Graphic of dove and olive branches

Bringing Together Israeli and Palestinian Families

Parents Circle – Families Forum

The escalation of the war between Israel and Hamas has brought one parents’ group for peace to the forefront. The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) is an organization I have been following for years — on of over 600 families on both sides who have lost someone to the ongoing conflict, I’ve admired and respected them for their commitment to a structured program of joint understanding and compassion between Israelis and Palestinians. They believe an end to violence and a sustainable peace can only happen through a process of reconciliation between nations.

In an address to the UN general assembly a few years ago, I shared the story of Robi Damelin, a PCFF member. In one letter, Robi demonstrated the impact that a single individual or group of individuals can have on an international conflict.

Robi was born in South Africa but left her homeland because of Apartheid. She moved to Israel, only to encounter more issues of injustice. Her son David went into the Israeli army and was shot by a Palestinian. Robi wrote this letter to the mother of the Palestinian soldier who killed her son.

“For me, this is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. I am the mother of an Israeli soldier who was killed by your son. If he had known David he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old and a student at Tel-Aviv University doing his masters in the Philosophy of Education. He had compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians, who he treated with dignity. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories.  Nevertheless, he went to serve when he was called to the reserves.

“Our children do what they do, and do not understand the pain they are causing. Your son is now in jail for many years and I will never be able to hold my son again, or see him married, or have a grandchild from him. I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death or the pain of his brother and girl-friend. And all of those who knew and loved him.

“I have worked my whole life for causes of co-existence, both in South Africa and here in Israel. After David was killed I looked for a way to prevent other families, both Israeli and Palestinian, from suffering the dreadful loss my family has endured. I was looking for a way to stop the cycle of violence. Nothing, for me, is more sacred than human life. No revenge or hatred can ever bring my child back.

“A year after David’s death, I joined the Parents Circle – Families Forum. We are a group of over 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have come together because we have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We have shown that reconciliation between individuals and nations is possible and it is this insight that we are trying to pass on to both sides of the conflict.

“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 myself and 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. I came to the conclusion that I would like to reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe, but I know, in my heart of hearts, this is the only path that I can chose.

“I understand that your son is considered a hero by many Palestinian people. He is considered a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent, viable Palestinian state. I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another will not get you what you want 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.

“I have given this letter to people I love and trust to deliver to you. They will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your heart some hope for the future. I do not know what your reaction will be. It is a risk for me, but I believe that you will understand, as it comes from the most honest part of me.

“I hope that you will show this 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.”  — Robi Damlin

Robi is active in the PCFF organization to this day, and was recently profiled in an article, Clinging Onto Hope, by Marina Cantacuzino of The Forgiveness Project.

“I beg you not to take sides,” Robi said, “because your opinions are importing our conflict into your country and creating hate between Jews and Muslims. It doesn’t help us.”

Some might think that not taking sides is turning a blind eye to inequality, but Marina, the author of the article, explained: “[Robi] wasn’t saying don’t protest, she was just saying do it with less righteous anger, and demand an end to violence and the occupation with an emphasis on peace and inclusion. … It doesn’t mean being neutral. It means recognising that there is pain and trauma in both communities and navigating around this agony. If you don’t acknowledge this, you create a vacuum of silence.”

Marina said that silence and erasure are just another form of oppression, and an acknowledgement of the stories and suffering of the victims is an essential step in a process of healing. She quotes Nelson Mandela, who said, “Leaving wounds unattended leads to them festering, and eventually causes greater injury to the body of society.”

In the article Marina describes facilitating a discussion between Robi and Mohamed Abu Jafar, who attended virtually from the West Bank. In the discussion between this Israeli mother who had lost her son to the ongoing conflict and a Palestinian man whose 14-year-old brother had been shot by an Israeli soldier, they talked about “grief and conflict in the context of holding onto our shared humanity.”

In Marina’s experience with The Forgiveness Project one critical ingredient to forgiveness came up over and over again — curiosity. In encouraging the audience to explore the stories of a single Palestinian under siege, or a single Israeli hostage, Robi is asking them to rehumanize the other by “by looking with new eyes and a sense of curiosity.”

Somewhere in the middle, Marina said, is a new consciousness that will be able to “embrace complexity and contradiction at the same time as holding a deep reverence for the sanctity of every human life.”