By Elizabeth Arif-Fear and Stephen Hoffman
Mention the words Israel and Palestine to many people and what immediately comes to mind is: war, conflict, loss, violence, grief, memory and pain. Our Outreach and Advocacy Director, Stephen Hoffman – a young British-born Jew of Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi origin who has relatives living across Israel and has travelled extensively through both Israel and Palestine – has seen for himself the diverse realities (narratives) in the area and the need for peace, freedom and stability across both Israel and Palestine [Stephen’s experiences to follow in an upcoming blog!].
Far too many Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives in what can seem a never-ending cycle of violence, fear and hate. With violence in the region and the ongoing occupation, fear, suspicion and hate continue to grow. Palestinians have become more fearful for their socio-cultural, political and economic wellbeing and independence under the ongoing occupation, whilst the Israeli population – bearing the scars of violent attacks in the region – have grown ever fearful and more likely to hate Palestinians, which in turn has hardened the occupation. And so, the cycle continues.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict therefore continues to be a deadly game with only losers – both Israelis and Palestinians. The result is sadly the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians – of mothers, daughters, fathers and sons – simply because they both want freedom, peace and security but are instead caught up in a brutal conflict in which both sides cannot recognise the humanity of “the other”. Both “sides” are often simply pushed to hate “the other” – be they Israeli or Palestinian. After decades of conflict, we continue to witness death, destruction, heartache, the shattering of dreams, and the continuous pain and suffering of so many Israeli and Palestinian families.
At Voice of Salam we do not take sides in the conflict. We recognise that both Israelis and Palestinians continue to suffer under the current leadership of both States. Both are suffering from the ongoing violence and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories is negatively impacting upon the entire region. We want to see Israelis and Palestinians both treated as human beings, for the violence to stop and for Palestine and Israel to live side by side with each other as two separate (yet amicable) independent nations.
Recognising the humanity of the so-called “other” is vital if we are to move forward. We need to understand the “other side” and their history, their experiences and their concerns. To do this, we need to move beyond “sides” and images of “the other” – and this starts by first of all getting to know each other as people.
The reality is that is very hard to hate someone who is a friend, who you laugh and cry with, but it is easy to hate someone if you do not know them, if you do not know their story or the experiences that they have lived through. If your sole understanding of a person is that they are “the enemy”, “the other” or that they are dangerous to you and seek your destruction or your oppression, then the conditions for violence, oppression and hate fester and flourish even further.
When it comes to the sanctity of human life, we are all equal. There is no difference between the loss of Israeli or Palestinian blood, the loss of a Palestinian or Israeli. These are all tragedies which we must speak out against. It is therefore in recognising the need to know “the other”, to recognise our common humanity and to see beyond “two sides” that we reached out to both Israelis and Palestinians on the ground to hear their stories of grief, loss and ultimately reconciliation.
These are in fact stories of immense hope, strength and courage. In the most tragic of circumstances, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have experienced the worst that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has had to offer, have dedicated their lives to working together, understanding each other and listening to each other. In doing so, they are working to end the violence on both sides, to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to lead safer more secure lives and to hopefully allow political negotiations to resume for a final two-State solution, free from fear, violence and occupation.
The work of these activists is transforming and potentially even saving lives. As a team of both Jewish and Muslim writers here at Voice of Salam, the sanctity of human life is entrenched in both of our faiths. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the whole of humanity” (5:32). In the Jewish faith, the Torah equally states: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)). As Jews and Muslims, we share a lot in common and will not be divided based on the basis of our faiths or any geo-political conflict.
With this in mind, we present the stories of Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin in their own words. Robi Damelin (an Israeli living in Jaffa) and Bassam Aramin (A Palestinian living in Jericho) both know of the terrible loss caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For them, it’s deeply personal and has changed their lives forever.
Having both lost a child due to “the other side”, they’ve discovered the pain of personal loss – the hell of losing a child – from the so-called “enemy”. Yet, remarkably it was this pain that has enabled them and hundreds of other bereaved family members to move beyond conflict and towards peace, by sharing their stories, humanising “the other” and talking to the “other side”.
