Bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families have told the JC of their shared determination to work together for peace as fallen soldiers and victims of terror are remembered on Yom HaZikaron.
They are part of the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organisation.
Founded in 1995 and dedicated to reconciling communities through education to achieve peace, it is now made up of more than 600 families who have lost a loved one in the conflict.
Layla Alshekh lost her six-month-old son Qusay in 2002 during the Second Intifada. He was exposed to tear gas used by Israeli soldiers in front of the family’s house in Bethlehem.
She and her husband took their child to hospital in Hebron but, after a five-hour delay at a checkpoint, it was too late.
She told the JC: “The doctors said the tear gas had caused irreversible damage to his lungs, heart and brain.”
Layla, 44, says she was filled with rage for years but has never succumbed to the temptation of vengeance: “We decided not to tell our kids what happened to their baby brother. I was afraid that they would seek revenge if they knew what happened to him.”
Fifteen years after Qusay’s death, a friend suggested she should attend a PCFF meeting in Bethlehem.
“In the beginning I was very frustrated when I saw the Israelis there. But then I saw how they hugged each other, like family. And when I heard them share their stories, I realised that we were in the same situation. It was the first time I really saw them as human beings.
“When I started telling my story, all the anger and frustration came up, and I couldn’t go through with it.
“I just started crying. Then one of the Israeli mothers in the group came up to me and started apologising.
“She said she understood my pain, and started crying while she hugged me. It was so moving.
It was the first time someone really understood me. From that moment I decided to be a member of the forum.”
Two years later, she decided to tell her five children what happened to Qusay. “They were in shock when I told them initially. And they asked me how I could be part of such an organisation.
“But last year, I spoke at the PCFF’s annual memorial event, and my kids waited for me until I came home.
“They told me they finally understood what I was doing, and how proud they were of me. And my husband, well he has supported me in this from the beginning. He actually encouraged me to join the PCFF.
“The same night that my son died, I dreamt that a white dove came and sat on my shoulder. It said, ‘Mamma don’t cry, I’m so happy.’ I initially thought it was a sign that my son was happy in heaven. But after I became a peace activist, I understood that the dream was meant to tell me what my mission in life was. To promote peace. ”
David Damelin was teaching philosophy in 2002 when he was called up for duty by the Israeli army.
His mother, Robi Damelin, told the JC: “He didn’t want to go because he had to serve in the Occupied Territories [West Bank]. ”
He was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, aged 27.
Robi, 78 remembers: “One of the first things I told the Israeli soldiers who came to tell me David had been killed was that they could not kill anyone in the name of my child.
“I joined the PCFF soon after that and went to an event where I got to look into the eyes of the Palestinian mothers, and realised we shared the same pain.
“I started travelling all over the world with a Palestinian partner, talking about reconciliation and non-violence.”
One night IDF soldiers knocked on her door again: “They came to tell me they had caught the man who killed David. That’s when it became really difficult to do this work.
“You can travel around the world, preach love and peace and read rubbish poetry. But do you really mean it?”
The sniper, Tha’ir Kayid Hamad, had killed 10 people and was sentenced to life in prison.
Robi believes he wanted to take revenge after seeing an uncle killed by Israeli forces.
She recalls: “After three months of not sleeping at night, I decided to write a letter to the family of the sniper. I told them all about the PCFF. It took about three years before I received an answer. It was from Tha’ir.
“He said I was crazy, that I should stay away from his family and that he killed 10 people to free Palestine. That was a moment where I gave up being a victim. My life was no longer dependent on what Tha’ir would do, or if he would be sorry. It was a sense of being free to do the work I wanted. ”
Robi travelled back to her home country of South Africa to learn the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in the aftermath of apartheid.
She explains: “I met an extraordinary woman whose daughter had been killed, and she told me that forgiving is giving up your just pride for revenge. ”
Today, Robi is PCFF Director of International Relations. “Some bereaved parents build monuments, some of them die with their children, not physically.
“And others, like me, want to educate and for their grandchildren to be safe. There is no revenge for a lost child.
“If there was something that could bring David back, even for five minutes, I would probably do it. But there isn’t.
“I keep saying that one Palestinian killed my child, not the whole Palestinian nation.”