(L to R) Bassam Aramin and Robi Damelin. CREDIT: Gusta Johnson
(L to R) Bassam Aramin and Robi Damelin. CREDIT: Gusta Johnson

Reconciliation, not Revenge for Israelis and Palestinians

Sep 29, 2015

In this emotional and inspiring interview, Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Bassam Aramin discuss their work with the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians. Having both lost a child to the struggle, they say reconciliation is the necessary step to end conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

ALEX WOODSON: Hello. My name is Alex Woodson, and I'm a producer and editor at Carnegie Council.

Today, I'm here with Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization made up of more than 600 bereaved families. The common bond among the people in the group is that they have lost a close family member to the conflict, but instead of choosing revenge, they have chosen a path of reconciliation. Through meetings and workshops, members of the group share their stories and try to humanize what they had maybe once seen as the enemy.

Robi, an Israeli, and Bassam, a Palestinian, are members and international spokespeople for the group. They got in touch with us after we published an article on the Carnegie Council website about the group, written by journalist Peter Singer.

Thank you both for coming.

ROBI DAMELIN: Thank you.


ALEX WOODSON: Robi, I want to start with you. In an article that you recently wrote in Huffington Post you say, "When the army came to my door to tell me that David [your son] had been killed, apparently the first thing I said was, 'You may not kill anyone in the name of my son.'"

I just need to ask you, where did you get this perspective from?

ROBI DAMELIN: I've absolutely no idea. I didn't even know that I'd said it, until several years later somebody told me. It's probably also my whole background, coming from South Africa, being very much influenced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and understanding that the man who killed David didn't kill him because he was David; he killed him because he was there in the occupied territories; he killed him because he was doing reserve duty. That's very hard to say, but it's actually the truth.

The thing is that in many ways there is a kind of culpability—that is a very hard thing to say, also—because, after all, we all benefit—that is, the Israelis benefit, very much so—from the occupation. Now, I love Israel, please don't get me wrong. But it's my duty to say that what is happening is killing the moral fiber. You cannot occupy a country for so many years and not expect it to affect who you are.

David was a student at Tel Aviv University. He was studying for his Master's in the philosophy of education. He was part of the peace movement. Of course, he was in a real quandary about whether he should serve in the reserves or not.

All Israelis who have been in the Army have to serve every year for several weeks. When he was called up to go and serve in the occupied territories, he was really, really worried. He didn't want to do that because he didn't want to serve in the occupied territories.

You don't know who the person is behind the gun, do you? He came to talk to me and he said, "If I don't go, what will happen to my students?" He was teaching philosophy as part of the peace movement. "If I don't go, what will happen to my soldiers?" because he was the officer. "And if I do go, then I will treat everybody with dignity, and so will all my soldiers."

I didn't understand that at all, until some years later I met a Palestinian at a lecture I was giving in Tel Aviv. He wanted to talk to me. He said that he had driven through that checkpoint the day before and he met David, this beautiful young boy that came and stood at his window and said, "I have to see your papers. It's my duty. I'll do it as fast as possible," and they got into a conversation. He said, "The next day, when I heard that your son had been killed, I was really sorry."

You see, this is what makes the essence of all the work that we are doing. It's because he saw the humanity in David. That's the work that we do. And when you recognize the humanity, that is really the beginning and the end of conflict.

ALEX WOODSON: That's very touching.

Bassam, I want to turn to you now. Your journey is a little different. You were involved in the Palestinian struggle and you spent some time in prison. Your daughter was killed as a result of the conflict. But you turned to the Parents Circle. So how did you change from someone who was involved in the struggle, maybe resorted to violent means or thought about violent means? How did you change into someone who is such a big part of this group that preaches nonviolence?

BASSAM ARAMIN: In fact, I didn't stop struggling. I continued to struggle, but in a different way.

Yes, I spent seven years in the Israeli jails when I was 17 years old. I'm a co-founder of a Palestinian-Israeli group called Combatants for Peace, which is ex-Israeli soldiers and officers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, with ex-Palestinian freedom fighters or prisoners, who joined their forces and decided to lay down their weapons, and they started to talk.

Two years later, I lost my 10-year-old daughter, Abir. Then I came to know the Parents Circle. I heard about them. One of our members was a co-founder of Combatants for Peace. But in your worst dream, you don't want to join this wonderful group. When this happened, directly I joined them because I knew them. It's a longer process, how to change your way of thinking, to make peace with yourself and to understand what you want, to understand that you belong to mankind; we are not animals, there is a different way to solve conflicts and problems, and not only to continue killing each other.

