The Parents Circle Families Forum
The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) is a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the ongoing conflict. Moreover, the PCFF has concluded that the process of reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable peace. The organization thus utilizes all resources available in education, public meetings, and the media, to spread these ideas.
The Parents Circle-Families Forum was created in 1995 by Mr. Yitzhak Frankenthal and a few Israeli families. The first meeting between bereaved Palestinians from Gaza and Israeli families took place in 1998. These families identified with a call to prevent bereavement, to promote dialogue, tolerance, reconciliation, and peace. The contact with these Palestinian families came to an end with the second “Intifada” uprising. At the same time, that is in the year 2000, contact was established with Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who in turn joined in with the activities of the Parents Circle – Families Forum. This group, together with their Israeli partners, established the essence of the work of the Parents Circle today.
I am Laila Al-Sheikh from the village of Battir in the Bethlehem governorate. A Muslim Palestinian and a mother.
I was born and raised in Jordan. Mine was a peaceful and normal life. I graduated with a degree in accounting and business management. I met my husband in Jordan and in 1999 I went to Bethlehem where my husband lived, for the wedding. Like any Palestinian born far from his or her homeland, it was a dream come true.
In 2000 our daughter was born, a wonderful and beautiful child. Two months later, the Second Intifada broke out and for me it was the start of tragedy. At the time, the Israeli government applied diverse, random measures, one of which was to stop the distribution of “Family reunification” permits and since I hadn’t received my permit yet, I couldn’t leave the house for the most part or visit my family in Jordan. My husband and my daughter kept me busy until a year later Allah gave us a son whom we named Qusay. He was a beautiful, clever baby and we were so happy when he came along.
Sadly, our joy was cut short. When the baby was 6 months old, on the 4th of November 2002 at 4 a.m., he woke from his sleep, in dire health, after military troops hurled tear gas in the village. We attempted to rush him to the hospital in Bethlehem, but we were surprised by a makeshift IDF barrier at the village exit. They prevented us from leaving, under the pretext that this was a restricted military zone. We tried to change our route and take him to Hebron, though it’s a 20-minute drive, but this time the soldiers prevented us from going through saying that the road was closed.
We had no choice but to take a rocky and long route through the villages. But we were met by another military barrier. The soldiers searched the car and checked the IDs of my husband and his father. My father-in-law said that the baby is very sick, and we must rush him to the hospital. But they instructed us to remain in the car
Time went by and Qusay’s health declined. At this point I considered taking a risk, getting out of the car and talking to the soldiers. I risked the soldiers finding out that I didn’t have a permit to stay in Palestine; they would either take me to jail or make me go back to Jordan, never to return. So, in both cases I would no longer be able to be with my children and husband. But my thoughts were only focused on saving my son, so I got out of the car, spoke to the soldiers, and told them about my son’s condition. They merely laughed at me and instructed me to stay in the car until they gave us permission to go through. That was the first time I felt totally helpless; my son was fighting for his life in my arms, and I couldn’t do a thing.
Four hours later we were allowed to go through. We reached the hospital, the doctors examined him and said we arrived so late; if 48 hours go by and he doesn’t die, then he’ll be physically and mentally handicapped. I burst into tears; it was as if a building had collapsed on top of me, since both options were devastating. At 2 p.m. we were asked to leave the hospital because the Occupation soldiers had arrived to remove anyone who had no reason to be there and since our son was in the ICU, they told us to leave. The soldiers’ excuse was that several armed men could be hiding in the hospital. Thus, we went back home. I went to my father in law’s house and called the doctor at the hospital who explained my son’s condition to me. He spoke to me in professional terms, trying to tell me something, but inside I didn’t want to believe what he was saying, and he repeated himself twice. Then I realized, my son had died.
The next day my son’s body was brought to us so we could see him for the last time and part with him. I held him in my arms, I had missed him so; the last 24 hours were the first time he hadn’t been with me since he was born. I pulled back the cover and I was horrified. He was blue. Quickly, and without thinking, I tried to kiss him as I always did, but this time was very different, and it felt as if I was kissing a snowy rock. Without understanding what I was doing, I held him close to my breast to warm him and those were our final moments.
From that moment my life changed to the extreme. I was full of hatred and rage at every Israeli since they were all responsible in some way for his death. I thought, the Israelis always have an excuse, and the reason they kill or arrest every Palestinian is because someone threw a stone or committed an act of sacrificing their life against them. But my son was only 6 months old, what did they deem was his fault? The answer I would give myself was that his only crime was being a Palestinian.
