‘It Won’t End Until We Talk’
When Robi Damelin's son was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002 while on reserve duty in the West Bank, Damelin refused to give in to the urge for revenge. Instead, she decided to become a peace activist. "Some people die when their child is killed. They give up on life and channel all their grief into the desire for revenge," she said. "I can't give up hope. It's what keeps me going and gets me out of bed every morning. The pain of losing my child is what spurs me on to do whatever I can to prevent others from experiencing this."
Wajeeh Tomeezi, a Palestinian from Idna, a village near Hebron, came to a similar understanding. In 1990, his 13-year-old brother was shot by Israeli soldiers. Tomeezi, who was 32 at the time, wanted to avenge his brother at first, but the words of the poet Khalil Jibran-"only the weak revenge themselves; the strong of soul forgive"-reminded him that causing pain to others would not bring back his brother. In 2001, another tragedy pushed Tomeezi further toward non-violence: He was on his way home from a wedding when the car in which his cousins traveled was attacked by extremist Israeli settlers who killed three passengers, including a 4-month-old baby. "When I saw this baby, covered in blood," said Tomeezi, who was traveling in a different car, "I realized there is nothing more holy than human life."
Wajeeh Tomeezi at the Peace Square in Jaffa on Dec. 19, 2015. (Photo: Judith Hertog)
Damelin and Tomeezi are now part of the Parent Circle Families Forum, an Israeli-Palestinian peace organization whose members have all lost at least one family member in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The organization was established in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son had been kidnapped and killed by Hamas. It now has around 650 members, half of them Palestinians from the West Bank (the organization has lost touch with its former members in Gaza) and half of them Israelis-almost all Jewish, except for a few Druze. The organization is an equal partnership, with an Israeli office in Ramat Gan and a Palestinian office in Beit Jala.
The PCFF promotes peace by encouraging mutual understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. This is done through educational and dialogue programs such as presentations in schools, a Facebook group that connects Palestinians and Israelis, public discussions, and a "Narrative Project" that brings together, over the course of several weeks, groups of Palestinians and Israelis who explore each other's personal and national narratives and traumas. The women's group of PCFF has produced a cookbook in which members share their favorite recipes and their personal stories, and are now working on a new project: embroidered shoes, which will be offered for sale and presented to women representatives in the European parliament as a reminder to promote peace.
"The biggest problem between Israelis and Palestinians is that we don't know each other, and that we only learn stereotypes about each other," said Tomeezi, explaining that the security wall and the separation of Palestinian and Israeli society have made personal interactions rare-which has made it easier for both sides to demonize each other. Overcoming these personal barriers is essential to the PCFF, whose slogan is: "It won't end until we talk."
At times when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies, the PCFF tends to step up its activities. During the 2014 Gaza War, for instance, the PCFF started to organize public "Peace Square" discussions in central Tel Aviv, where passersby would stop and share their thoughts about the war. It also came out with a provocative video in which members of the forum each declare, "We don't want you here"-because the ultimate goal of the group is to put itself out of business: ending the conflict so there are no more bereaved family members to join. The video triggered a long stream of hateful comments from both sides-some saying, "We don't want Arabs and left-wing traitors here," and others calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Palestine.
The violence in recent months has only increased such sentiments, to which the PCFF has responded by initiating a new series of weekly "Peace Square" discussions, this time in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab town.
At a recent meeting of the "Peace Square" on Jaffa's seaside boulevard, members of the forum told their stories and invited passersby-Jews and Arabs out for a Saturday evening stroll-to sit down in plastic chairs and join the discussion. Their goal was to engage everyone, including the fiercest critics of the PCFF.
"We're not there to talk to people who already agree with us," said Doubi Schwartz, the general manager of the Israeli office. "Any dialogue is valuable, as long as we engage with each other and listen-especially if we disagree!"
When one passerby shouted, "Stupid leftists!" he was invited to sit down, but the heckler ignored the invitation.
Tomeezi, who speaks fluent Hebrew because he worked most of his life in Israel, took the microphone and explained to the Israeli listeners the plight of Palestinians, like himself, who live in and near Hebron, where a heavy Israeli army presence guards the small community of settlers who live in the city center. He described how an Israeli soldier once threatened to shoot him because he took issue that Tomeezi approached a roadblock with his headlights on, and how another soldier in his village ordered his 11-year-old daughter to strip.