I have a Master's degree about the Holocaust, for example, which started as a tool of struggle to know your enemy, in order to know how to defeat him or how to kill him. Again, it's a longer process. In one point you need to decide that you are not going to continue this way anymore because it doesn't work.

So I started, after I was released in 1994, not to support the armed struggle because it doesn't work. We need to talk to the Israelis. They must be responsible for their long occupation. We consider that our common enemy is the occupation. If there is no occupation, we are not going to kill each other.

ALEX WOODSON: You just described a little bit how you came to the Parents Circle. Robi, how did you find out about the Parents Circle? How did you get involved with it?

ROBI DAMELIN: I knew I wanted to do something to prevent other families from experiencing this pain. A religious Jewish man came to see me—he was the founder of the Parents Circle; his name was Yitzhak Frankenthal—and invited me to come to a seminar in East Jerusalem with bereaved parents from both sides. I really didn't want to go, because I didn't want to spend time with other bereaved parents. I thought it would be much too difficult and much more painful.

Why did I need all the rest of this pain? But he was a very charismatic character, and eventually I went.

He really, in many ways, saved my life, because I found a way. Once I met the Palestinian mothers, when I looked into their eyes and realized that we shared the same pain, I also realized that we had this fantastic possibility of change, because if we could, after all, look at each other and agree with each other and speak in the same voice for reconciliation, then surely that would be an example for others.

It really started to overtake my whole life. Your life is never the same after you lose a child. There is always a bittersweet—whatever happens. My other son—I have three grandchildren, and I really love them. But the joyous moments are always interlaced with something sad and bitter.

Your sense of priorities is totally different. I had clients who were these very sophisticated—art, books, music, all the good things in life—but I couldn't even relate, really, to the work that I was doing, and I knew that I had to do something else. Slowly, slowly, the Parents Circle crept into my life and overtook it, and the only grounding sort of element is my grandchildren.

But other than that, I started to travel all over the world, and I realized that we could make a difference, that our message was not necessarily local only, it's an international message of reconciliation, and that I had been given a gift to be able to bring this message.

It took a while. I thought I was quite a big deal. Things come all the time to pull you back to earth and to the ground, to realize that there's always a test to see if you mean what you say. They caught the man who killed David. As I told you before, he didn't kill David because he was David; he killed him because he was representative of an occupying army.

Also, later on, it was really very difficult when they caught him, because what happened for me then was there was a face. So then everything I was doing was that honest. How could I walk around the world talking about peace and reconciliation if I wasn't willing to walk the walk with this man?

It took around about three months, and I wrote a letter to the family. Two Palestinians from our group delivered it to the family of the man who killed David. They were shocked, as you can well imagine. Of course, I expected a letter of "I'm so sorry that I did this" the next day in my post office box. But the thing is that what you will understand with time is there's no such thing as instant reconciliation. These things can take years and can never happen.

But once I had written the letter, there was a sense of giving up being a victim. When you give up being a victim, you become free. I felt that once I had done that and reached out, then my integrity would be intact if I would walk around talking about reconciliation.

It's not complete. It's a very long story. At some point I received a letter from Thaer. That's the name of the man who killed David. It was not exactly the most friendly letter, accusing me of being crazy and that I should stay away from his family and that he had killed 10 people, some civilians as well, to free Palestine. But I actually knew that it was an act of revenge, because when he was a small child, he saw his uncle very violently killed in front of him. He lost two uncles in the second uprising. So he went on a path of revenge. He never understood that there is no revenge.

I'm not Joan of Arc. If I thought that there was something I could do that would bring David back even for five minutes, I would do it.

So I went back to South Africa to look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and see what lessons we could learn as Israelis and Palestinians from what happened there during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how victims and perpetrators had managed to come to terms with what they did and how victims even could come to terms with the fact that perpetrators got amnesty, for the greater good. In many ways, there was no clause of forgiving there. There was just this clause of "if you tell us the truth of what happened to our children, you can be released from prison." Many people don't know that. They think that there was a whole forgiving process. The forgiving process came from individuals.

I was looking all the time to find out what forgiving means. What does that mean? You give up your right to justice. Is it okay what the person did? Can they do it again? Should you forget? I don't know. I've asked priests and rabbis and imams, and nobody came up with anything that had any meaning to me at all, until I met this woman in South Africa whose daughter had been killed by the military wing of the African National Congress. She had gone to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and she said, "I forgive you" to the people who killed her daughter.

