The Parents Circle / by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

“God alone knows when blood will stop raining on our land. – It’s all up to India. As they say in India, “Birth right”. And we are only claiming our right. Freedom. – Freedom… Gandhi won it for India… Not the gun. The gun only knows how to avenge… Commander… Revenge does not set you free… True freedom lies beyond violence.. Remember… Revenge only begets revenge.” – Vishal Bhardwaj, Haider

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The Parents Circle is an organization that was formed by people from Israel and Palestine who have lost a relative in the conflict to promote reconciliation. In order to prevent further bereavement and to promote dialog, the Parents Circle organizes activities, workshops and conferences with Israelis and Palestinians through an educative approach. The non-profit organization, that is mostly financed by USAID and the European Union, has been awarded twenty-one times by local and international organizations and Robi Damelin, the spokeperson of The Parents Circle, has been awarded as one of the fifty women who have made the biggest impact in the world in 2015 by the New-York Times. 

 

The first time I encountered the Parent Circle was in Tel Aviv. I met Robi from Israel and Aisha from Palestine in a center where they had planned to give a workshop for a group of American teachers in conflict resolution. Since the group was late, I began by taking some time to interview Aisha because she had to leave early due to protests in the West Bank that were triggered by the conference of Jared Kushner in Bahrain. Aisha began by telling me that she had lost a brother in the conflict in 2005 because he had been shot in the heart by the Israeli army. Soon after, she lost a second brother that felt down from the fifth floor of a building. She was convinced that he had died of sadness… As a reaction, she had been to a meeting of the Parents Circle. At that time, she was thirty-five and she had never met any Israeli. She went there mostly to have a look and see what was the Parents Circle. But she did also discover who the Israeli were because she only knew about the soldiers, not about their humanity. During these meetings, she met many Israelis, including Robi. They had a diner together and Robi told her that she had lost a child in the conflict. During this meeting, she felt a lot of empathy for Robi from Israel because she felt that losing a child was not something normal. So, Aisha decided to be involved in the Parent Circle and she started by leading a group of women. I asked her about her motivations and she told me that, after losing two brothers, if she could come and seat with the Israelis, then, everybody could do the same. She did not want the violence to continue and to make it happen, she had to do her part in stopping the cycles of vengeance and blood. She considered that Israel and Palestine were two nations who had to agree and find a solution because there was no benefit for the people. They were just stones on tables for their leaders. Curious to know how she intended to do that, I asked her how she was planning to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. So, she mentioned the “Dual Narrative Project” from the Parent Circle. The last group that had been running comprised teachers, psychologists,“etc..” from both sides. Together, they had reached the level of understanding each other’s motivation. I asked her if it was about a process of rehumanization and she replied that it was a “kind of learning”. In her opinion, we needed to learn to look at the others without thinking they were our enemies. For example, the Israelis were not the enemies of the Palestinians but the occupation was. It was not the individual from the sides but the consequences of the actions of the collective that were defined as the sides. She added that to claim for her own rights, she had to agree for the rights of the others. The Israelis had the right to live in security as much as the Palestinians had the right to live in freedom. That’s what respect was about. And respect was what the two sides missed. Before she met Israelis for the first time, she saw Israeli soldiers as her enemies. Just soldiers who came to the villages and hanged around while arresting and killing people. Since she had met Israelis for the first time, she had begun to try to find the humanity of these soldiers. Sometimes, she found it despite their hatred. But she also saw the same hatred in the eyes of Palestinians. She concluded with the example of her daughter. She had raised her to respect Israelis and, at that present day, she was proud of her daughter who had become an extraordinary person. Because, she said, the hatred finds its roots in the education given by the families.

After that chat, the American teachers arrived and took a seat. They began the meeting by introducing themselves. Most of them were academician in the field of conflict resolution. Then Aisha began to talk first and asked: “What is the benefit of this? Who wants more of this?” She mentioned Robi who was sitting next to her and said: “In the normal picture, she is my enemy. But in the deep picture, she is my partner.” After that, Robi began her talk. She explained that her son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper. Then, she came back to her youth. She was born in South Africa during the Apartheid against which she had been militating. Because South Africa had become dangerous, she emigrated to Israel in 1967 to support Israelis after the Six Days war. She did not intend to stay there but she got married and never left. When her son David went to the army, he signed a letter to say that he did not wanted to serve in the West Bank because he did not agree with the occupation. When he was killed, Robi decided to meet Palestinian mothers who had lost their children. She said about them: “They share the same pain. Their tears are the same colors.” One day, the army knocked at her door to say that they had found and arrested the sniper. “You can go around the world and talk about peace but when (this) happens to you…” she said. So, she went to South Africa and met both the perpetrators and victims of the Apartheid in the context of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”because she was looking for the meaning of forgiveness. She met a woman who had lost her daughter and had forgiven the perpetrators. She asked her what forgiving was about and the woman replied: “It’s giving up the legit right of revenge.” After being forgiven, these perpetrators had replied to the woman: “By forgiving us, you released us from the prison of our inhumanity.” 

