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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Robi Damelin

Robi Damelin's son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while he was guarding a checkpoint near a settlement during his army reserve service. Robi is an active member of a group of 500 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close family members and who work together for reconciliation and a just resolution to the conflict. She speaks with a Palestinian partner in communities and schools throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as well as internationally. Robi Damelin is featured in Just Vision's documentary film, Encounter Point; a scene about her work is available here. Visit Just Vision's Newsroom to see Robi on Fox News!

  • Please tell me where you're from and what your experience with the conflict is.

    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 actually 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. In many ways I was disillusioned by a lot of the attitudes I encountered; there is a lot of racist behavior here in Israel as well that I hadn't imagined. But that's not really relevant to what I want to say. I went to a Hebrew language immersion 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; we had lived on a moshav near Netanya. 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 Yelin 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 Masters 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 miluim1 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 goes 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 really 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.2 They were at a checkpoint, a political checkpoint,3 near Ofra.4 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 expected 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 food and wine 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.

    • 1Hebrew word referring to reserve service in the military. Reserve service in the Israeli army is generally required until the age of 51 in the case of men, and 24 in the case of women.
    • 2David Damelin was killed on March 3, 2002.
    • 3Damelin intends to express her viewpoint that this was a checkpoint installed for political rather than security reasons.
    • 4A Jewish settlement located in the West Bank, just outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Ofra's population was an est. 2,300 in June of 2005.

  • When did you begin to get involved in the Bereaved Families Forum?

    David was killed in March and I went to that seminar in October I think; I'm very bad with dates. It took me a year to really get involved. I closed my PR office in December and tried to decide what was the right framework in which to do something of value. I'd worked with an Arab-Israeli orchestra, I worked with food, chefs and things like that, but it didn't have the same impact as working together with Palestinians. It was the beginning of understanding how not to be patronizing; that's a really 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. These past two 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, actually. 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 actually possible. Since I've been working with the Forum, I've been traveling a lot, mainly to the States. I've also been in England and Europe.

  • What do you mean by integrity?

    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.

  • How did you feel when you heard the sniper had been caught?

    I didn't feel anything when they told me; 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. Am I happy that they caught him? In a way I'm not happy that they caught him because it has put me in this whole dilemma. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. It's not for me personally. If they write me a letter in return then I could publish both of the letters as an example and it could show some people that there is a way. That the people you least expect can do this kind of thing, surely that's an example to other people to start to look for a way.

  • What did people around you think?

    Everybody had asked me what I thought should happen to the sniper, and if they caught the sniper do I want them to kill him. I said that he killed David not because he was David; if he had met David he would have loved David. David worked for peace, David was part of the soldiers who didn't want to serve in the territories. David was the most loving person, if he had sat down and had coffee with David, they would have become friends. On David's grave there is a quotation by Khalil Gibran1 that says, "the whole earth is my birthplace and all humans are my brothers." I was looking for something and that was the truest thing that I could find. I said that the sniper didn't kill David because he was David; he killed David because he was a symbol of an occupying army.

    • 1(1883-1931). Lebanese born poet and novelist who wrote in Arabic and English, most famously known for his work The Prophet.

  • Please tell me about the Bereaved Families Forum.

    That's the credo of the Forum. All these people who lost an immediate family member, Palestinians or Israelis, are the people I would least expect to follow another path. The sort of immediate reaction is "revenge," like people talk about. Instead of channeling it into revenge, the people in our group have chosen another direction for their pain. The pain breaks down barriers very quickly between Palestinians and Israelis in the group. There's a sense of trust. It's not hummus and hugs-- it's much deeper than that; it's acknowledgement and empathy, which happen much faster than in a normal meeting between a Palestinian and an Israeli because we recognize each other immediately through the pain.

  • What do you do at your meetings?

    Most of the work we're doing is geared towards the long-term reconciliation process. The lectures in school are a very big part of what we're doing. It's a classroom dialogue, which is geared to 16 and 17 year olds. We chose that age group in Israel specifically because they will be going to the army. We also do this with Palestinians, giving lectures on the Palestinian side. When you go into a classroom in Israel you discover that probably 85-90% of the class has been overseas but none of them know anyone from the nearest Palestinian village, which might be ten minutes away from their school.

  • Why is there so little contact between Israeli and Palestinian school kids?

    This is one of the biggest problems: not knowing each other. It's so absurd. When you go into a Palestinian class the same things apply to a Palestinian kid because the only Israelis they come into contact with are the soldiers whom they meet at roadblocks, or settlers. It's like the whole stigma about the mother: Israelis talk about the Palestinian mothers who don't care about losing their children; they are fed the extremist views from television, and so they see the Palestinian mother as sending her child to blow himself up. Palestinian children would look at an Israeli mother as being proud to give up her child for a greater Israel.1 Suddenly they see the human being and the human pain behind this whole story, and it plants a seed. I'm not saying that these kids become Martin Luther King, but it's the beginning of seeing another side, a beginning of hope. In 2004 we did 1000 classroom dialogues. That's a hell of a lot if you think about how many kids are in an average class. Of course not every child... some will remain with "your child deserved to die" from the Palestinian side, and "the only good Arab is a dead Arab" because they wouldn't even think of calling a Palestinian a Palestinian.2 But I think the vast majority of these kids are suddenly paying attention. I had this kid who came to class and said to me, "How dare you bring a Palestinian? That's what I thought in the beginning, and I was just going to come into class to disturb the whole thing..." And then he said, "But you gave me something to think about." Now, I'm not saying that he's going to change, but it's so rewarding that a child actually listened with empathy. The teachers are so grateful to us; it's the first time they've ever seen their class shut up for an hour and a half. Seeing a Palestinian and an Israeli speak in one voice has a tremendous impact. For an Israeli child, the Palestinian pain of losing a family member is something unique. They've never heard that before.

