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Bereaved Parents for Peace
Published on Wednesday, November 27, 2002 by the Los Angeles Times
Bereaved Parents for Peace
Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children to the conflict make use of their moral authority to speak out together against hatred
by Tracy Wilkinson
 

RAANANA, Israel -- Both Israeli and Palestinian societies bestow a special, if undesired, status on parents whose children have been killed in conflict. It is an unhappy collective that has grown tremendously in a war now staggering through its third year.

Their status gives these families a moral authority to speak out, and a group of Israelis and Palestinians is using the platform to fight an atmosphere of hate. Calling themselves the Parents' Forum, they first came together seven years ago; what is remarkable is that they continue even now to meet and reach out to an increasingly resistant audience.

Their message is the antithesis of today's mainstream: No to revenge. Turn the other cheek. Peace over pain.

Choosing a potent symbol for one of their latest projects, they gave blood to the other side one day last month: Jerusalem resident Rami Elhanan and other Israeli parents trudged past their army's machine guns, across the dust-caked Kalandiya checkpoint, and donated blood at a Ramallah hospital. Palestinians did likewise at a Red Star of David emergency-services center in Jerusalem.

When Elhanan, a graphic designer whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing five years ago, went on Israeli TV that night to talk about it, the artist applying his makeup demanded: "How could you give blood to the enemy?"

That's a typical reaction, said Elhanan, a man of boundless energy and indomitable spirit.

"In Israel, bereaved families are sacred. We can say anything, do anything," he said. "We use this admiration to push a new way of thinking through a narrow hole .... The whole point of this is to show that if those who paid the price, the ultimate price, can talk to each other, then anyone can."

To prove the point, Elhanan and Palestinian lumber contractor Khaled Awwad drove to Ostrovsky High School in Raanana, a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv, on a recent sunny morning.

The Parents' Forum had written to dozens of schools offering to address pupils on the need for peace and reconciliation; only a few have taken them up on the offer. This was one of them, thanks largely to the principal, a former combat pilot who supports the project.

Elhanan is relaxed; he has spoken to such groups before. But it is the first time they'll bring a Palestinian to an Israeli school, and Awwad is both nervous and exhilarated.

Two of Awwad's brothers -- 14-year-old Said and 30-year-old Yusuf -- were killed within six months by Israeli soldiers who invaded their West Bank village of Beit Ummar during the current fighting. Awwad's mother, Fatima, a 60-year-old stalwart, joined the parents organization and then drew Khaled into its activities.

Standing before the chalkboard, Elhanan opens his talk to a classroom of 29 seniors, most of whom will be going into the army in a few months. They are slumped in their chairs. Most of them have their arms crossed.

He tells them that on the fourth of September -- 1997 -- Thursday -- at 3 p.m. -- a Palestinian suicide bomber killed his 13-year-old daughter Smadar as she shopped for school supplies in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. A friend with her was also killed. Another was seriously injured.

It gets their attention.

'Brother by Fate'

Elhanan introduces Awwad, "my brother by fate."

"Our pain is equal," Elhanan says.

Both men tell the students that the deaths in their families propelled them to pursue peace and reconciliation.

"After my first brother was killed," Awwad says, speaking in flawless, casual Hebrew, "I didn't want to see Jews anymore. My brain stopped working. But then I thought, that's not the solution. You kill me, I kill you -- it's not right. Then my second brother was killed. I have to tell you, they were my favorites of all my brothers.

"The first days were hateful, but then I calmed down. The solution is not to kill but to solve the reasons people kill."

The students are unusually attentive for a roomful of pre-lunch 17-year-olds. But they're not really buying the message.

"It's very encouraging to see people like you who want peace, but there is a minority that doesn't want peace, and they are the ones running things," says a girl with shoulder-length brown hair.

A boy in a black T-shirt and a headband says: "I know terrorist attacks don't just happen, that we've done things to them too. But what are we supposed to do when we get attacked, just sit there?"

The discussion grows heated. Voices are raised when Awwad describes the routine humiliation Palestinians meet at the hands of Israeli soldiers at roadblocks. Elhanan -- in calculated provocation -- compares the actions of a soldier whose recalcitrance forces a Palestinian mother to give birth at a roadblock to terrorism.

"How can you say that?" demands the boy with the headband. "That is your army! That soldier is there to protect you."

"OK, it's humiliating, it's not right," a blond girl tells Awwad. "If the Arabs want to criticize us, fine, but they don't have to come and kill us."

Awwad responds: "How can you expect us to live normally when we have soldiers on top of us?"

A student answers: "Because there are people who want to blow up my home."

The students come to one overriding conclusion: The visit and the discussion are interesting, but when will Elhanan and Awwad take the same message to a Palestinian school, where talk of reconciliation and tolerance is even more rare?

A good question. Awwad tells the students he has been planning just such a visit, and he says he is certain that the Palestinian youths will be receptive. But later, he confides to a reporter that he won't be able to speak to a school without permission from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Elhanan is enthusiastic but acknowledges that it could take a long time to make arrangements on the Palestinian side, where schools -- and everything else -- are in utter disarray.

Finally, a girl with long brown hair and a white tank top asks Awwad: "Are there other Palestinians like you?"

He pauses, then answers: "There are many who believe in peace, but they don't necessarily come out and say it. We have no democracy. People are afraid of [Islamic radical groups] Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If you're seen talking with the Jews, you will be seen as a collaborator."