After that, Robi talked about meetings that she had attended with Israelis before they were going to the army. None of them had never met any Palestinian in their life. She explained that when she was trying to organize meetings in school, they usually had problems with the teachers “because they’re adults and they have a political opinion.” She then explained how important it was to have empathy about how the others saw History. She added that she said that especially to that group because they were Americans and America was, at that time (and still is while I’m writing these lines (July 2019)), overly polarized. She continued her talk and mentioned those who came to Israel to take sides. This was what created the hatred and she had a message for them: “If you can’t be part of the solution, leave us (Israeli and Palestinians) alone.” She illustrated her example by mentioning the so called “pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians”. She had a message for them as well: “You think that because you took sides, millions of people are going to disappear in a buffer of smoke?” Aisha added before she left: “We don’t need people to vote for Israelis or for Palestinians. We want them to vote for peace.” Finally, Robi explained that the long-term goal of the organization was to create a framework for reconciliation: “I believe that the occupation is killing the moral fiber of this country. There is a lot of violence in our society and I want Israel to be a moral country. I love this country.”

A dozen of days later, I met a group of the “Dual Narrative Project” in the abandoned village of Liftah. This village had a particular significance in the Palestinian narrative of the 1948 war because the people who were living there had been expelled by the Israeli army. The group that was meeting there was made of both Israelis and Palestinians. They had met before during a weekend to get to know each other and both the Palestinian and the Israelis had met separately to be briefed and learn how to communicate without offending. Two weeks after that, they were planning to visit the Yad Vashem monument that commemorated the six millions Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This project that had been going on for approximately ten years had already hosted dozens of groups. According to Rakefet, the responsible person for that visit, the goal was to create peace by getting to know the narrative of the other side. The hope was to change something in both communities through these activities in order to create a bottom up effect of the people influencing their politicians in both sides so the occupation could be ended and peace accomplished. However, this program faced some difficulties since some Palestinians were sometimes refused the permit to go to Jerusalem and, sporadically, the security situation in the Holy Land prevented the groups to meet.

When the group arrived, they greeted each other with smiles and kindness. To say “Hi” to each other, the words “Salam” were replied by “Shalom”. However, a Palestinian child looked terrified to see the Israelis. The group gathered in an abandoned building where they were given an earphone for the translation. The Parent Circle had hired two instant translator to facilitate communication between the Hebrew and Arabic speakers. Then, the guide who was a Palestinian from an organization (called “We remember”) that gathers data about villages that were expelled during the 1948 war, began to explain what the village of Liftah was about. To do so, he had brought a map that pointed all the villages where Palestinians had been expelled from during the 1948 war. The man explained the history of the villages and what “Al Nakba” (an Arabic translation of “The Disaster”that is used to mention the Palestinian commemoration of the 1948 war that happens on the same day that the Israeli Independence Day)meantto the people in the room. At the same time, a Hebrew translator was giving translations for the Israelis. During that time, an Israeli said that he was told that the people who had been expelled had left on their own. There were also debates about the Hebrew origin of the name of the village. One argued that the Hebrew name was given thousands of years ago before the Arabs came to the Holy Land. The guide also explained that Tel Aviv, the biggest city of Israel used to be a neighborhood of Jaffa before it extended to the big city that it had become after the first Jewish settlers came to the Holy Land and that the university of Tel Aviv had been built on the site of what was before a Palestinian cemetery. The Israelis said that they did not knew much about “Al Nakba” and that was why they had come. In the conversation, allegations were given that evidence of the evictions of Palestinians from the villages had been destroyed. The guide said that, at least seventy-five percent of the evictions had been done by force while, in the other cases, the people cooperated with the Israeli military forces. The guide gave some examples of how the people were expelled. He said that the army brought buses and asked to the people to leave. He added that massacres also happened but a lot of documentation had been hidden. Someone asked why not everybody had been expelled. (Indeed, there were a lot of Palestinian living within Israel with Israeli citizenship while I was writing these lines (August 2019)). The guide replied that it was because the evictions were not an official policy. It had been done for reasons that were specific to each place where it had happened. However, he said that at the Lebanese border, the policy was to expel everyone. The guide explained that the people that had been expelled had become refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or in the West Bank and others had integrated in villages that had not been evicted. He said that these who had integrated in other Israeli villages represented twenty-five percent of the Palestinian refugees. Then, the guide switched back to the subject of Liftah itself. He explained that a lot of places of the contemporary Jerusalem were part of the outskirts of Liftah and were considered in the international peace plan proposed by the United Nations. He then explained that the army had taken the village while being on the way to Jerusalem to assist Israelis that were surrounded by Palestinians. On the way, they had attacked and been attacked by villagers of the villages that were on the way. At the end of the presentation, an old Israeli man took a bag and asked everyone to gather the waste that was in the abandoned house to clean the place. I wanted to take a picture of that moment but, due to pressures and threats within the Palestinian society against meeting and normalizing relationships with Israelis, I was not allowed. “Palestinian people, no picure.”  

