JERUSALEM – With Middle East peace talks at a standstill, a group of activists is taking matters into its own hands. The Parents’ Circle Families Forum, a group comprising Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aims to build a bridge between the two fractured communities.
“Waiting for our respective leaderships to forge peace will take too long,” Israeli board director and forum member Rami Elchanan told IPS. “It is through the common people that we can consider a different tomorrow.”
“We want to prevent further bereavement, in the absence of peace, to influence the public and the policy makers – to prefer the way of peace to the way of war, as well as educate for peace and reconciliation. We also want to promote the cessation of acts of hostility and the achievement of a political agreement and prevent the usage of bereavement as a means of expanding enmity between our peoples,” said Elchanan.
Every week members of the Parents’ Circle Families Forum give talks at schools, universities, hotels, and other venues to Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners. The group also holds summer camps, offers youth leadership seminars, and produces TV and radio programs and documentaries.
The organization comprises 13 Palestinian and Israeli staff who work from two offices, one located in Tel Aviv and the Palestinian office located in Aram, north of Jerusalem. The staff are backed by a large body of trained and experienced volunteers from bereaved families, while an international network of organizations offer support.
The group has also given talks overseas in conflict zones, including Spain’s Basque region and Northern Ireland. Wilhelm Verwoerd, the grandson of former South African premier and chief apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, and now a resident of Northern Ireland, expressed his admiration for the group following their visit there.
Aziz Sara, a Palestinian member from Jerusalem, lost his older brother Tayseer following a brutal interrogation by Israeli security forces 15 years ago.
“I became extremely bitter and angry. Even at 10 I understood that his death was not natural, and someone was responsible. I grew up with anger burning in my heart. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge,” recalls Sara.
“I feel obligated to use my pain to spread peace, rather than using it to fuel a hatred that would have eventually consumed me. I believe we are all obligated to do our best to create peace, and not wait until it hits home,” explains Sara.
A member of the Forum, U.S. national Moira Julani, 43-year-old mother of three daughters, is also working through her grief. “Some days I feel angry and think of revenge, but most days I think about the situation rationally and want to educate people about the situation on the ground in occupied Palestine. I don’t want others to endure what I am going through, whatever their religion or nationality,” Julani tells IPS.
“We are not discussing who is to blame, who started the conflict or who suffered the most,” Julani added. “We are acknowledging the other side as equal human beings who suffer as much as we do.”
Elchanan, 61, has three sons. Thirteen years ago, he suffered every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. Smadar, a bright, vivacious girl and Elchanan’s only daughter, was just 14.
“I was driving to the Tel Aviv airport when I got a distraught call from my wife in Jerusalem saying there had been a Palestinian suicide bombing and that our daughter Smadar had been seen in the vicinity,” he recalled.
“The next frantic hours were spent contacting police stations and hospitals, desperately trying to find out if our daughter had been admitted. Eventually, we had to go and identify her corpse.
“The day Smadar died, a big part of me died too,” he said.
Five Israelis, including Smadar, were killed and hundreds injured when three young Palestinians from the West Bank blew themselves up in a pedestrian mall in September 1997. Smadar and several friends had been on their way to purchase schoolbooks.
Moira Julani lost the love of her life to violence stemming from the ongoing conflict. But her loss occurred on the other side of the border.
Several months ago, Julani’s Palestinian husband, Ziad, was shot at close range by an Israeli policeman.
“It was a beautiful day, and Ziad told me to get the girls ready so that when he returned we could take a family outing to the Dead Sea. He was on his way to Friday Muslim prayers,” Julani told IPS.
As Ziad drove through East Jerusalem, he was caught in the crossfire of stone-throwing and shooting between Palestinian youngsters and Israeli soldiers. Ziad swerved slightly to avoid the stones and accidentally brushed against one of the Israeli border policemen. The police opened fire.
The frightened man got out of his car and tried to run away, but fell to the ground critically wounded. One of the policemen walked over and shot him in the head at point-blank range several times, despite the fact he was unarmed and badly injured. Ziad died shortly afterward in the hospital.
The policeman who shot Ziad changed his story several times, falsely claiming that Ziad had a suicide belt on him. None of the police involved have been brought to justice.
“My husband wasn’t politically active at all,” Julani told IPS.