    • 1The concept and ideology of a Greater Israel predominantly refers to an Israel state that encompasses Israel within the Green Line as well as the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, to a lesser extent Greater Israel is used by some more extreme groups to encompass the above in addition to territory in Jordan and reaching as far as modern day Iraq, a concept derived from what some believe as the territory promised to the Jewish people by God in the Torah.
    • 2Refers to the refusal by some to recognize Palestinians as a people or a nation, and therefore to refer to Arabs, the broader group to which Palestinians belong.

  • What makes the students listen to the Bereaved Families Forum school presentations?

    They're totally fascinated. They suddenly see that there's a possibility that this Palestinian is a human being, and on the other side, the same story. We come with a message that is very different from what most people are fed: a message of reconciliation. I talk a lot in the lectures about Mandela1 and South Africa and about the hatred that existed and the fact that a miracle occurred there. So yes, it has an effect. I experience this wherever I go. Of course there are crazy people wherever I go who are so entrenched in their fear that they can't even hear anybody else talk. I'm not only talking about kids now, I'm talking about adults. But in the main there is a certain standing that bereaved people have in their communities-- others listen. They may start off by thinking, "Oh, she's a bereaved mother so you know we have to let her say what she wants. She's a bit cuckoo anyway." But by the end of a lecture they're interested in the message because it's different, because it comes from two people from two nations talking in one voice. This is something that I think hardly any other peace group can claim. That's what makes it unique. I think it's a very important project. Having looked at what's happening in Ireland2 and all over the world, we're using the same model now in an adult education program. We started off with sponsorship from a Danish project, and this is one of the main activities that is going to take place over 2006.

    • 1(1918- ) South African statesman and political leader. For more information see the Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. at http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/Mandela.html
    • 2Damelin may be referring to Healing Through Remembering, a cross-community program in Northern Ireland with which the Bereaved Families Forum has some affiliation.

  • What do you expect the students who hear your school presentations to gain?

    I think they gain another perspective. But also, it's not enough. What happens at the end of these classes is they fill in a form to say what happened to them. It's quite revealing actually, it's amazing. I would say 80% of these kids from both sides suddenly express their desire to meet with the other group, to meet with Palestinians or to meet with Israelis. So we've got a continuation of this project, which is wonderful. For instance, we had a meeting of a school from Bet Safafa1 and a school from Ashdod-- which is not exactly a bastion of the peace movement-- and there were religious kids from both sides. They spent the weekend together and the amazing thing was that at the end of the weekend nobody wanted to get on the bus to go home. But more importantly, they started to write to each other very intimately. The kids of Ashdod have invited the kids from Bet Safafa to be in touch and to come for the weekend. We had a similar situation with a school near Jenin and Tel Mond. We try to choose the peripheral places so that they aren't kids who are normally exposed. It works; they have a blog where they write to each other in English. I read quite a lot of what's on the blog and it's amazing. It's not the hummus and hugging as I told you earlier; it's quite deep. The possibility for them to create friendships that have nothing to do with our organization is what we're aiming for. We can create a seed and they'll have to water it to continue. We give them an opportunity to meet each other.

    • 1A town within the southern municipal boundary of Jerusalem, whose residents are Palestinian, some with Israeli citizenship, some with Jerusalem identity cards. It once straddled both the Israeli side and Jordanian West Bank side of the post-1948 Green Line, now surrounded by Jewish settlements and neighborhoods that have expanded southward since 1967.

  • You talked about meetings with 16-17 year-old Israelis, how do you expect the meetings to affect their upcoming army service?

    This is a terribly difficult thing to say because of the pressure on Israeli kids when they go to the army. You know, everybody looks at these kids and thinks they're these big macho kids. I look at them and see young kids who have hardly begun to shave, who are very vulnerable and frightened and so they engage in all kinds of behavior that wouldn't be the norm. What do the Palestinians see of the Israelis? They don't meet me, they don't meet my neighbors; they meet a bunch of kids that are put in a situation of power, who are so frightened themselves that all this fear turns into hate, so they do the most obscene things. These soldiers suddenly have a license; there is a feeling of invincibility until you reach 25 that nothing can happen to you, and they behave that way, encouraged by being in a group of men-- who will be more macho? That's what Palestinians are exposed to. Some of these soldiers come from the most tolerant families; I am stunned by how some soldiers behave. On the other hand there have been ambulances that have smuggled across bombs.1 The violence is felt on the streets in Israel in the way people drive. I don't think road rage comes out of a peaceful and contented society. These kids, these soldiers, come home on a Friday night and get drunk and drive like lunatics and get themselves killed in road accidents—in fact more Israelis have been killed in road accidents than in the conflict. Maybe if that kid [who attended one of our lectures] is standing at a checkpoint and looks at a Palestinian, he might see the human being behind this person standing there. I don't know. There is no measure of that. Everybody has had inspirations in their life that changed the way they think, in whatever way, to become much more radical, to become very right-wing, to become anything. There are people in my life who've changed so many things for me. Sometimes you feel so rewarded; whenever I'm down in the dumps and I go into a school and talk, I feel so blessed to be able to do that. You look at these kids and think, well maybe out of this class of thirty... It's like any other society where people sit back and do nothing, but suddenly a kid comes up to me and says, "Look, I want to do something. I'm going to make a difference in my own community." For me, that's the most rewarding thing that could come out of this. I don't care if they work in animal welfare or in co-relations or coexistence projects, as long as they get away from this inertia of just "waiting for the messiah." You can't wait for the messiah anymore. It's grassroots, and people have to do these things.