Both Robi and Bassam are spokespeople for The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) – also known as The Bereaved Families Forum – which is a grassroots organisation founded in 1995 and has been working in both Israel and Palestine (formerly in Gaza and now the West Bank) since 1998. An organisation which does not wish for more members due to the tragic reason behind membership and does not take a political stance, PCFF currently works with over 600 members – both Israeli and Palestinian – and is crucially helping to bring empathy between these two peoples based on getting to know the other. This is critically building hope for those on the ground who are suffering on both sides and a greater chance of peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
With PCFF gathering together bereaved family members from both Israel and Palestine, members are able to learn from each other’s pain, to empathise, to understand the so-called “other” who is (more often than not) presented in both communities as a dehumanised “enemy”. By giving Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to interact and say what is on their minds in a safe space with, bereaved mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, they’re breaking crucial ground. As Robi emphasises herself, we don’t all have to agree with each other but we must listen to each other to learn about “the other”, to empathise with each other and to move forward together with mutual respect and understanding in order for peace and reconciliation to become a reality.
Through these interactions, the participants are in fact recognising that each “side” is human, that each “side” deserves peace, security and freedom and that the only way forward is – rather than taking sides – to unite and come together as brothers and sisters, as one body to help build a lasting, peaceful solution to the conflict.
What’s more, in addition to these personal encounters amongst bereaved parents, PCFF also continue to run wider local and international public outreach programmes. For example, by working in schools in the region to introduce “the other” and the parallel narrative to school children, many of whom may have never met an Israeli or Palestinian, PCFF are raising crucial awareness and helping to bridge divides. This is critical work for helping future generations to move forward towards peace and understanding.
On an international level, Robi and Bassam are also taking to towns and cities across the globe in wider public settings to raise further critical awareness and understanding of the conflict and its effect on both Israelis and Palestinians – and sadly even religious and cultural communities outside of the conflict zone. A powerful duo, Robi and Bassam are sharing their stories of grief, friendship and reconciliation to audiences across Europe and the USA (amongst a host of other areas) to enable not simply Israelis and Palestinians but also the wider global community to understand the parallel narrative and the importance of empathising with “the other”.
With this holistic range of local and international outreach, PCFF hopes to widen the current narrative on the conflict to encourage people to stop taking sides and to ensure that reconciliation becomes a crucial part of any (hopeful) future peace process. Such powerful work has of course ensured that PCFF has gained global support and received a host of awards for their incredible work.
With such incredible work being undertaken and having seen Robi at a conference in London back in 2018, our Editor Elizabeth, therefore reached out to PCFF and spoke to Robi and Bassam to find out about their own individual journeys and to understand how they transformed grief and loss into peace, friendship and love. Here are their incredible, brave, personal and inspiring stories.
Robi: Taking sides helps no one
I joined the parent’s circle after my son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper at the age of 28. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do something to prevent other families – both Palestinian and Israeli – from experiencing this pain.
I didn’t become somebody else after losing my child. I didn’t think that the whole Palestinian nation killed my child – I only thought that one Palestinian killed my child. I knew Palestinian-Israeli citizens but I didn’t really know anybody from the West Bank.
The first PCFF meeting I went to was in East Jerusalem. It was a weekend and that’s where I met Palestinian mothers and that’s when I realised that we shared the same pain and that we could be a very powerful force together. Looking into somebody’s eyes and realising that it doesn’t matter what your religion, background, belief system, politics or colour is and that you still share the same pain when you lose a child, that’s when I really understood the opportunity we had here to make a difference.
Sharing your story with people who understand, because they share the same experience, is very helpful in many ways. PCFF is not a therapy group in any way but it certainly is a place of solace where people understand who you are and where you’re coming from. I suddenly realised just how helpful it was in many ways because I could be exactly who I was and nobody was giving me advice about who I should be.
You can disagree with somebody but also treat them with respect and understand their humanity at the same time. We have what we call the “parallel narrative“. This started with our own group about 10 years ago because we realised that we had a lot of sympathy for each other because we share the same pain. So, we decided that we really wanted to get to the point where we could create empathy, even if we didn’t agree. There were 114 of us from The Parent’s Circle and went to the Holocaust museum. It was quite extraordinary to see 70 Palestinians at the Holocaust museum.
We then went to a village which existed before 1948 in what is now Israel but was Palestine back then. Two of the families from our group came from this village – called Ekbeba – and one of the mothers started to cry. There was now virtually nothing left of the village. She looked down and said: “This is the well that I drew water out of as a child.” That’s the creating of empathy and understanding of her longing that we strive for. Even if you’re not going to go and create another Ekbeba village there, at least one could understand her longing and her pain and that’s the point of this – really getting to understand the humanity in the other and understanding the way they see history.
