The New Internationalist book Nine Lives involves inspirational activists and campaigners from all over the world telling their own life stories. Among them are Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin, both of whom lost a daughter to the conflict between their two peoples.
The smile of solidarity: Rami (left) and Bassan.
I think that today, after 150 years of this clash, there is a way out. Not a way out that can give justice to everyone, for there is no such thing. But there is a possibility of opening some kind of chance of being able to live together without the political aspect of one state, two states, a hundred states... That really doesn’t matter. The very first thing that should be done to get out of this cycle of violence is: stopping the occupation. That is the first thing and it is a necessity, stopping this reality of one nation dominating the other, one nation ruling the other and one nation oppressing the other. It is not Jewish, it is not moral and it must be stopped – the sooner the better. Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, said that ‘oppression naturally creates hostility against the oppressors’.
In 1997, my 14-year-old daughter Smadar got killed during a suicide bomb attack. It was an intensely dramatic moment for my entire family. I was on my way to the airport when my wife called and told me she was missing. When something like this happens, a cold hand grabs your heart. You rush between friends’ houses and hospitals, then eventually you find yourself in the morgue and you see a sight you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. From that moment you are a new person. Everything is different.
Even today I still have moments of hatred and revenge. This is something that is very essential to understand: it’s an ongoing process of making choices. Every morning you get up, after a long and sleepless night, and you choose. You choose to overcome your anger, to go this way and not the other. And this choosing process is not easy. I fully understand the people who are angry. I can understand where it comes from, and I can understand it from both sides. The only question is: what do you do with this anger?
[One day I met a man called] Yitzhak Frankenthal. We started talking and he told me a story of how he had lost his son, who had been kidnapped by Hamas and was killed in 1984. And I suddenly remembered he was one of the people that had come to my house during the seven days of mourning for my daughter Smadar. I went crazy, asking him: ‘How could you do it? Step in someone’s house that has just lost their daughter and talk about peace and forgiveness? How dare you?’ He then invited me to come over to meet with this group called the Circle of Bereaved Parents. Although I thought this group of people was crazy, at the same time I was a little bit curious. So I went to see them at a meeting in the house of President Ezer Weizman, who was in support of these gatherings. This was about nine years ago. I was standing aside, very detached, very reluctant and very cynical.
But as I watched these people coming down from the buses, I realized that there were many people that I knew, people that I used to read about in the newspapers, many people that I looked up to, heroes that I admired as an Israeli patriot. I had never thought that some day I might meet them or be part of them. They were political heroes, such as Yakov Guterman, who had lost his son in the First Lebanon War. He was one of the first Israeli bereaved parents who dared to stand in front of Begin’s house [Menachem Begin, Israeli prime minister 1977-83] with a sign saying ‘murderer’. He must have been a very courageous person to do so. Then there was Roni Hirshenzon, who was a very close and dear friend of mine. He lost two sons, but remained very active in the peace movement. They were there, very determined, and it was something incredibly moving, this whole movement of Israeli people who had paid the highest price possible, but still believed in peace. It was not a common thing to see. Together, Yitzhak and Roni, both of whom had lost their sons, had founded the Circle of Bereaved Parents in 1995. They decided that bereavement is a power that they can use to prevent more bereavement. From that day on, slowly but surely, the number of member families has grown to about 300 Israeli bereaved families and about 200 Palestinian bereaved families today.
I recommend you talk next to someone whom I consider to be a real peace combatant and a soul brother of mine. His name is Bassam Aramin from the village of Anata. Together with my son Elik, Bassam was one of the founders of Combatants for Peace.
[Bassam was imprisoned at 16 for being part of a group of boys who fired guns at Israeli soldiers.]
Life in prison changed me from playing childlike games to an adult and a freedom fighter. But I also started to learn about my own history and that of the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Jews. And why things were the way they were. Still, I was full of anger and hatred toward the Israelis. But I also learned about the Holocaust, which started a process of feeling more sympathetic toward the Jews. In 1986, while in prison, I saw a film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List.
Watching the film was a defining moment in my life. At the beginning of the film I said to myself: ‘Why did this Hitler not kill all the Jews? For then they would not have been here to suppress me!’ But after a while I found myself crying when seeing these defenceless people, without clothes. I saw bulldozers, poison gas and executions in which the Jews just stood there, waiting for their death. I saw more films. In some they were buried alive, in others they were going to the gas chambers.
That night, I could not sleep. But I did not want any other prisoner to see me crying, because they said: ‘What is the matter with you? Crying for the people who lock you up and hurt you?’ But at that moment I didn’t think of them as Israelis, but as human beings, even while I was still angry at them.
Today, I still strongly believe in dialogue instead of armed struggle. When I was released in 1992, I had come to the conclusion that war solved nothing.
[Bassam subsequently co-founded Combatants for Peace.]
I said to my fellow Combatants for Peace: ‘We must include another great principle. And that is that we will continue to talk under any condition. If tomorrow we have a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the Israelis may say ‘goodbye, that’s it!’ and likewise the Palestinians may say this after another killing on the West Bank. We must set a strong example that we believe that violence and armed struggle will never achieve anything. We must strongly express our message to politicians in this way and remain committed to nonviolence under any condition. And in case any one of us happens to be the first to pay this price, he or she must give the example.’ So we based Combatants for Peace on these principles. But I had no idea that it would be me who would be put to the test so soon.
On 16 January, disaster struck. My 10-year-old daughter Abir was seriously wounded. She was walking arm-in-arm with her sister and two friends, down the streets of Anata, a Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem. Border police of the Israeli Defense Forces were patrolling the school and an adjacent boys’ school. Most Palestinian witnesses testified that the border police had opened fire at the students and that there had been no provocation. One of them said he had seen a rock being thrown by one of the students. Clashes between rock-throwing students and border police using tear gas and rubber bullets are routine for Anata. But this time it took the life of my daughter. Abir was rushed to Mukassad Hospital. And I insisted that from there she would be taken to the Hadassah University Medical Centre at Ein Karem.
As soon as we had arrived, Jewish members of Combatants for Peace visited us in the hospital room. They wanted to know what I would say. I was devastated, but I told them: ‘This incident will only strengthen us. We must become stronger for the sake of our children. Abir died, but I still have five living children. We will fight this case through legal channels.’ My Jewish friends remained with me until Abir died. They spent three days and nights with me and we began to connect like a family. I felt that my child was their child also.
Whenever I am invited to people’s homes, I tell them I am coming with my brother. You know my Israeli friend Rami Elhanan? Whenever he speaks, he refers to me as his brother. And when I speak with Nurit, his wife, she says: ‘I am Salwa’s sister.’ They give me a lot of courage. We have experienced the same. We both lost our lovely daughters. Their daughter Smadar and our daughter Abir are victims of the same conflict. Both of them were not guilty of anything and they were killed for nothing. And the killer is the same: the occupation and the oppression it causes.
There is an important word in the Qur’an called hasra. It means pain, but I don’t think there is a good translation for it in any language. Hasra is a continuous pain that you experience 24 hours a day. With the loss of children, parents experience that pain. No matter who you are, the feeling of loss is the same. No-one can imagine what it feels like, only the people that have gone through the experience... That’s why the Israelis should indeed prevent their children from going to the army and going to the Occupied Territories. For it prevents hasra on both sides. Once it happens, you cannot turn it back. But nonviolence saves you from this loss. It paves the way for a shared future for both Israelis and Palestinians.