    • 1There have been a few reported instances in which Palestinians have smuggled or attempted to smuggle bombs into Israel via ambulances. See Ha'aretz article "Bomb found in Red Crescent ambulance": http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=146427&sw=hid...

  • Do you ever encounter resistance to using your status as a bereaved parent in this type of work?

    We're not a political organization, or, put it this way: we're not affiliated with any political parties, so it's a little less extreme. Of course I get attacked... It's happened to me in the States, but very rarely in Israel. I've had some emails to say I should burn in Auschwitz. But in general, I think that Palestinian and Israeli bereaved parents have a certain status in both their communities. After all, they've paid the highest price in order to say the things they say. We aren't really attacked, I guess because we're not political; of course we're all political people, but we're not affiliated, we try not to be put into any categories. We're not elitists, we're not stupid, we're not simple, we're not anything; we're just human beings from all walks of life. The common denominator in our group is the pain, from the simplest people to the most highly educated. The common denominator is looking not for revenge, but for another way. I don't think the Palestinians come under attack there, nor do we, actually. There's a sense of value that we're still willing to do something; there is a sense of awe in a way: how can you still believe in peace after you lost somebody in your family? It's not out of arrogance that I'm saying this; people find it very strange, or hard to believe that somebody who has experienced this loss would still be willing to make an effort to stop it. But they don't understand what it is to lose a child, and for me, if I can prevent one more mother from going through what I'm going through, that would be something.

  • What do you need from your counterparts to be able to work with them?

    That's a difficult question. I never actually thought about my needs from them. I think I discovered so much in common and on all levels. There's the emotional level in common with Nasra from Nablus, who lost two children; I can sit next to her on the bus and the language that we have is physical language because she doesn't speak Hebrew or English and my Arabic leaves much to be desired. I can sit next to her and she will take my hand and show me two pictures of her sons and I will feel immediate empathy and love for this woman. And then I have Nadwa,1 my partner, who speaks in one voice with me and it's gotten beyond Palestinian or Israeli. We're almost like family now; I've spent more time with her over the past two years than I have with anybody else because we travel so much together. In all honesty, in all the trips we've done-- and it's hard to travel on a lecture tour for non-stop lectures from morning to night-- we've never had a cross word, and it isn't because we're careful of each other because she's Palestinian and I'm Israeli, we're just in sync. We enjoy each other and we give each other space, and I trust her so much. I promise you if I got sick I'd be totally happy for her to go give my lecture somewhere else. There's a sense of joy in having a partner, a really equal partner. We usually go into a room and say, "Who's the Palestinian and who's the Israeli?" and I'm always the Palestinian... She's a character and she likes the same things I like so I would have liked her wherever the hell she came from, irrelevant to being Palestinian, but it has gotten much deeper now because the level of conversation is very deep and very honest. The fact that I asked Nadwa to go see the family of the sniper-- Nadwa and Ali2 -- will indicate will indicate the connection I feel to her. Of course there are some people in the group I don't feel I have the same connection with, but I don't have a demand from them. What I'm looking for is only the honesty of the work we're doing. Each person's development on the path of reconciliation is different. It takes time. I can see how I myself have grown over the past two years, the difference in the way I respond to questions now compared to where I was two years ago; it's completely different. I'm an ancient person but I'm still learning. This is a long difficult path of learning, of tolerance, of being able to dialogue with a settler and to dialogue with somebody who's very angry; you learn that. I've always been able to persuade people because I'm a good salesperson, but now I come from a much cleaner place.

    • 1Nadwa Saranda, a Palestinian member of the Bereaved Families Forum from Jerusalem, with whom Robi frequently travels on speaking tours.
    • 2Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian member of the Bereaved Families Forum from Beit Umar, near Hebron. Ali Abu Awwad is featured with Robi Damelin in Just Vision's soon-to-be released documentary film, Encounter Point.

  • What challenges you in your work?