Everybody’s taught history according to their textbooks at school. So, 1948 would be The Nakba for the Palestinians, but it would be independence, the creation of the State of Israel for Israelis. With all the milestones – 1967, 1973, the two Intifadas and everything that has subsequently happened – we took two professors, one Palestinian and one Israeli, and told this history through their own eyes; how they saw 1948 or how they saw 1973 or thereafter. And that’s very valuable because you begin to understand how the other person sees their history.
I’m now a spokesman for PCFF and I also travel all over the world. It’s very tiring because you have to tell your story which is something very personal but I’m very passionate about this work. For many years I also ran the women’s group and we did a lot of projects together because I think women need to come to the table.
We had an embroidery project, which we launched in the European Union Parliament and then in Congress. I now do a lot of lectures to foreign groups and sometimes in schools. I also do a lot of work with pre-army groups [in Israel] who take a year off to do some kind of social work. It’s very important to do that because before they go to the army, most of these kids have never met a Palestinian in their lives and have no idea where they’re actually going. That’s how extraordinary it is.
Of course, not everybody wants to be part of this organisation, you can be sure of that. Many bereaved parents [from both sides of the conflict] are very angry with us because they are seeking revenge and they can’t believe that we could possibly create a relationship with the so-called “enemy” but you can’t please everybody and if I can touch somebody who really doesn’t agree with me and make an emotional breakthrough with them when they hear your personal story, then that changes everything. In this work, you never know whose life you’re touching and where.
We have a wonderful person in the Palestinian office who recruits people to come to the parallel narrative. We have more than a thousand graduates already. Getting permits for people to travel is an obstacle though. For the Palestinians, we have to always get permits and permissions and it’s quite degrading in many ways. We’re also facing a huge funding obstacle now because with the decision to cut all funding of cross border activities which affects around 30% of our budget. I think the occupation is killing the moral fibre of Israel. I of course care deeply about the lives of the Palestinians.
Please stop taking sides – that’s number one. If you’re [solely] pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, all that you’re doing is importing our conflict into your country and creating hatred between Israelis and Palestinians (and also Jews and Muslims). If you can’t be part of the solution, we would ask you just to leave us alone because you create more damage than good. You’re not helping anybody, not the Palestinians or the Israelis and this division is also permeating into all kinds of societies that have no idea of what the conflict is really about. So, unless you’re part of the solution, it’s better if you leave us alone.
Bassam: Violence is never the answer
My name is Bassam. I’m the spokesperson of The Parent’s Circle – Families Forum from the Palestinian side. I’m also a co-founder of Combatants for Peace [an Israeli-Palestinian grassroots movement committed to non-violent activism whose mission is to: work towards a two-State solution according to the 1967 borders, or any other mutually agreed upon solution that will allow both Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom, security, democracy and dignity in their homeland].
I joined PCFF two days after I lost my ten-year-old daughter Abir but I actually knew the organisation two years before that through my work with Combatants for Peace. One of the Israeli partners was a bereaved brother. He lost his sister in 1997 to a Palestinian suicide bomber, so I knew the organisation but you obviously don’t want to join this amazing group because you need to lose someone. Then when my tragedy happened, I joined. I’ve now been in this organisation since 2007.
It’s a long process to change yourself, to change your mind or your way of resistance. I think we’ve continued to fight but in a different way. When I was 17 years old, I was in jail for seven years. We started to struggle. We raised the Palestinian flag at the age of 13 because we knew that the Israeli soldiers became nervous when they saw this flag. As kids, we didn’t understand why so we started to raise the flag at night on the trees around our school to unnerve them. They taught us how to hate them from their brutal behaviour. Raising the flag was a crime at that time. You could go to jail from six months to one year.
I then became involved in a group with the same kids I was with at the age of 13 who were now 16. We found some old weapons – two grenades – and of course we didn’t know how to use them. Two of my friends threw the two grenades on the Israeli soldiers in our village near Hebron. Of course, no one was killed or injured because we didn’t know how to use them. One year later, we were arrested. The first boy was sentenced to 21 years in prison and I got seven years.