"I'm sorry you have to experience such things," responded a middle-aged Israeli named Rami, "but it's not our choice to have roadblocks. We must protect ourselves from people who want to kill us!" As Rami got up to continue on his way, he commented that it's always good to talk, but added: "I sense a lot of naivety here."
Bassam Aramin, the Palestinian spokesperson for PCFF, would disagree. Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter was shot in the head in 2007 by an Israeli soldier, says that the PCFF's task is not to resolve the conflict, but to change people's attitudes. "Even if we can't change the situation now, we must continue to promote a narrative of reconciliation and create a culture of peace to keep alive hope for the future," he said. Aramin spent seven years in an Israeli prison for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers when he was 17, but he has long ago realized the futility of violence and decided to dedicate himself to promoting peace.
While many have become pessimistic about the prospects for peace, especially in light of the recent violence, the PCFF stays stubbornly hopeful. Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997, denounces pessimism as an indulgence: "Today, the bon mot here in Israel is ‘desperation.' People wave their desperation as if it's some kind of flag: Everything is hopeless, and everything is black. But you can't live like that. Especially people like us, who have already experienced tragedy, we can't afford to lose hope."
The current wave of violence has brought practical challenges for the PCFF. Travel restrictions and curfews on Palestinians have made it impossible to continue programs.
"Since the beginning of October we haven't been able to hold any dialogue meetings because of the situation on the ground," said Mazen Faraj, the general manager of the Palestinian office, who lives in Dheisha Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem. He explained that travel has either been forbidden or has become too dangerous and added that recent events have diminished good will among Palestinians.
Still, the PCFF gained a large number of new Palestinian members: 28 families decided to join last year. "Palestinians are interested in dialogue because they want to change the situation and improve their conditions," said Faraj.
Schwartz said that he has had to cancel educational programs in Israeli schools because the Palestinian presenters didn't have permits to enter Israel and because schools were afraid of students' reactions to the presence of Palestinian moderators in their classrooms. But the tension has also brought in new members. Beside the 28 new Palestinian families, 30 Israelis have recently joined the PCFF.
One of these new members is Oren Balaban, whose father was killed in 1965 during his army service in the IDF, when Oren was just a toddler. Balaban decided to join the PCFF in October 2015, when he encountered the Peace Square in Jaffa and joined the discussion.
"I've always stayed away from politics," he explained, "but recently I started feeling that I no longer have the option of not being involved. Israel has become a society of fear and intolerance. Freedom of speech is eroding, and we're becoming less and less democratic. It feels wrong to live a comfortable life here in Tel Aviv, while 40 kilometers away Palestinians are living under occupation of the Israeli army."
Even though many Israelis agree that the occupation is a problem, the discussion at the Jaffa Peace Square demonstrates that there is no simple solution.
Tsipi Freyer and her husband Yisrael, an elderly couple out for a stroll, were reluctantly convinced to sit down in the circle. "I remember a time before the occupation," Tsipi said when she was handed the microphone. "Even then, the PLO was carrying out terror attacks. And look at Gaza! I'm afraid the Palestinians will continue attacking us even if we sign an agreement and withdraw from the West Bank."
Elhanan responded: "The fear is real! It's part of our history and is based on things that happened. But we have to free ourselves from the fear and from the victim mentality. I don't want to use my victim status to hurt others. If we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, we can't be sure that everything will be immediately all right. But we must try to resolve the conflict because the alternative is too terrible."
Another bystander, Yigal Baram, who lives in Jaffa, objected to a two-state solution and, citing Jaffa as an ideal of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, asked why Palestinians need a state: "Why can't they just live peacefully as Arabs in Israel?"
"I'd be fine with that," Tomeezi responded. "Just give me citizenship and equal rights, and it's a deal!"
Yachia Raba'a, a Muslim from the Old City of Jerusalem who said he has come to Jaffa with his fiancée and another couple to relax from the tension in East Jerusalem, took the microphone to plead for peace. "People are tired and exhausted," he said. "For 20 years, the politicians have been talking about peace, peace, peace ... But this government doesn't want peace and is just making things worse. They're just building more and more settlements and our situation is getting worse. I'm in despair. It pains me when people get killed-on both sides."
"I took their business card," Raba'a said as he left. "Maybe I can get in touch with them. I don't know if it'll make a difference, but at least it makes a difference to my heart."
Judith Hertog is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, and occasional photographer.