    Everything. It is a challenge for me because I've always been a very independent person. I was my own boss; I did whatever I wanted and if I made a decision that's what would happen. I had people working with me for years and years and we became a family, but the buck stopped with me. Now I have to work in a team. That's a huge lesson for me. I can't just wake up tomorrow morning and decide to do a project without consulting with anybody else, which is something foreign to me. I have to sell it to them, so they understand. That's a very different way of working. I also have to listen to what other people say all the time, which is another exercise for me: to sit in meetings and listen for hours to what other people have to say, when I'm very impatient and want to do everything now. That's my nature. I'm a very active person and when I decide to do something, it's now. Now, it's not now; that's the thing. It's different when you're working with other people to create a dream, which is a shared dream. It's not just my dream anymore. Do you understand the subtle differences? It's not that I was a dictator in my office and didn't allow anybody to do anything. But if I woke up one morning with some kind of meshugas1 and wanted to do something, I could inspire everybody around me to do it, but it would be my project. That isn't the same story now anymore, and it's been a wonderful lesson in humility for me... I'm not there yet, because I can get very impatient. People have different paces for doing things. That's the tolerance I was talking about in the beginning. Those are the challenges for me of being in an organization like this: to have patience to listen to everybody even if I think they are a waste of time. They're not a waste of time. That is the distinction from killing people with your judgment before you've even heard who they are. You could walk into a room and look around and say, "Oh, that's my kind of person," or "She's not my kind of person," but you don't know what you're missing in life! I might be quite ancient, but believe me, that's how I'm growing within my own personal being. I haven't become a saint, believe me. But there's something very different about who I am today compared to what I was and it's also got to do with the pain, with missing David; it has to do with totally different sets of priorities now. It's the realization that my child isn't coming back, which is an impossible realization. That changes you. There is instant anger-- I did something very stupid the other day. The settlers want to build a memorial for the soldiers who died in the spot where David was killed. I said, "Over my dead body. You will not build a memorial in the Occupied Territories in the name of my child, who was against any of that. It's so cynical to create hate. When they said that he [David] was there to protect their settlement, I said, "Look at me, I am the consequence of your madness." That's instant satisfaction, but it doesn't serve anything, because if I want to appeal to the human being there, that's not the way to do it. That's the anger that comes out from time to time.

    • 1Yiddish for "wild scheme."

  • How much time do you spend doing these activities?

    This is totally full-time for me. I'm busy every day, all day, and sometimes at night as well. But it's not a sacrifice. I'm doing it for me, and I'm doing it for my grandchildren and to make a difference. It isn't like I'm suffering from having to work; I think the work is actually what is keeping me alive.

  • Are there different responses among people in the Parents' Circle to people who lost relatives while engaged in militant activities?

    We try as a group to overcome that. It's very interesting because many journalists come with a shopping list: "We would like to speak to a mother who is not more than 25, who has lost a child in a suicide bombing." I'm not joking. But that's what it is. Or a magazine, a very fancy women's magazine: "We want two younger women who"—I don't know - "are blonde and blue-eyed." That's extreme what I'm saying, but there's the shopping list. For me, if you lose a child, I don't care how, if he commits suicide, if he is killed in a suicide bombing, if the child is killed by Israeli soldiers, if the child's mother is the mother of a suicide bomber. If people are willing to go on this path of reconciliation, I don't care where they come from. If they see this as their life path, that's more important than anything else. The fact that they're willing to come and work in something like this-- is that not already an indication? So what, now we have to work out how the child was killed? "If it wasn't by a certain action then you can't be in our group?!" How many people in this world are willing to give up their lives for something like this? Of course there are prejudices in the group, and maybe you would have more standing in the Palestinian community as an Israeli if your child was killed in a suicide bombing [than as a soldier]. I don't know. I don't want to go down that path. I think we really just see people who have lost someone, and anyway, I don't think it makes any difference because the path of reconciliation is the path for everybody, not for a select group of parents whose children happened to be killed according to somebody's shopping list. Every parent can be effective in this organization-- anybody who's looking for dialogue, willing to put their ass on the line and speak to groups of people. It's not so easy. I've done things since David was killed and if you'd told me that I would do some of these I would have said you were mad. I stood up and spoke at a demonstration in front of 60,000 people, in Hebrew no less--1 I can't believe I actually did that. When your mind is actually directed and you totally believe in what you're doing then it doesn't matter whether people think you are clever or funny or good looking or all that rubbish. This ego thing jumps up from time to time, but for a mother who lost her child in a suicide bombing, in a road accident in the army or for whatever circumstances, the pain is the same pain. It's no different; the color of one mother's tears are no different from the color of another mother's tears. People have different ways of dealing with grief. So I don't want to sit in my group judging how somebody's child was killed and if that makes them a more legitimate member than anybody else. I hope nobody else does either.

    • 1Damelin's native language is English.

  • What kind of meetings do you have? Who participates?

    For instance, this weekend we're having a seminar. There will be 170 people there, representing 170 families. It's half-half, Palestinians and Israelis, everybody participating is part of our group, everybody's lost an immediate family member. By the way, we invited the family from Jenin who donated their son's organs to join our group. They will probably be at this seminar on Thursday, plus we want the families from Shuafat1 to come. We've invited them; I hope they'll come. It's a time for us to talk and share ideas for new projects, to listen to lectures, and just to sit and drink coffee together. It's a time to support each other and to solidify-- that word in Hebrew, gibush,2 is a horrible word because it has army connotations, but it's almost that, creating that and inspiring us to go on. It's very hard to do this work. You really have to go on this path, like Roni Hirshenzon3 says, taking water out of the sea with a teaspoon.

    • 1A Palestinian neighborhood in the northern environs of Jerusalem, Shuafat contains the only refugee camp in the West Bank that lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The registered refugee population of the Shuafat Refugee camp is approximately 10,000. For a profile of the Shuafat Refugee Camp see the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) at http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/westbank/shufat.html.
    • 2Hebrew for "chrystalization." Used frequently to refer to the group bonding experiences soldiers in a unit undergo as part of their training.
    • 3Roni Hirshenzon, an Israeli member of the Bereaved Families Forum.