I had to understand what she meant when she said "I forgive you." I went to meet her, and she said, "Forgiving is giving up your just right to revenge." For me, that was so meaningful, because I never had a sense of revenge. I also understood that when I understood why Thaer went on this path and killed all of these people—it's not that I condone it in any way. But it is that I understood why.

Then we made this film called One Day After Peace, which has done the whole world circuit. I really believe in film, in documentaries. There is one about Bassam, which I'm sure he will tell you about. It opens up a whole new world for you to spread your message.

Then when I came back from South Africa, I thought, okay, now it's time to go and meet Thaer. But, of course, everything is in the way—the police won't let me, I don't have a mediator, the Ministry of Justice, every excuse that I could possibly find—when I realized that, really, it's me in the way. You know, this isn't easy. I'm kind of talking lightly to you now, but this is like a real, real struggle with yourself, and it's another test.

When they released Gilad Shalit, the soldier who had been kidnapped in Gaza for five years, they announced that they were releasing a thousand prisoners. [Editor's note: For more on this, see Freeing Gilad: An Ethical Conundrum.] I was so happy, because I had gone to the television to say, "You have to release prisoners because that's part of the whole path to reconciliation." For Palestinians, these people are freedom fighters, no matter how you see them. Without that, there will never be peace. So that was me talking about Ireland and how on Good Friday they released all these people. Then, five minutes later, they said on television that they were releasing the guy who killed David. That's when it became difficult. That's another test. Do I mean it?

So I spent the whole weekend with this knowledge. Then I wrote a poem. I'm a lousy poet, but nevertheless. The sort of main theme of this is that for David and me, the sanctity of human life is more important than anything else, and now this kid can come home and David will never come home.

It's difficult. This work is not black and white; you do it immediately. When I realized that it was my fear of meeting Thaer and of what would happen there, I thought, okay. So I went to the Ministry of Justice and they agreed for me to go into the jail. I asked for Bassam to be the mediator, because I couldn't think of anybody I would trust more with this. Then we were waiting for the police. Now we have had elections, and I think somehow that the new minister of justice will not be quite as accommodating.

But in a way, I would have wished that they never caught this man, because when there was no face, there was no test. But now it's a different story.

ALEX WOODSON: Bassam, I want to get to your story as well. One thing that I thought was amazing in the article on our website from Peter Singer: When asked about the possibility of peace and a larger reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, you said, "There's no alternative. I don't believe it's our destiny to continue killing each other forever. It's a matter of time."

What has led you to believe this? How have you kept this sense of optimism?

BASSAM ARAMIN: I believe one of our main obstacles between Israelis and the Palestinians is that we think that it's an unsolvable situation; our conflict is unique. We thought that it's written that this is our destiny, to keep killing each other, and for the rest of the world, "Those people are killing each other for 100 years, so that's it, it's over."

We want to prove that, no, it's not over. We have another example. We have Northern Ireland, for more than 800 years—all the conflict around the world, including South Africa. Until this happened, it's impossible or it's very difficult. For that, I believe that, yes, it's not our destiny. The reality that I am with Robi together talking, to spread the same message—we want to prove that peace and reconciliation and forgiveness and justice are possible. We can live together. We can make peace together. We're supposed to be real enemies and to kill each other. But this is the message.

So I don't believe that we cannot do it. If there is a will, there is a way. We need to trust each other. If you note that the Israelis and the Palestinians—the majority, they want peace, the same peace, to set solutions, whatever. And the same people who want peace, they don't trust each other. This is one of the main obstacles, that we don't know each other. For that, we don't trust each other.

ALEX WOODSON: When you bring this message to people in the Palestinian community, people that are still involved in maybe the armed struggle, what is their reaction? How do you really—I don't want to say get them to change their thoughts, but what is the process of really trying to make people understand this?

BASSAM ARAMIN: It's the same reaction. "You come to talk to us. Go to talk to them. We want peace. They don't want peace." When you talk to the Israelis, it's the same. "You want to talk to us. We want peace. Talk to your group, to your people. They don't want peace," because, again, we don't know each other. Even from lectures that we give Israelis and Palestinians—they go to talk to the Israelis and talk to the Palestinians. We give hundreds of lectures in Israeli and Palestinian high schools. It's the same reaction all the time. Each side claims, "We want peace, but the others, they don't want peace." It means, "If you find a partner, of course we want peace."