I learned that if you know your “enemy”, you can defeat them or kill them. If you only hate him, you will instead kill yourself. So, I started to study Hebrew to know my “enemy”. It wasn’t a matter of revenge. We were “freedom fighters” and I believed we needed to continue our struggle to achieve our goals: freedom for our people, to create a Palestinian state. So, it wasn’t revenge, it wasn’t hatred – it was more than that: it was a way of life.
As I said, we considered ourselves “freedom fighters”. Their goal was to kill our humanity through their brutal behaviour in jail. Our goal was to survive in order to continue our way, our struggle. It was a long seven years. It shaped my personality. I read a lot and lived through a lot of experiences. At the start, I watched a movie about the Holocaust which made a dramatic change in my thinking because in general we don’t believe in the Holocaust in Palestine and they think it’s a big lie. No one believed six million Jews were killed – maybe just a few thousand.
We believed that because of this big lie, we lost our country, we lost our home and we became refugees. We didn’t know anything about it and we didn’t want to know because we didn’t believe in it. So, when I understood that this film was about Hitler, the Holocaust and Jews, I wanted to enjoy seeing this movie as a kind of revenge – to see someone torture those who killed Palestinians and occupied them because I was in their jail. You wanted to see someone torture your enemy.
After a few minutes, I found myself crying. It seemed that the people were innocent. It was very difficult for me to discover this brutality. I could not believe that there are human beings who could do that to other humans. I tried to convince myself: it’s just a movie, nothing like this happened in reality but it was very difficult for me. Then I decided that I wanted to understand more. In 2010/11, I studied a Master’s degree about the Holocaust in the UK. Then after that, I started to visit the [concentration] camps in Germany.
As I said, it was a long seven years. They taught us how to hate them. You just became more determined to continue your way, your armed struggle against this brutal enemy. Then in 1992, I was released and I still believed in armed struggle as the only way to talk to those people – the soldiers – because those are the Israelis that we knew. We’d never met a regular Israeli [outside of a military context].
Then one year later came the Oslo Accords and it changed everything. I started to ask myself: why did I spend seven years in prison if our leaders can sit down and achieve such agreement? Why have we had all those victims from both sides? This process gave us a sign that through negotiations we can achieve such agreement. We tried to kill each other, to defeat each other for more than 100 years – even before 1917 – and a as a result, until now, Israel is not safe and Palestine is not free. There was more pain, more victims every day.
After the Oslo Accords in 1993, one day I decided that that was it. I didn’t want my son to be a “hero” like me and to spend seven years in jail. I could now explain to him: I lived the experience and today we have a peace process, we can think about building your future in a different way. I then started becoming active in my society on the Palestinian side.
People were very accepting of it. They agreed that we’d tried violence and now we needed to try negotiating. The people I was reaching out to – my friends – were all ex-fighters, the people who I met in jail and they knew the meaning of fear and pain. We already paid the highest price. As kids, we’d spent seven years, ten years, 15 years in prison. We considered ourselves as soldiers and fighters for freedom and peace – which is what we want. But by this non-violent activism, we can bring the other side to support us – the Israelis.
Around 10 years later in 2002, I heard in the Israeli media about “refuseniks” – ex-Israeli soldiers and officers from the Israeli side who refuse to serve in The Occupied Territories (or Palestine) because they don’t want to be part of the illegal and immoral occupation. It was very strange for me. I wanted to meet these people and in 2005, we had the first meeting between four Palestinian ex-prisoners with seven ex Israeli officers. We then reached 300 members and we created Combatants for Peace. Then two years later I lost my ten-year-old daughter Abir to an Israeli border police guard.
I was already on a journey to discover “the enemy” – the “other side” – to learn about them, why they fought us, how they behaved at the checkpoint and at the same time, who these same people were – how they behave at home when they’re not working. So, after a year or two, we discovered the humanity of some of our “enemies” on the “other side”. In fact, what happened is that I discovered: if you can make peace with yourself, you have no enemies. You discover or rediscover the humanity inside yourselves, so you can see the humanity on the other side. I started to see them as people, or victims, more than an enemy and when you make peace with yourself you discover that you have no enemy to conquer and you can live at peace with yourself.