  • Do you ever encounter resistance inside the group to anything?

    Resistance inside our group? There are many opinions in the group. We're certainly not a homogenous group. It's not like we all came from the same background or the same socio-economic background or anything like that, not the Israelis, not the Palestinians and not the two of us together. But I think that we've gotten to a level of honesty. A Palestinian can say, "I cannot bear listening to Hebrew, for me it's the language of the occupier." He can safely say that in our group. We [Israelis] can answer with empathy and say that when we used to listen to German it had the same effect, so we can actually understand; but if we want to communicate we have to learn each other's languages. A Palestinian can stand up in the group and say something like, "I have empathy for the settlers because we understand as a nation what it is to be thrown out of our homes."1 Surely we are reaching a level of understanding and it's a depth I'm very grateful for within the group. Of course there are people who think different things. I'm not sure that everybody within the group would want to reconcile with the person who killed their child, but it's not a question of judgment. Each person is an individual. The main message is: let us prevent other families from experiencing what we've experienced and let's be non-violent.

    • 1Referring to the Gaza Disengagement also referred to as "Disengagement," "the Pull Out," "the Withdrawal," "the Evacuation," "HaHitNatKut" in Hebrew. In the current conflict, this term refers to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip (and four settlements from the West Bank) in August of 2005, although Israel maintains control over air space and borders.

  • What do you think the effect of your work is?

    Depends what day you find me. Look, I had a very interesting week last week. I was in Bethlehem. We spoke to many people there. There were a lot of Palestinians in the audience as well and I realized how important [our work] is. It got coverage on television and I was happy. I went to a school near Ramle to give two lectures with one of our members, and there were about 40 kids in each class; they come from really tough socio-economic situations near the railway line in Ramle. I suddenly realized the pain that these kids carry as Palestinian Israelis. They are Palestinian-Israeli citizens, and their loyalty is torn because they come from a very poor neighborhood filled with drugs and things, and they're also torn because of their particular "who they are" within society, and maybe they don't belong to either society. I looked at these kids who sat there and were totally fascinated by what we said. I got the feedback sheets. Some of them wrote in Hebrew, which I thought was very nice of them. There were some that suddenly had a sense of hope in their responses, in the forms they filled in. So how could I not have some sense of hope? I recognize that human beings have an ability to show compassion. I see it when a Palestinian comes to me in a class and hugs me and says, "I'm sorry you lost your child." So I can only be filled with a sense of hope and belief in human nature. Otherwise I couldn't possibly do the work I'm doing. I think that's very much a common denominator in the group. We have about 40 members who go to schools. It can be a very, very rewarding experience; of course it can be difficult. It wasn't easy for me to sit in this class; I felt massive resentment when I walked in. These children, who should they be loyal to? What should they say? Who should they support? Why should they feel sorry that I lost my child? Why shouldn't they feel sorry that I lost my child? It's a child! All this conflicting information in their heads; it's harder for them maybe than for a Palestinian or an Israeli who isn't torn between both identities. I remember how Jews felt about the Russian Jews who were persecuted.1 If you start looking to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, it's so much easier to have empathy; it doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but you can have empathy for their opinions.

    • 1Refers to Soviet Jews whose emigration to Israel was barred by the Soviet Government. Jews in the Soviet Union who sought to emigrate, and consequently became persecuted and harassed for seeking to do so, became known as "Refuseniks," a term now most commonly used to refer to Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories or Israelis refusing to serve in the Israeli army altogether. Many Jews worldwide became advocates for the Soviet Jewish Refuseniks taking up their cause to leave the Soviet Union.

  • Where do you think you are in relation to the mainstream in your society?

    I don't know; there isn't a common denominator in the Israeli society. So many people are suffering from a sense of battle fatigue here. I think probably about 70% of people agree with me. I don't know what percentage of the 70% are willing to do anything about it. I wouldn't be that arrogant to judge other people. I hate the word inspire, it's very arrogant, but I try to show that you can make a difference in your own society, because I really believe that. I think each person can make a difference; it doesn't matter in what field. It's those funny things you have to do, tasks you hate doing. For example, I'm very bad at papers and accounts and filling in forms and applying for visas. It gives me a sense of total punishment. I go and do it after months and months of fighting with myself. This week I finally did all sorts of awful bureaucratic things that I'm so bad at. Trying to change things, not sitting back and waiting for the messiah, gives me a sense of value, of being in a society where maybe something somewhere along the line can change things. Being part of this joint voice in the Forum is a real privilege. I don't think many people understand that when you take a stand, no matter what the stand is, there's a sense of privilege and belonging.

  • What would you do differently if you could start over in your organization?

    I would have been more tolerant from the beginning. If I had known then what I know now, and I still don't know, I think I'd have been less judgmental-of everybody. It's a general thing, "I think I know better than you." I don't know. How would I know what I would have done differently? I don't know.

  • Is there a project you would have considered doing differently or a direction you would have taken?

