palestinian sniper during the riots of 1996. Last Saturday his mother told his story in the tent.
One of her companions is a bereaved mother from Nablus. They've visited each other's houmes, and shared their thoughts and feelings, which only they can fully understand. "People often say we exploit our grief for political gain," saysTzurit Sarig.
"What we actually do is mobilize our grief for emotional breakthrough. Together."
This "togetherness" is now quite limited. Of the 600 families in the almost 20-year-old organization, almost half are Palestinian.
Most of the group's activities are conducted together. Now the Palestinians cannot come. Since the brutal abduction and murder of three Jewish teens followed by the abduction and murder of a Palestinian boy, it's hard to exit the West Bank. In a phone interview to i24news from the Forum's office in Bethlehem, Bassam Aramin, an active Palestinian member, says the distance frustrates him. He says he'd love to be with them in the tent, but all he gets are phone reports. Last week, Aramin attended the Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv. Most of his life revolves around this kind of activity, especially since his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier at the entrance to her school in the West Bank.
Aramin, then already a member of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement "Combatants for Peace," joined the Forum on the third day after Abir was shot. Seven years in Israeli prison following his activism as a 17-year-old, as well as a Master's degree in Holocaust studies from a British University, have made him quite an expert on Israeli society.
"I can understand the people in the street who label the parents in the tent "traitors" while Israelis are being hit by rockets from Gaza," he says, but this exactly is our power - to raise our voices in difficult times when others cannot, or hesitate. I know there will be peace. If Israel made peace with Germany - you can make peace with Palestinians."
Day after day, the protest scene gets more complex. On the third day of their presence, the tent draws larger crowds. People who don't know what to think or where to take their doubts bring them here. This is the legitimate place to express doubts and confusion. Now the parents are no longer alone.
"One Voice," a popular international movement of moderate young Israelis and Palestinians joins forces with them. So now it's young and old, children and grandchildren, veteran activists and newcomers. Under rockets, in the name of the dead children and for the sake of those who are still alive.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."