I never thought of revenge, nor did I think of forgiveness and my husband, and I started to argue, because after a while he tried to convince me that we should have another baby. I objected adamantly and I asked him: Why do you want me to have another baby? After all, we know how his life will end before he’s even born; in some way or another he will be part of this endless conflict and there are only two options: Either he’ll wind up in jail or die a martyr’s death. I finally gave in to my husband’s insistent pleading and we had a son. We gave him the same name: Qusay, so his memory would live on forever and he would always be a reminder to me of what happened.
One day I was invited by one of my friends to attend a Parents Circle Families Forum gathering in Bethlehem. At first, I firmly refused, but on the day of the gathering, when my friend called me and said “Where are you? We’re waiting for you,” I decided to go.
At first there were only Palestinian participants; I started to get to know them until the Israelis arrived. When I saw them entering, I stood up to leave, but I was taken aback by the warm welcome they got from the Palestinians, and I asked myself: “Where is this affection coming from?” Then the Israelis started telling their stories. I was so surprised because it was the first time I saw them as people, bereaved, like me, sharing the same pain and the same tears. Afterwards I decided to take part in the “The Parallel Narrative Project” with a group of 30 Palestinian and Israeli women. For the first activity we were asked to talk about something that affected our lives during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was the first time I talked about my son’s death in front of so many people, especially Israelis, and I felt I was reliving the moments. I burst into tears and couldn’t complete my story. To my surprise, one of the Israeli women came over, sat down on the floor next to me and said: “I’m sorry.” I looked at her in wonder and she said: “I’m sorry, because the people that harmed your son and family are my people. I am a mother too and I can feel the pain you’re talking about.”
That woman knows that with those plain words she changed my world. Her words were like a light in a dark place, illuminating the darkness and opening new horizons. From that moment on I decided to become an active member of the Forum and it was one of the most important decisions of my life.
I started viewing myself as a survivor, not a victim. I started to think, it’s so easy for us to talk about peace and reconciliation, but it must be a decision that comes from the heart and mind. When we feel hatred or rage, these feelings blind our eyes and our hearts and prevent us from thinking properly.
I came to Israel from South Africa in 1967; I came as a volunteer after the Six Day War, thinking I’d be here for about six months. I really wanted to leave South Africa because I’d been active in the anti–apartheid movement and it was getting very pressured and ugly. I wanted to live in the States, then I came here, and I’ve had this sort of love–hate relationship with this country ever since. I went to a Hebrew language program, got married and had two kids, worked for the Jerusalem Post, and then with immigrants to help them find employment. After I got divorced, I came to live in Tel Aviv.
I brought up my children in a very tolerant and loving liberal way; David and Eran, it was kind of like a triangle – the three of us. David went to the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts because he was a very gifted musician. Out of his whole class he was probably the only one who went to the army. I was really surprised when he chose that, but I think you can’t take responsibility for somebody else’s life, even if it is your child. Even in his regular army service David was torn because he didn’t want to serve in the Occupied Territories. He became an officer and was called to go to Hebron. He was in a terrible quandary and came to me and said, “What the hell am I going to do? I don’t want to be there.” I said, “If you want to go to jail, I’ll support you, but are you going to make a difference if you go to jail?” Because basically, if he were sent to jail, when he got out, they’d put him somewhere else [in the Occupied Territories]. It’s a never–ending story. If it would have created a huge noise then maybe that would have been the right choice; but you can also go [to your military post] and lead by example, by treating people around you with respect.
I saw the scars in both of my children after serving the military, from having to be in the first intifada. They grew up in a home that never made any fuss over one’s creed or color; we just liked people. All through this army service that was what happened all the time [debating whether to serve in the Territories], and then this group was formed of officers that did not want to serve in the Occupied Territories and David joined and went to all the demonstrations; he was also part of the peace movement.
After the army, David went to Tel Aviv University and studied philosophy and psychology and then started to do his master's in philosophy of Education. He was teaching philosophy at a pre–military program for potential social leaders and he was also teaching at Tel Aviv University. Then he got called up for reserve duty [milu’im] and the whole issue came up again: he doesn’t want to go, if he goes, he doesn’t want to serve in the Occupied Territories. If he doesn’t go, he’s letting his soldiers down, what kind of example is it for these kids who are going to be inducted into the army in two months, if he went, he would treat anybody, any Palestinian, with respect, and so would his soldiers by his example. I said, “Maybe you are setting a good example [by refusing to go]” and he said, “I can’t let my soldiers down and if I don’t go someone else will and will do terrible things.” I keep telling everybody that there isn’t black and white.
David went to his reserve service, and I was filled with a terrible premonition, of fear I suppose. He called me on that Saturday and said, “I have done everything to protect us. You know I love my life, but this is a terrible place, I feel like a sitting duck.” He never shared that kind of stuff with me, ever. My kids never told me what they were doing in the army. They always told me ridiculous stories thinking that I was going believe them. The next morning, I got up very early and ran to work hours before I had to be there. I didn’t want to be at home, I had a very restless feeling.