    I came into a status-quo [within the Forum], which has grown over the past years beyond all recognition, actually. The actual grassroots work has grown. It's not a photo-op organization. It's an organization that really works. I'm actually very happy with what's happened to the organization over the past two years. I see a tremendous pulling together of people, of actually working, going out to the field and doing things. I'm working on something that I think could make a big difference; I hope that everybody else will agree with me. I have to sit down and see. I think women have a tremendous role to play in this process and I'm working on something for bereaved women. I'm hoping we'll be able to do it within the framework of the Forum because I think when women come to the peace table it makes a big difference. If you look at Ireland, I think that much of what happened there was due to the women that were working in this process.1

    • 1For more information on women in the peace movement in Northern Ireland, see a list of resources on Northern Ireland by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom: http://www.peacewomen.org/resources/NIreland/northernirelandindex.html. In addition, note that two women from Northern Ireland, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

  • What can women contribute that is unique?

    Please don't misinterpret what I'm saying. I think that men experience pain just as deeply as women. Knowing the men in our group, I find it difficult to believe that the pain is worse for women. But I think that when women talk to society about compassion it is very powerful. And I think very often when mothers talk they have a very powerful impact. I promise you that all mothers are the same, and that the mother of a suicide bomber has a threefold problem: where did she fail, losing her child, he killed himself and innocent people. I don't care what you say, any mother-- me in my little flat in Tel Aviv or a mother in a settlement that says she is proud to have given up her child for the land-- all our pain is the same, otherwise there is no nature, otherwise nothing makes any sense anymore. Mothers are the most powerful and the most humane because they are the only ones who know the pain of losing a child. I am not negating the pain of brothers and sisters and grandparents and fathers, but the pain of a mother is so extreme that I don't buy any mother's story that says she is proud to have lost her child for anything.

  • How has the political situation affected your work?

    I don't really want to answer that because what my political feelings are is very difficult. Obviously situations that have happened like the disengagement or the changes in the Labor Party and things like that make a difference in the work that we're doing. The powers that be who tell us there is nobody to talk to make a difference in the work that we're doing, otherwise we wouldn't have created the telephone line for Palestinians and Israelis.

  • Would you tell me about the telephone line for Palestinians and Israelis?

    Because the powers that be say there's nobody to talk to, we created a telephone line between Palestinians and Israelis.1 It's a toll-free line, and since October of 2002 we've had something like 750,000 telephone calls. They're not telephone calls where everybody is always very sweet to each other, but it's the beginning of a dialogue for many people, and good friendships have come out of it, whatever happens politically. Of course we try to talk to as many politicians as we can to show them another sort of aspect of daily life here that could make a difference. What happens politically will affect the work that we're doing. The closer we get to some form of agreement, the more important our work is, because we all feel that no agreement will happen unless there's a reconciliation process built in.

    • 1For more information on the Israeli-Palestinian telephone line, known as the Hello Peace Project, see the Parents' Circle website at http://www.theparentscircle.com/Activities.asp?sivug_id=2 and the Hello Peace website at http://www.hellopeace.net/.

  • Are there limitations on your meetings because of the current situation?

    It's very difficult sometimes to get ishurim-- permits-- but in the long run we do manage to meet by all kinds of means. I believe we will have permits for all the Palestinians to attend the seminar next weekend. It's hard work, and it's difficult and it would be a lot easier if all of our members were automatically granted a status of being able to travel freely. It's very humiliating for a Palestinian to have to get permission to travel.

  • What do you think this conflict is about?

    This conflict has a kind of Romeo and Juliet undertone. It's so strange. We are so similar as two nations, the faiths of the two nations are so similar, the nobody-wanting-us-anywhere fate. The lack of knowledge of each other's narrative I think is a huge contributor to the conflict. I just read a book on the history of when the British were here. It's like reading yesterday's headline, it's so terrifying when you see the same mistakes repeated over and over again. The British made the same mistakes we're making: the demolition of houses, the collective punishment. All these situations are repeated, from both sides. They are repeated behavioral patterns of the cycle of violence which creates more violence, which creates more violence. And we don't know each other, so we kill our children, and that's Romeo and Juliet.

  • What do you think of former peace processes?

    I'm not a general or a politician. I'm just an ordinary human being, but I think that much of the problem lay in the fact that they never embraced the nations with a reconciliation process. There were papers signed and agreed upon by both sides, but the people weren't involved in it. With any process, the closer we get to the signing the more important our work is. All the peace agreements that we made here, the Oslo agreement being a main one that gave so much hope to the world, didn't take the people into consideration. They said, "let's forget about the past." You can't forget about that. Maybe now the Geneva Accord people are beginning to understand the power of reconciliation. That is something that the Circle can spearhead. We can't do the academic work, but we can serve as an example. If we can do it anybody can.

  • What is the ideal situation you would like to see here in the future?

    I think, like most anybody else, that the Palestinians should have a viable, just state; that a Palestinian mother and an Israeli mother should be able to get up in the morning and not worry about their children returning safely home; and that people should be able to get on with their daily lives like in other nations. Do you think that's possible? Yes. Otherwise I wouldn't stay here.

  • What does the word peace mean for you?

    Peace trips too lightly off everybody's tongue here. I mean, even our greeting-- shalom, salaam, whatever, paz, everybody uses this word. Peace means human dignity, I think. I would sense a state of peace if I lived in a moral country where people are equal and respect other people's humanity. For me that's peace. I don't actually know what peace means. It's the whole gamut of everything we've been speaking of. I would rather talk about reconciliation at this point. We've been speaking about peace but everybody has a different interpretation. Ali said something wonderful. He said that peace for the Israelis means just continuing life in a much better way and for the Palestinians it means the beginning of life. I think that's probably what I would say, too.