"So what can you do?" the girl asks.

"We can only do what we are doing," he says, "talking a lot and supporting each other and encouraging people from both sides to come out. And maybe one day we will have the strength to reach the decision-makers and to change things."

While Elhanan and Awwad were addressing this group, four other members of the parents organization -- all Israeli Jews -- spoke to other classes. Perhaps because a Palestinian was not present, several of those students chose not to mince words about Arabs. One later confronted Awwad as he and the Israeli members of the group were leaving the campus.

"We can't ever have peace with them," the student said loudly. "We have to throw them all out of here. That's the only solution."

Awwad shrugged it off. Elhanan, a bit chagrined, still sought the silver lining. If he had raised any doubts or prompted any questioning in any young mind, or challenged the prevailing myths, then he had been successful.

"I feel stronger coming from here," he said. "I'm not fooling myself. There's a lot to change and a long way to go. But I come away with some hope."

Conservative to Peacenik

The Parents' Forum is the brainchild of Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose beloved "blue-eyed, golden-haired" son, a soldier, was kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 1994.

About 150 Israelis and 100 Palestinians are members. Their numbers were initially swelled by new deaths during the current conflict, then eroded by feelings of betrayal and hate that have driven even peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians apart.

Most of its Israeli members come from a tradition of leftist, secular politics. Not Frankenthal. He is an Orthodox Jew who wears a large kippa, or yarmulke, atop waves of gray hair. His journey from a world of pious conservatism to his mission today as a peacenik was a long one.

"I do not love Palestinians -- they killed my son," he once told The Times. "But I have respect for Palestinians as a people and give to them the dignity that I would give to an Israeli."

In many ways, Frankenthal's spiritual counterpart on the Palestinian side is Awwad's mother, Fatima. An oft-jailed fighter for Palestinian rights, her journey was also a long one.

Sorrow from losing a child, she said, became the cement that bonded the Awwads to Frankenthal, Elhanan and the other Israelis. It fed not revenge for them, but mutual empathy and yearning for peace.

"All Jews are not the same -- nor are all Arabs," she said in the living room of her home in Beit Ummar, about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. Hair covered, and dressed in the embroideries typical of the southern Judean hills, she smoked steadily and defiantly, an unusual gesture of independence for a woman of her generation. "Both families have lost children and can sit together. Maybe that will help people go toward peace."

It is not necessarily easy, she allowed.

"When I talk about peace, it's as if I'm holding a piece of burning coal in my hand, and I close it tight," she said. "I have to just put aside the fact that I've lost a son."

About 50 Israeli Jews traveled to Beit Ummar earlier this year to meet with the Awwads and other bereaved Palestinian parents. Elhanan and the other Israelis gush over the meeting, an extremely rare encounter in today's atmosphere. But it created a number of difficulties for the Palestinians.

For it to take place at all, the Awwads secured permission from Arafat, and then spoke to representatives of local militias to ensure the safety of the Israelis. Still, several townspeople protested: How can you talk to "the enemy" when we cannot even leave our village to see a doctor? they demanded.

Beit Ummar, a quiet village of 13,000 people famous for its grapes ("as sweet as the women of Beit Ummar"), has been completely cut off for most of the last two years of conflict.

The Israeli army blocked its entrances to protect a main north-south road used by Jewish settlers who are the target of frequent ambushes by Palestinian gunmen. Villagers can only enter or exit on foot. The eldest Awwad son, Yusuf, was killed when he argued with Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint.

The cemetery where he is buried, in a vault closed by a pile of stones, is full of such "martyrs," Palestinians killed by Israelis.

The Awwads are part of what Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki calls a "vanguard" who not only speak out but are willing to join forces with Israelis despite the danger. Though a minority now, the vanguard will ultimately serve as the basis for any coexistence, Shikaki says.

The Awwads depend on their family's status as longtime participants in the resistance to Israeli occupation, and the losses they've suffered, to protect them from retribution.

"Our family has spent years in the struggle," Khaled Awwad said, seated next to Fatima. It was the first day he had been home since the trip to the Raanana school because Israel had closed the roads, trapping him in Bethlehem to the north. His six children fawned on their father.

"Nobody can come and say a word against us," he said. "They cannot claim that I am doing something against my people. I lost two brothers. You cannot lose the blood of your brothers and be accused of collaborating.

"I'm not ashamed to say I want peace with the Jews. I don't care if they accuse me of being an informer or a traitor. My brain tells me, my soul tells me, this is the only way."

An Uphill Battle

Elhanan, speaking later at his home in the comfortable Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, said the criticism suffered by Israeli members of the group is nothing compared to what Awwad and the Palestinian members go through.

Is the whole thing a losing battle? Maybe.

Elhanan invokes a phrase that he uses often, both in his public speaking and in private conversations. "I'm trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon," he says.

Elhanan's living room is a shrine to his daughter. Eighteen photographs of the girl, from babyhood to her 13th and final year, cover the walls and tabletops. The family wants "to be surrounded" by her, he says.

Elhanan's wife and Smadar's mother, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, has emerged as a prominent peace activist. Always an outspoken leftist, she has used the platform to speak out against Israeli occupation and for an end to decades of conflict.

She is an unwilling activist in this particular battle, she says, but she does it because "it's part of being a parent. Nothing more than that."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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