David was killed by a sniper, along with nine other people. They were at a checkpoint, a political checkpoint, near Ofra. Two days after he was killed it was pulled down; they removed the checkpoint. I suppose all of my life I spoke about coexistence and tolerance. That must be ingrained in me because one of the first things I said is, “You may not kill anybody in the name of my child.” I suppose that’s quite unusual, an unexpected reaction to that kind of news.
It is impossible to describe what it is to lose a child. Your whole life is totally changed forever. It’s not that I’m not the same person I was. I’m the same person with a lot of pain. Wherever I go, I carry this with me. You try to run away at the beginning, but you can’t. I went overseas. I went to India, I came back again, but it just goes with you wherever you go. I had a PR office, and I was working with National Geographic and the History Channel and had clients I did food and wine for and all the good things in life, as well as with coexistence projects with Palestinian–Israeli citizens. I wasn’t particularly politically involved, it was much more on a social level: animal welfare, children, coexistence projects. I always did a lot of volunteer work; I put a lot into those kinds of things, it’s always been a part of who I am. But my work began to lose all joy for me. My priorities changed completely. To sit in a meeting and decide whether a wine should be marketed in one way, or another became totally irrelevant to me; I couldn’t bear it. I was just very lucky, I had wonderful girls working with me in the office and they really ran the office for me for a year until I decided I couldn’t bear it anymore, and I closed the office.
Yitzhak Frankenthal had come to speak to me; he was the founder of the Bereaved Families Forum. I wasn’t sure that was the path I wanted to take, but I went to a seminar. There were a lot of Israelis and Palestinians from the group there and I didn’t really feel convinced yet. But the more time went by the more I wanted to work somewhere to make a difference. It was the beginning of understanding how not to be patronizing; that’s an easy trap to fall into in this kind of work: “I know what’s best for the Palestinians, let me tell them what to do.” It took me time to understand, to look at the differences in temperament, in culture, in all these things, to be much less judgmental than I’d always been. I think David was a much more tolerant person than I am, or a less judgmental person. I learned a lot of lessons from him, and the pain created a space in me that was less egocentric, that I know what’s best for everybody.
David was killed on March 3rd, 2002. In October 2004 the sniper who killed David was caught, which for me was a huge step. That was really the test. Do I mean what I’m saying or am I just saying it because… That is the test of whether I really have integrity in the work I’m doing. Do I really mean what I’m saying when I talk about reconciliation. I wrote a letter to the family. It took me about four months to make the decision, many sleepless nights, and a lot of searching inside myself about whether this is what I really mean. I wrote them a letter, which two of the Palestinians from our group delivered to the family. They promised to write me a letter. It will take time; these things take time, I’m waiting. It could take five years for them to do that. They will deliver the letter that I wrote to their son who is in jail. So, in my own personal development, this was the big milestone for me. When he was caught, I didn’t feel anything; not satisfaction, except maybe satisfaction that he can’t do it to anybody else. There is no sense of revenge and I have never looked for that.
These past years have been an incredible experience for me. I’ve learned such a lot for my own personal growth, apart from the work I’m doing, which is almost the reason I get up in the morning. It’s something I feel almost duty–bound to be doing; it’s not a favor that I’m doing for anyone else but a personal mission almost. I know this works. I believe removing the stigma from each side and getting to know the person on the other side allows for a removal of fear, and a way to understand that a long–term reconciliation process is possible. That’s also based on my background as a South African person, seeing the miracle of South Africa and how that all happened and that it was possible.
On David’s grave there is a quotation by Khalil Gibran that says, “The whole earth is my birthplace, and all humans are my brothers.”
Listen to Robi Damelin speak about her son on Krista Tippett's podcast 'On Being' here: https://onbeing.org/programs/robi-damelin-ali-abu-awwad-no-more-taking-sides/
Robi Damelin's Letter
This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin, I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. I know he did not kill David because he was David, if he had known him, he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old; 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. 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.
What makes our children do what they do? They do not understand the pain they are causing your son by now having to be in jail for many years and mine who I will never be able to hold and see again or see him married or have a grandchild from him. I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death and the pain of his brother and girlfriend, and all who knew and loved him.
All my life I have spent working for causes of co–existence, both in South Africa and here. After David was killed, I started to look for a way to prevent other families both Israeli and Palestinian from suffering this dreadful loss. 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. After a year, I closed my office and joined the Parents Circle – Families Forum. We are a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have all lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We are looking for ways to create a dialogue with a long–term vision of reconciliation.
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 now concluded 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 that in my heart it is the only path that 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 may not be 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 the children who are our responsibility.
I give this letter to people I love and trust to deliver, they will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your hearts 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 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.