By Pat McCarthy
Special to ASSIST News Service
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (ANS) -- Although Israeli-Palestinian relations are probably best known for conflict, a group of parents from both sides has spent 20 years working for reconciliation, inspired and united by the common experience of bereavement.
Israeli and Palestinian members
More than 600 families belong to the Parents' Circle - Families Forum (PCFF) - brought together by the pain they share through losing a close family member in the ongoing conflict.
The grassroots group was initiated in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankental, a Jew, whose firstborn son Arik was abducted and murdered by Hamas militants while he was serving in the Israeli army.
"After Arik was murdered, I understood that I had failed as a father," he recalled in a newspaper interview. "I had brought a son into the world but he did not live - not because he was sick, but because there was no peace. Because I didn't do anything to promote peace."
Mr. Frankental said eyebrows were raised over his conciliatory activity in his religious congregation in Jerusalem, but he never wavered in his religious faith. "My approach to religion," he said, "is that I worship God, not the other way around. Everything that God does is for the good, even if I do not fully grasp it."
Prominent members of the PCFF include Bassam Aramin, a one-time Pa lestinian militant who spent seven years in an Israeli prison for attacking an army jeep.
PCFF members promote reconciliation
When his 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot by an Israeli border-police officer on her way home from school in 2007 - a killing described as "totally unjustifiable" by an Israeli court - he was adamant he did not want retribution.
"The answer is not to seek revenge, because we will never meet our beloved ones, but will instead create additional victims," he said. "Peace is the answer. Our blood is the same and our enemy is the same: Occupation, oppression, hatred, and fear."
Another member, Rami Elhanan, a secular Jew, also lost a daughter, 14-year-old Smadar. On the first day of the new school year in 1997, Smadar went with girlfriends to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem to buy school supplies and was killed when three Palestinian terrorists blew themselves up.
"When someone murders your 14-year-old little daughter, the one and only thing you have in your head is unlimited anger and an urge for revenge that is stronger than death," said Mr. Elhanan. "This is a natural feeling, it's only human ."
Then - when "the first madness of anger" passed - he began to ask himself penetrating questions.
"If I kill someone in revenge, will that bring my baby back to me? And if I cause someone pain, will that ease my own pain? And the answer is absolutely 'No'."
But when Mr. Elhanan was invited to a meeting of the PCFF, he viewed them as a "group of crazy people".
Arriving at the meeting both reluctant and cynical, he saw a spectacle that was both new to him and amazing. Along with Israeli members, he saw Arabs getting off the bus - "bereaved Palestinian families, men, women and children, coming towards me, greeting me for peace, hugging me and crying with me".
From that day on, he said, "I got a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Since that day on I have dedicated my life to one thing only: To go from ear to ear and from person to person and to shout in a loud voice, to all who are prepared to listen, and also to those whose ears are blocked: This is not our destiny!
Palestinian and Israeli members of the
"It is not a decree of fate that cannot be changed! Nowhere is it written that we must continue dying and sacrificing our children forever and forever in this difficult horrible holy land.
"We can - and once and for all must - stop this crazy, vicious circle of violence, murder and retaliation, revenge and punishment - this never-ending cycle, with no purpose."
In October 2014, a 20th anniversary article in Israel's oldest daily newspaper, Haaretz, described the PCFF as unique among the country's peace organizations.
"Its members hold a kind of joker card, which, when pulled, trumps all other cards. It's bereavement. Bereavement is a major element in the collective national identity of both Israelis and Palestinians. Usually it's a springboard to an aggressive approach. Yet for the past 20 years, the forum has invoked the sacred experience of loss and bereavement to achieve the opposite goal."
In present-day Israel, the article added, the PCFF is "nothing less than subversive. By virtue of the very fact tha t Israelis and Palestinians recognise the bereavement of the other side, too, the forum subverts the generally hegemonic nature of the region's narratives."
In its many actions and projects, the PCFF is imaginative and courageous. For instance, during Israel's bombardment of Gaza in July-August 2014, it set up a "dialogue tent" in the plaza outside a cinema complex in Tel Aviv to facilitate conversations between Israelis and Palestinians on the principle that "It won't stop until we talk".
Also, in an International Peace Day observance, Israelis and Palestinians donated blood under the slogan "Could you hurt someone who has your blood running through their veins?"
In 2002 the PCFF established a toll-free phone line on which an Israeli could talk to a Palestinian, and vice versa. The "Hello Shalom" phone line received more than a million calls.
Then the PCFF launched the "Crack in the Wall" Facebook page, using social media to humanize the daily affairs of the conflict by increasing connections between Israe lis and Palestinians.
Besides classroom presentations in schools, an adult education program explores the narrative of the "other" among Israeli and Palestinian change agents, such as journalists, social workers and educators.
PCFF members light candles for
In 2001 the PCFF sent a delegation of bereaved parents to New York where they placed more than 1000 coffins wrapped in Israeli and Palestinian flags in front of the United Nations building.
Although the PCFF has no stated position on the political solution of the conflict, most of its members agree that the solution must be based on free negotiations between the leadership of both sides to ensure basic human rights, the establishment of two states for two peoples, and the signing of a peace treaty.
It sees reconciliation between the two nations as a necessary condition for obtaining a sustainable peace treaty.
The PCFF is currently working with academics from both sides, and with international experts, to create a "reconciliation paper" to be integrated into any future political peace agreements.