By Mehru Jaffer, Womens Feature Service
Her name is Robi Damelin and she lives in Tel Aviv, Israel. Damelin is the 65-year-old mother of David, who was killed by a Palestinian sniper at an Israeli checkpoint in 2002. When she heard that her son’s killer was finally arrested, Damelin was surprised to feel little joy and no relief. “I realised that revenge will not bring my son back,” said Damelin at a recent event in Vienna, organised by Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), an initiative of Women Without Borders (WWB), an Austrian NGO.
Mazen Faraj, a 32-year-old Palestinian born in a refugee camp near Bethlehem, who continues to live there with his wife and child, couldn’t agree more. “If I want a better future for my child there is no other way but to talk to the Israelis,” said Faraj, who spent three years in an Israeli jail for throwing rocks at the Israeli army as a teenager.
Damelin and Faraj may be on the opposite sides of the conflict that has riddled West Asia for several decades now, but the one thing that binds the two is their yearning for peace.
In her efforts to come to terms with her loneliness and tragedy, Damelin decided to write a letter to the family of David’s killer. Her letter of reconciliation and peace read like this: “This, for me, is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. I know your son did not kill David because he was David. If he had known him, he could never have done such a thing. David was 28. He was a student at Tel-Aviv University, doing his masters in the philosophy of education. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had a compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians. He treated all around him with dignity.”
Further, she wrote: “David was part of the movement of the officers who did not want to serve in the occupied territories but nevertheless, for many reasons he went to serve when he was called to the reserves. After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do. Should I ignore the whole thing or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation. This is not easy for anyone and I am just an ordinary person, not a saint. I have come to the conclusion that I would like to try to find a way to reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe but I know in my heart (that) it is the only path I can choose for if what I say is what I mean, it is the only way. I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people. He is considered to be a freedom fighter fighting for justice and for an independent, viable Palestinian state but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another is not the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace. Our lives, as two nations, are so intertwined. Each of us will have to give up on our dreams for the future of our children, who are our responsibility. I do not know what your reaction will be, for me it is a risk. But I believe that you will understand as it comes from the most honest part of me I hope that you will show the letter to your son and that maybe in the future we can meet. Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way through mutual understanding and empathy to live a normal life, free of violence.”
Damelin is still awaiting a reply to the letter. Today, she tirelessly travels around the world reading excerpts from the same letter as testimony that ordinary people like her in Israel and amongst the Palestinians are desperate for a peaceful solution to 60 years of bloodshed in the region.
Faraj is a victim from across the border. His father was six years old when he was forcefully uprooted by the Israeli army from his ancestral village in 1948. An Israeli soldier later gunned Faraj’s father down in 2002, while his 35-year-old brother died of cancer in 2001 after having spent five years in an Israeli jail. “I disagree with Robi when she talks of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as a war of liberation and war of independence. I call the same war al-Nakba or the catastrophe for us Palestinians. But I don’t want to hate Robi or to kill her. I have decided that I will talk to her and argue, and use only non-violence to continue my struggle for a Palestinian homeland,” he said.
“Robi and Mazen are the voice of civil society. They are a living example of grassroots peace builders. They do not seek revenge and have the courage to face the ‘enemy’ across a table. They are determined to tear through the climate of fear and paranoia created around them by the military,” said Dr Edit Schlaffer, founder of both SAVE and WWB, as she complimented the two for their unique crusade.
But this is not the first platform the duo has shared. Both Damelin and Faraj are members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families for reconciliation and peace. They came to Vienna with ‘Encounter Point’, an 85-minute award-winning documentary that follows a former Israeli settler, a Palestinian ex-prisoner, a bereaved Israeli mother (Damelin is featured in the film) and a wounded Palestinian and a bereaved brother, who risk their lives and public standing to promote a nonviolent end to the conflict. Their journeys lead them to the unlikeliest places to confront hatred within their communities. The film explores what drives them and thousands of other like-minded civilians to overcome anger and grief to work for grassroots solutions. ‘Encounter Point’ concludes that it is better to support a solution than to just take sides by being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine.
Since 1995, the PCFF has made it possible for hundreds of affected Israeli and Palestinian families to come face-to-face. It is unique in trying to promote peace and reconciliation during an ongoing war by bringing together victims from both sides. “The attempt is to convert the feelings of anger and revenge, helplessness and despair, into energies of hope and action,” said Damelin, who first befriended Faraj at PCFF. Faraj said that he was filled with hatred for all Israelis until 2002. But helped by activities of the PCFF, which operates from two offices – one in Tel Aviv and the other in north of Jerusalem – he was able to deal with his pain by listening to the pain and needs of the other.
Members of the PCFF have made it their responsibility to provide direct dialogue between people without depending on political leaders and the media alone. They support films like ‘Encounter Point’ and television shows like ‘Good Intentions’. The PCFF organises talks and meetings of Palestinian educators at Israeli schools when funds permit. There is an online chat forum on their website (www.theparentscircle.com) and a phone line called Hello Shalom/Hello Salaam. All ways of reaching out and speaking a new language of justice and reconciliation.