  • What do you think of slogans such as 'separation' given your background as a South African?

    That's just a temporary ceasefire until the next time. We can't have any more next times. The Palestinians aren't going to disappear in a puff of smoke, nor are the Israelis. We're going to have to learn how to accept each other with empathy, not necessarily agreeing and loving each other; that's another step and that's an individual step. The respect that we need to create for each other would go a long way to build trust. And there needs to be a national apology. But that's a long, long time away, that's just a dream.

  • How do you think people here would react to a public apology?

    This is too complicated. I don't want to go into it. Just leave it. It has to be explained with a whole process of reconciliation. Forgiving doesn't mean you give up your right to justice. It's long and painful...for another article in a few years when things have happened. We've made endless peace agreements, like Oslo for example, but we have never taken into consideration the matter of accountability of crimes, the admission, apologies, looking for justice. People are involved here [in the Forum]; it's not just signing a piece of paper. Imagine if after Oslo we had something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,1 what a different path we could be on today?

    • 1According to its website, The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was "set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses." For more information see the TRC website at http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/trc_frameset.htm.

  • Do you have any model in mind for reconciliation?

    Personally, it's definitely Mandela for me, and it's definitely Gandhi,1 and it's definitely Martin Luther King. They are three people who have affected my life tremendously because, against all odds, they did things totally unexpected that were non-violent.

    • 1(1869-1948). Also known as Mahatma (meaning "great soul") Gandhi. Indian political and spiritual leader. For more information see the Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. at http://www.bartleby.com/65/ga/Gandhi-M.html

  • How do you expect to apply their model?

    With everything that we're talking about; it's the beginning of "people to people" and not "government to government." With those three leaders, it was the people that enabled the change to take place; people led by very inspiring leaders, that's true, but it came from the grassroots. Gandhi would have been nothing without the Indian people, and he inspired them to take the non-violent path. And look what they did: they got the British out after 200 years without killing everybody, except they killed Gandhi.1 The same with Martin Luther King, and the same with Mandela. I remember when Nelson Mandela came out of prison and he was speaking in a stadium. These people were standing there with sticks, to get revenge. He said, "take your sticks and throw them in the river, because that's not the path we're going to take." Pragmatically, he understood that the best thing for the South African people, for his people, would be to take a non-violent path.

    • 1Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in 1948.

  • But Mandela also chose to adopt a violent path as well.

    Sitting in jail for 30 years you would have expected him to come out in a very violent way, to look for revenge, but he didn't. I think that was his greatness. That is the part of him that inspires people to understand that you can actually forgive.

  • Do you think a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could work here?

    Not necessarily the same Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked in South Africa, but something along those lines, yes. It might have to be nation to nation, but yes, I do.

  • Do you think grassroots organizations will have a role in that?

    Sure. They would have to. I remember during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa these unbelievably painful stories came out, and the effect they had on people who didn't know, who didn't want to know. I don't accept the "I didn't know." I do accept the "I don't want to know and that's what makes me continue my life on a daily basis." How many Israelis know exactly what happens at a checkpoint and how many Palestinians understand the daily pain of living here, and what soldiers come out of the army with? Very few, but if you allow them to share their narratives, like in our group... if a person like Yakov Gutterman stood up and told the Palestinians that he came out of a Nazi concentration camp to live in Israel and he had a son here on kibbutz and that son died, was killed in the conflict... and you look at Khaled Abu-Awwad's family who were refugees from somewhere near Bet Shemesh1 and the life they have led and the loss of two brothers... when both of these narratives are told to Palestinians and to Israelis, will it be easier for us to have empathy for each other? That's where a Palestinian could stand up and say, "I understand, and I have empathy for the settlers because I know what it is to lose my home." Yes, I think there could be a reconciliation commission here.

    • 1A city located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel. Est. population 52,000, the majority of whom are Jewish citizens of Israel.

  • Is an outsider's role here important?