ROBI DAMELIN: It's a mirror image, really.

BASSAM ARAMIN: Absolutely.

ROBI DAMELIN: And even if you take—I don't like labels, but the right and the left in Israel, after the last war, the Gaza War, I was listening to the rhetoric of both sides, and in many ways, it was just as violent from both sides. This is the danger, the danger of always having to be right and not listening and not including those who don't agree with you. If you exclude the people who don't agree with you, they will become more radical. So this is opening up all the time to people, and not taking their dignity away.

It's difficult, especially if you are a person like me with a vicious tongue. I recognized much earlier that I wasn't doing any good. I was simply just crossing people down by being so dogmatic about what I think. Today things have changed. You change with this work. You become more at peace with yourself, surprisingly enough. That's what allows you to be more compassionate.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned the Gaza War. That took place about a year ago. I just want to get a sense of how the Parents Circle really works. When something like that happens, when the bombings increase between Israel and Palestine, what do you actually do? Do you call each other? Do you set up meetings, workshops?

ROBI DAMELIN: I'll tell you exactly what happened, actually. There was a situation where three young kids were captured and killed by Hamas and then the Israeli settlers captured this kid and killed him violently. I could not believe that Israelis would ever be driven to behave like that. We recognized immediately in the Parents Circle that something was going to happen. This was the start of a cycle of violence. So we had a meeting, a very big meeting: What to do? We decided we have to go out into the public to talk.

So we created a tent outside the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. Of course, it started running. We were talking about violence. Then the war started. It was very clear that that was going to happen. We sat there for, I think, 70 days from the war, every night, throughout all the bombings, throughout all the rockets, throughout the very vicious killings that happened in Gaza. I think if you would have watched Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and you were in a village on the West Bank, it would be very difficult to maintain the work that we were doing. But the fact is that the Palestinians from our group continued to work together with us throughout the whole war. The minute that they got permission to come to Tel Aviv, they did. We sat in our tent. People came, and people were very abusive to—called us traitors and—I'm not going to say what other names.

But the fact is that we drew them into the circle and we spoke to them—settlers, all kinds of people from all walks of life, some who did agree with us and needed a place, a kind of a safe haven, to come, because it was not a popular opinion to stop war in the middle of all these horrible doings.

I think that was exactly where we could prove that if you listen and if you dialogue with the people who don't agree with you, it doesn't mean that you all become moderately thinking, but it does mean that you don't take away their dignity and they won't become more radical. This is a lesson for all of us to learn. It's very nice to talk to people who love you, so you feel good about yourself, but it's much more important, or just as important, to talk to people who don't agree with you. You never know where you plant a seed. You never know. All over the years, so many people came into my life and said, "You spoke to me five years ago at a lecture and you changed the way I see Palestinians" or "the way I see the situation."

ALEX WOODSON: Are you in touch with politicians on either side? Is this something that the larger public in Israel and Palestine knows about? One of the other major points in the article is just saying, when you get into a room with someone, you can't help but form a human connection with them. If the politicians from either side just get in a room with each other and talk, maybe something will be figured out.

ROBI DAMELIN: Perhaps we should lock them up, as they did in Liberia.

Yes, it's very important to talk to them. We are creating a reconciliation paper. We run a lot of adult programs. My personal feeling is—and not everybody agrees with me—I think adults need to be educated just as much as children. I don't think we've got time to wait for another generation to grow up and think that they will become lovers of peace if their parents are preaching war. So we run very interesting projects. We run a very interesting narrative project of Palestinians and Israelis called History Through the Human Eye.

As for politicians, I cannot say that it's very encouraging now. We have in the past done lobbying in the Knesset and on the Palestinian side. But it's not an equal situation. You can't always say, why aren't the Palestinians demonstrating in the middle of Ramallah? There is a stronger side. That's why in the Parents Circle, in many ways, we try to have as equal a situation as we can. It means that we have two offices. It means that we have two directors. It means it's like Noah's Ark: We have two of everything, which makes it much more difficult in many ways, more expensive. But it's the gesture of trying to find some sort of equality in a very unequal situation.

BASSAM ARAMIN: When we talk about, as Robi said, politicians from both sides, the Palestinian government and the Israeli government, the Palestinian president and the Israeli president, there is nothing to compare. The Palestinian president needs a permit, a special permit, when he travels, exactly like me when I enter into Jerusalem. If we are going to wait for a Palestinian leader to destroy the separation wall and to release the Palestinian prisoners and to release the Israeli prisoners—we have no prisoners—we will wait forever. We are looking for a brave Israeli leader to start looking for a world not to go back all the time to the past and to the fear of the past.