Before I lost my daughter, we’d always said “I understand your pain” but you discover that you don’t anything about their pain until you really go through the unbearable experience of losing a child yourself. I knew some of these people before but when I lost my daughter, I really started to understand these peoples’ pain – even before meeting them. My brother on the Israeli side lost his 14-year-old daughter in 1997 and I always wanted to ask him about her but I always said to myself: why do I want to invest in his sadness, maybe he has forgotten because sometimes we’d tell jokes to each other and sometimes we’d laugh? Then after Abir, I said to him in a message: “Now I understand. Now I understand that you’ll never forget”.
It’s 24-hour a day pain, a forever pain but we always try to run away from it. It was no different to me. It’s an unbearable pain, it’s very difficult sometimes to bear this pain alone and no one will share your pain with you, especially this sort. But you feel that with such empathy with the bereaved families – Israelis and Palestinians – we can understand each other without talking. I feel empathy because we both know this pain.
What happened is that we claimed that we love our kids – and it’s a fact no one hates their kids – neither the Palestinians, nor the Israelis, the settlers or Hamas. No one hates their kids. The problem is that we kill our kids with our own hands, with our own education by preparing them to take revenge – to fight and then to die – and the problem is that we don’t take responsibility for that. What happened though in our case, in the Parent’s Circle, is that we decided that because we love our kids and because of the blood of our kids, we don’t want to see any more blood. And we believe that we have the moral authority to raise our voices and to say that nothing is more important than our lives.
Nothing is more important than our kids. Not any land, not any Holy Land. I think we need to understand that we killed each other for Jerusalem, which is a holy place for Christians, for Muslims and for Jews, but we meet each other under the ground in the graves. I’m not sure if Jerusalem knows who we are. Our lives are more important than any holy place.
I believe that we have become international citizens. Our message is universal – it’s not only a message for Palestinians and Israelis. We just go back to our roots to talk. We are human beings and this is the difference between us and animals. We understand that animals kill each other to survive. Can we survive without killing each other? It’s amazing to act in a non-violent way. It’s always effective. It’s the difficult way of solving all our problems but at the same time it means that we can survive and we can make our world safer and more beautiful again.
This isn’t just slogans, it’s a way of life and to those people who think that we are naive: no, we are not. I’m not naive. I know the problems that exist but at the same time, I use this weapon as a very effective one – the power of humanity, dialogue and love between people. When Jesus said: “Love your enemy“, it’s very clear – we don’t need to explain it because for me, you can eliminate your “enemy” when you love him.
For people everywhere around the world, to be able to help us, you need to be educated and to inform yourself about what’s really happened here because for many people it’s just “black and white”. A big obstacle is to fight ignorance. Many people, they don’t know who occupied who and as a Palestinian even, under the occupation, I call for everyone not to be pro-Israel and not to be pro-Palestine. We always say that you need to be pro-peace and justice and humanity to both sides because we believe that we have the right to exist. The Israelis deserve security, the Palestinians deserve freedom and we will never give up our freedom. We will never ever accept the Israeli occupation.
Don’t take sides but at the same time, don’t keep silent – don’t keep silent about the Israeli occupation. It’s illegal, it’s immoral. No one can stand being occupied. At the same time, don’t support Palestinian violence because through this, we harm ourselves and we harm the other but equally, you need to support our kids, to support peace, to put pressure on the sides to go back to the negotiation table and sometimes for me, as a Palestinian I feel, we cannot pay the price of their fear forever. We are also human beings. We need to live and we need to survive like the other nations around the world.
Thank you Robi and Bassam for sharing your incredible stories. To get a further insight into their lives and their work, here’s PCFF’s moving film on Robi and Bassam entitled: “Our Power is Our Pain“:
To find out more about the work of PCFF and how you can get involved, make sure you don’t miss Robi and Bassam’s visit to London this March! Full details of the whole host of fantastic events happening across London and information on how to register your free place can be found here.
Thank you Robi, Bassam and the PCFF for sharing your work with us. Here at Voice of Salam, we’d like to wish you all the very best for your work in the future. May it continue to touch the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike suffering from loss and pain and may there be safety, security, freedom and peace across the region for both Palestinians and Israelis on the ground.
Salam, shalom ♡
The opinions and views in this blog do not necessarily represent the views of Voice of Salam and its members. Voice of Salam is a non-partisan, non-political organisation and as such does not hold an official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Voice of Salam would like to see a future free from violence in which Israelis and Palestinians can both live in freedom, peace and security.