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 After that, we moved to what used to be the mosque and the school of the village. The guide explained that despite the fact that there was no minaret, he had been able to discover that it was the mosque thanks to the archived tax records of the Ottoman Empire that used to rule the Holy Land. He added that, when people lived in Liftah, the mosque did not had a high rate of frequentation since the people of Liftah were not so much into religion. The guide also, explained that, at that present day, Liftah was located in a natural reserve but some Israelis had tried to build a real estate project there that had been refused by a court. When we left the abandoned mosque, I asked to Mira, my personal translator (since I was the only one that did not understand neither Hebrew or Arabic), how she felt about the visit and she said: “That’s not my Zionism.” We kept walking in the village and we passed by a group of Jewish Orthodox that were hiding to smoke the shisha. We arrived to a waterpoint where the rest of the group of Jewish Orthodox were bathing in the waters. The guide finished his tour there and everyone applauded. We walked back in the direction of the bus and I took some time to discuss with Rakefet. She explained me what I wrote here above and added that some of the participants (mostly Palestinians) were hiding to their relatives that they were participating in this visit.

 

Personally, I could feel that, despite the willingness of everybody in the group to get to know each other and share about their history, the trust between both sides of the group was not yet a reality. What surprised me the most was that, when we left the village, Israelis and Palestinians were separated in two different buses. I must also admit that, since I did not speak either Arabic or Hebrew, I could not really understand if the people there were getting along together or not. For a person that was completely stranger to the situation like me, this could have looked like a group of tourists that were enjoying their day together and, indeed, my brain got into that confusion several times. On the other hand, I hoped that, one day, the illusion of this group being tourists having fun together will become a reality.


We drove for some time, crossed a checkpoint and entered the West Bank where we stopped at a restaurant to share humus all together. After that, the two sides of the same group were separated again to gather in a room to talk about their experience in Liftah. At first, I sat in the room with the Israelis. A man was there to moderate the discussion and I sat in a corner with the people from the Parents Circle to take notes in French of what my translator translated to me in English and that I’ve translated again in English as a list here under:

·     A woman said that she already knew the history of Liftah but that going with Palestinians gave her a new perception. 

·     A man said that he was sixty-four and that he had never been there. He saw the village as a statue that commemorated the past. He added that the guide had promoted the atmosphere between the two groups. Then, he concluded that rather being split on the past, Israelis and Palestinians should see the future together.

·     A woman said that even the language was not a barrier. She asked herself how the Palestinians felt during the visit. She had never heard of Liftah before. 

·     A woman said that she did not wanted to be in the superficial and that she wanted to learn to know the Palestinians in deepness. She added that if Liftah and “Al Nakbah” did not sensitize one, then there was no need to go further.

·     A man said that he had grew up around Liftah and that this place had just been described to him as an “Arab village” without being given any meaning about it. On that day, he had finally understood and even as a “leftist” the term “Al Nakbah” had no meaning to him. However, he had finally understood the meaning. He added that the Palestinians did not even had to express themselves so that the Israelis would understand. 

·     A woman said that she felt pain and that this pain was empathy. She had been touched by a Palestinian who had asked her how she felt during the visit to which she had replied: “What do we do now?” Then, she added that none could change the past.

·     A man said that the visit had brought some things back together in his head.

·     A man said that he knew the story of “Al Nakbah” but said that “We Remember” (the organization of the guide) had a political agenda that consisted of promoting the return of Palestinian refugees which was a complicated question for Israelis. 