ROBI DAMELIN: Bassam very often says that the worst enemy of the Palestinians is the fear of the Jews.


ROBI DAMELIN: And it is within the Jewish DNA, with good reason. They hardly can have been exempt from torture and cruelty, not only through the Holocaust but through generations and throughout our total history. But we don't want the Palestinians to be the victims of the victims, as Bassam says often. So we must change this whole attitude and give up being victims, because if you don't give up being a victim, you will never be free.

ALEX WOODSON: Just a final question. Robi, you are originally from South Africa and you mentioned going to South Africa and learning about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there. Are there other countries that you visited, are there other struggles that you learned about that are influential to you? And the other way: Have you heard that other reconciliation commissions and conflict zones have been inspired by the work that you are doing?

BASSAM ARAMIN: Of course we learn from each other. We have gone to many places around the world. We learn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. We can see now in Northern Ireland a lot of fear, a lot of hatred, in spite of the agreement. But they have more than 50 goals for peace. Look at the Canadians. After so many long years, they have this apology, but they didn't start a reconciliation process. You can see the hatred there. Look at Australia, for example. They start a reconciliation process. Look at Colombia, Bogotá—a lot of pain and fear. They are talking about more than 250,000 people, more than 6 million victims.

Sometimes you think that it's part of the victimhood industry and fear industry to continue to benefit from the situation among the politicians and sometimes the princes of war. So we learn from them for that.

As Robi said, we believe in a reconciliation process now to be an integral part of any peace agreement, because a peace agreement without reconciliation, it's only ceasefire. She is right. This is what we're trying to do, to prepare the Israelis and the Palestinians that in the end, in spite of all the pain, it doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong, we need to look forward to the future. Otherwise, we would continue in the jail of the past—of the Nakba, of the Holocaust, don't trust each other—forever.

ALEX WOODSON: Anything you want to add to that, Robi?

ROBI DAMELIN: I think the most important part of any agreement is the reconciliation part. You mentioned Ireland. I would be very happy if we had a peace agreement, but if you look at it, they have never had a reconciliation process. I think that contributes to the ongoing violence there. They have to clean it up somewhere. I look at Rwanda.

It's very interesting to learn from other countries what can happen and how important this creation of a reconciliation framework is for us, which we are doing with academics. It's not South Africa. It's a different culture, different religions. You can't import somebody else's solution, but you can learn from them.

ALEX WOODSON: That's very true. People have said that the United States could use a reconciliation commission as well.

ROBI DAMELIN: You did have something with the Japanese.

ALEX WOODSON: I mean more for slavery and all the racism that still exists today.

ROBI DAMELIN: The thing is that the apology is a very important part. The apology that the Australians gave to the aborigines was very interesting. It was much more emotional. I saw the Canadian and the Australian [apology], and the Australian, for me, was so much more powerful because it was so much more human. It wasn't "I have to apologize. Otherwise, you are never going to let me get out of it."

BASSAM ARAMIN: I have to admit that Americans are very good at telling others the right thing to do, but they don't practice it by themselves.

The last thing I want to say, on this day, the International Peace Day, and to especially remind the Americans what Martin Luther King says. He says, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Don't keep silent. Don't take sides. They are very involved in our conflict. They need to be objective and to help both sides, because helping one side is not helping the other side. They are not helping us.

ROBI DAMELIN: One of the things that I wanted to say was about the refugees.


ROBI DAMELIN: It has been breaking my heart for the past five years. It's not only this little boy that got washed up onto the beach which suddenly made everybody emotional. People said "Never again" after the Second World War. But it's happening under our very noses. We have people who are saying, "We don't want them because they're Muslim and we're a Christian country." It just brings back all these memories, the flashbacks to the Jews. People said, "We didn't know." But the world knows. The world knows much more now. We have to find a solution.

I wish Israel would take children, because I think the parents would have a problem going back to Syria. But there are so many orphans. How can the world just sit and watch this happen? The scenes that we have watched over the past couple of weeks are horrific, horrific. I think the world must get much more involved. We have to find homes for everybody, even if it's temporary. More than ever, we have to end the war in Syria.

ALEX WOODSON: I definitely agree with that.

Thank you both for coming today.

Again, this was Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin of the Parents Circle-Families Forum. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find this podcast on carnegiecouncil.org and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.

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