    If it's not a judgmental role. One of the biggest problems in the situation here is that people are either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. When you're pro something it makes you feel very good about yourself. I remember I was with Nadwa at a meeting at a Presbyterian church somewhere in Chicago where they weren't too keen on me. We were sitting at the dinner table and this guy leaned over to her and said, "You know, I'm very pro-Palestinian." So she said, "Well I don't know, where has that gotten me up to now?" There was something very deep in what she said, because being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian is like saying, the poor Palestinians or the poor Israelis and waving a flag. When somebody recognizes that the Palestinians and the Israelis aren't going to disappear and says, "Let's support Israel to get out of the Occupied Territories," I say they are supporting both sides. If this kind of non-judgmental interference would come from outside, I would be very happy. If it is an issue of taking sides it just causes more strife. You know, when you were a little child and you had a gang, and you got more supporters for your gang against the other gang, you felt a lot stronger so it gave you a lot of legitimacy to go out and be more violent. It works on both sides in the same situation. It just happens to be countries or bodies that happen to be pro one side or the other. We were in Italy for three weeks and we went to a conference there. The Europeans were very anti-Israeli, so hardly anybody spoke to me except the Palestinians. I met this wonderful Palestinian who wanted to talk to me and we sat on the steps to talk for a long time. I wanted very much to speak at the conference so I wrote down my name, my organization-- Parent's Circle, my country-- Israel. They [the organizers] kept putting my papers at the bottom of the pile. I saw Salwa, my friend from Ramallah looking at me; she looked at me and I looked at her and then she went to the table and asked them why they weren't allowing me to speak. It's pretty absurd that a Palestinian has to tell Europeans to let an Israeli speak. I stood up to speak and of course at that point I was pretty fired up. I said, "Perhaps you would like to meet the person behind this stigma. You all sit in judgment here but you don't know about what you are talking about. Let me tell you my story." I told them about David and the Parents Circle. I told them that taking sides doesn't have any effect whatsoever. There was this feeling that maybe there shouldn't be an Israel, and so I said, "Fine, you don't want an Israel? Do you want half a million Russians? Perhaps you would like 50,000 Ethiopians that are on the waiting list [to immigrate to Israel] or perhaps you would like the 20,000 Argentines who are on their way?1 Do you remember it was not so long ago in history that you didn't want any Jews. Are you ready to do that now? Because if you aren't, then you cannot say there is not to be any Israel." Not that there is any excuse in any way for the morally bad ways Israelis are behaving. When I look at the roads that Israel is constructing only for Israelis, that's not even what happened in the South African apartheid system.2 There is no excuse for that. On the other hand, there has to be an Israel.

    • 1Damelin is referring to the state of Israel's absorption of immigrants from various countries around the world. For comprehensive statistics related to Israel's immigration communities, see the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption's 2004 Immigration Data Summary at
    • 2Refers to Israeli-built bypass roads. Bypass roads refer to those roads that circumvent Palestinian population centers and checkpoints. Bypass roads are used to link Israeli settlements in the West Bank with one another as well as with Israel inside the Green Line. For more information on bypass roads see "Bypass Roads of the West Bank," Americans for Peace Now, http://www.peacenow.org/briefs.asp?rid=&cid=1214.

  • What do you want to see outsiders doing to be constructive here?

    I would like to see them create more situations of meetings between Palestinians and Israelis. I would like to see them support Israel to get out of the Occupied Territories, but through understanding and empathy. One of the best things that happened in the whole of the disengagement was Wolfensohn's1 plan to buy the hothouses from the settlers to give to the Palestinians. That was a win-win situation. That's what I call peace making because it created a sense of it being okay for the Israelis, a sense for the Palestinians of gaining something but also of being able to make a living. That's a peace maker.

    • 1Refers to former World Bank President James Wolfensohn who has served as an international envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been assisting the economic recovery of Gaza following the Gaza Disengagement in August/September of 2005. Wolfensohn helped secure $14 million dollars to pay Jewish settlers leaving Gaza so that they would leave their greenhouses intact to be used by Palestinian farmers. However, following the Gaza Disengagement, many of the greenhouses were destroyed and looted by Palestinians. See Joshua Mitnick. "Troubled Season for Gaza's Greenhouses," The Christian Science Monitor, 25 Oct 2005, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1025/p04s01-wome.html

  • What do you want people from outside to know?

    I want them to understand the suffering of the Palestinians and I want them also to know the suffering of the Israelis. I want them to look at us as human beings, not as armies, nations. Nothing. Just to look at us as human beings and to understand the pain that exists on both sides. Enough! The whole world should understand that for the benefit of both the Israelis and the Palestinians there will have to be a homeland for the Palestinians, Israel has to get out of the Palestinian territories because [the occupation] is destroying both sides. We all know that's what is going to happen in the end. The question is, how many people are going to have to die before that on both sides? How much more pain? How many more families are going join this bereaved circle? It has to stop.

  • What do you think of the criticism that joint work has become a big enterprise, with funding, like a business?

    Mainly you'll find that people who criticize are the people not doing anything. You cannot run an organization without funds. How could we run the seminar? If I look at my overdraft at the moment, I won't talk about that... The Palestinians are barely in a position to pay for a hotel for the weekend, so somebody has to sponsor that so we can get together to do the work. Somebody has to sponsor Palestinians and Israelis to travel to schools to put out the message. Somebody has to help with an advertising campaign so that people will know about the Hello-Peace line. So it's very nice to sit back and say, "You should all be volunteers." We are! But it takes some basic funds to run an organization. You cannot do the volume of work we are doing without somebody supporting you. You cannot create a series on television out of the pocket money we all have. You have to apply to somebody to get the bigger message out. Next year we have a television series for Palestinians and Israelis on Channel Two. How could we do that without the help of US aid? There is no way. So this isn't a business. Personally speaking, if I earned a lot of money I'd be very happy because then I wouldn't have to worry. But if I want that, I will go and work for an organization that can pay me that kind of money. Without the friends and the help of special people, there is no way we could continue what we are doing. We're having an exhibition in March called the Plate of Hope. It's a big dish painted by the top artists in Israel and Palestine with a vision of reconciliation in mind. We're going to sell the plates to continue our work. I don't know about other organizations, I can only talk for the Forum, but I cannot believe there are other organizations that can work without funds, unless it's something on a very, very small scale. I don't see that as a business. If that were a business we would all be living very nicely and making a large profit and I could sit at home and knit sweaters. But in the meantime that is hardly the situation