·     A woman said that she considered that what was important was not Liftah itself but the fact of spending time with Palestinians. She then explained her own experience. She grew up nearby one of these villages and her house had been built on the Palestinian land. She met a Palestinian girl whose family originated from there and she would like to show her the land. She could not explain why but that encounter made her feel uncomfortable. 

·     A woman said she was surprised by learning the number of Palestinians that had been evicted.

·     The moderator reminded the group that the History (that was told to Israelis) was only explained through one point of view.

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 After that, I moved in the room where the Palestinians were. There, the atmosphere was quite different. They were sitting here and there and listening to music while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Somehow, they were enjoying the relief of having been able to explain their feelings to the Israelis that were in the other room. I sat with them and exchanged some words with their translator who called himself a refugee. He explained me that, to him, Liftah was a remnant of what he considered as home. He thought it was good to show that to Israelis. After that conversation, I joined a group of women to have another chat. One of them told me that it was good that Israelis came so that they knew what happened to Palestinians in the past and what was happening in the present as well. She also insisted to thank me for coming.

 

The next and last step of that day was probably the hardest. After both groups had debriefed, they were expected to gather in a room together to have a conversation. Before that, they were shown a video of a Palestinian refugee from Liftah who had come to visit the ruins of the village. At the end of the video, the moderator of the conversation asked if anyone had anything to say. The following points are what my translator told me what was being said during the conversation:

·      A Palestinian man mentioned another Palestinian who was not able to come because he had not been given the permit to leave the West Bank by the Israeli authorities. This same man had reacted by saying: “If I want to fight for peace, how am I gonna do that?”

·      A Palestinian man mentioned the video that has just been shown and said that evictions had happened in many other villages.

·      An Israeli woman mentioned an activity that her organization was trying to do for twenty Palestinians to come to Tel Aviv. They did not get the permit. She also explained the story of an Israeli soldier who had protected a Palestinian mother and her child.

·      An Israeli woman said how lovely it was to have received such a warm greeting by the Palestinians and that she was grateful for it. It felt almost like a family that had welcomed her to their place that was devasted by her soldiers. She said it hurt her (that it had been devastated). She also said that Israelis needed to know about it and that it should not be forgotten.

·      An Israeli man said that it was so nice that one of the Palestinians helped him to walk. He really felt good about it. A Palestinian man had hugged him and he had such a warm reception. He said that this narrative of what had happened to the Palestinian was not really new to him and that it hurt him. He had already seen and even possessed the map with the abandoned villages. The map was actually hanging in the office of his son. He was trying to feel during the visit how the village was when people lived there. He said that every time he had heard about the refugees coming back, he thought that people could come back to Liftah. It could be a place that lived again. However, there were many other abandoned villages where coming back was not a realistic request. He did not know what to do for these villages but for Liftah, it was possible. He mentioned the new Palestinian city of Rawabi (in the West Bank) and said that many people could go back and live there in the brand-new buildings. He did not know completely how things could go forward but that was something he had been thinking about during the visit.

·      A Palestinian woman said that she had heard about the abandoned villages through her family. When they had been to the mosque of Liftah, it reminded her of the mosque of Zacharia where her family was from. She had heard a lot of stories from her family… She added that she knew that the Israelis that were in the room had not participated in the war in 1948 and that it hurt them. But she was glad that they had all been together. She thanked everybody for coming. She said that she was not angry at the Israelis in the room because it was not their fault. But, on the other hand, what was good is that they could now all imagine together what it once was to live there. She said to the Israelis that their grandparents could tell them about the places where they lived (before the Holocaust) and that Palestinians were feeling the same pain when their grandparents told them about where they lived. She also said that the buildings proved that the people from Liftah were living a good life and that they had no reason to leave (as the narrative of the Palestinians leaving by themselves would say.)

·      An Israeli woman said that her mother lived in Paris and that the Germans expelled her. So, yes, she also had this kind of memories from her family. But Because her family was expelled from somewhere did not mean that others should be expelled as well. She was sorry and it was very important to her to be there. It was very hard for her to see a place that was once alive. She did not know the solution but she considered that it was important to be together.

·      An Israeli man said that more than to learn and to get educated, he had come to feel. He said that, even if it was not an easy experience, it was the best way to do it. It was not so much about the narrative but to feel and to be together that mattered. He did not had any solutions but they had to go through this process to find one.

·      A Palestinian woman said that she felt sadness. She said that she was afraid and felt fear of being expelled from where she lived. She asked why did the Israelis had to make people leave instead of just living with them in peace. She asked why they could not just live together instead of fearing about killings and wars.

·      An Israeli woman said that felt apathetic. It did not get into her emotions. She did not feel emotional. She said that she was very connected to the conflict in her job but did not felt emotionally connected on that day. She apologized for not feeling connected. 

·      An Israeli man said that for him, it was a real “Wow!”. He had never been in a village like that. He said that they both (Israelis and Palestinians) had to keep it as a memory and that it (the abandoned village(s)) needed to stay. He said that the story of 1948 had to be told and should not be destroyed. His fantasy was to have a group of Palestinians and Israelis making it a museum for the kids to visit. He also said that while Ben Gurion (the founder of Israel) saw Jewish and Arabs as equals, all the leaders had given the direction for this war to continue even if they professed peace. This frustrated him.

·      The Israeli woman who said that she did not felt emotionally connected went into a conversation with a Palestinian woman who asked her why she did not felt anything because it hurt her feelings to hear that. The Israeli woman replied that it was not that she did not care but that she was afraid of opening herself up. She felt a barrier inside her. One Palestinian woman said in English: “I understand now”

·      A Palestinian woman said that she did not understood why the people could not come back, live there (in Liftah) and take care of the buildings. She said that she did not needed their (the Israelis) money or them (the Israelis) “to do it for us”(the Palestinians). She added that this was not just about Liftah but many other things including massacres and rapes. She said that we should not forget about those stories as well. She said that she was probably not going to sleep well after that day because she would be thinking of the kids that were playing in Liftah and how that place was when alive. She got even more angry. She stood up and start walking around the group while she was talking. Nothing would stop her. Her anger was so rough that it felt like her emotions affected the intensity of the lightning in the room at the rhythm of her words that were coming one after the other at an incredible pace. She told the Israelis to go back to Europe because they (the Palestinians) did not needed nor wanted them in the Holy Land. It was their land, their Palestine. She said to the Israelis not to tell her about their mother that had been expelled from Paris because there were millions of expelled Palestinians. 

·      An Israeli woman replied that millions of Jewish were killed as well.

·      The Palestinian girl that was angry replied that the Palestinians were not the one who did that to them (the Jewish). Then, she said that she would have liked to stay in Liftah for the night.

·      A Palestinian man asked her in which house and all the room laughed including the angry Palestinian woman. 

·      An Israeli woman said that the point was not if the people were going to come back or not in this village, even if she had empathy and admitted that one being pushed out of its home is the worst. She said (to the one who was angry) that she could very much understand the pain and that she felt confused. But, she also said, there was no point as well in trying to compare who was the more hurt because nobody would win in this competition. The point was to have an attitude that would allow them all not to go back to the past. She added that both sides were similar in so many ways, like cousins. She asked how they could find these similarities to build together. 

·      An Israeli woman said that being Israeli or Palestinian did not matter since we were all human beings. She said that the other side being a frustration was also something that they had in common. She said that, indeed, the Jews conquered. But not because they were bad people but because there was a war. She added that there were other occupations in the world too…

·      An Israeli woman said that she was born and educated abroad so she could understand the Palestinian narrative easily. She said that she stood with the Palestinians on that specific day. She said that the significance of the day was to be there together and to try.

·      An Israeli man said that it was very interesting because what the Israeli education system said about these villages was very different. He added that to recognize that it was an Israeli initiative to evict the people from these villages was an important first step.

·      The Palestinian woman who had earlier been angry said that the people who evicted the villages were not an army but gangs. One Israeli replied: “What about the Arab gangs and their suicide bombers in the buses?” So, someone interrupted both to say: “The gangs of both sides.” 

·      A Palestinian man said that they (Israelis and Palestinians from that group) had to build slowly so everybody had a chance to say what they wanted to say. He added that it was important from everybody to hear from everyone else. 

 

When that discussion was over, we stepped back in the buses. I went with the Israelis so that they could drop me in Tel Aviv to catch a flight the same evening. When I arrived at the airport, a security agent decided to perform an advanced security check on me because, I guess, my profile looked suspect. To do so, he confiscated my passport, asked me a few questions and went for a walk with my passport. He came back, asked me a few more questions and went back for a walk. He pretended to be my friend to ask me more questions and, again, went back for a short walk with my passport. (Funny right?) He did that several times again and again and again… There was even another agent who came and shaked my hand while pretending to be my friend as well before asking me what I did in Ramallah a few days before. This process went on for more than an hour and was followed by an extended search of my bags. When I was finally able to reach the plane, I took my seat thinking that it was time to solve this conflict because the youth of Israel deserved to do something more intelligent for a living than confiscating passports to walk around with them.