A Plea for Peace
Bereaved Palestinian and Israeli family members meet and seek reconciliation in Vienna
Robi Demelin and Mazen Faraj make an odd couple. The 65-year-old Demelin is an Israeli from Tel Aviv and the 32-year-old Palestinian Faraj lives in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. While only 59 km away (37 miles), they’re worlds apart. But what the two have in common is a shared belief that there is more that unites than divides them.
They met at the Parents Circle, a forum for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that, since its inception in 1995 has played a crucial role in spearheading a reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians.
"We are a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We are looking for ways to create a dialogue with the long term vision of reconciliation," said Demelin. She visited Vienna recently together with Faraj on the invitation of Sisters Against Violence Extremism (SAVE), a peace initiative of Women Without Borders (WWB), a Vienna based NGO.
"We like the idea of living together. But how do we do this in a world armed to its teeth and torn apart by conflicts?" said Dr. Edith Schlafer, founder of both SAVE and WWB. Speaking at a discussion after the screening of Encounter Point, a documentary about everyday leaders like Demelin and Faraj who risk their lives to promote a non-violent end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she highlighted the courage it took for Israelis and Palestinians to listen to one another’s stories of suffering. "These two are a living example of how members of civil society can face those who wrong them with words instead of weapons."
It was a chance encounter that introduced Faraj to the Parents Circle in 2001 after the death of his 35 year-old brother, Amjaad. Amjaad had spent five years in an Israeli prison and died of cancer shortly after his release, leaving behind a wife and three children. In April 2002, during fighting between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Palestinian fighters at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Faraj’s 62-year-old father was shot dead by an Israeli soldier who mistook the bags of food he carried for his family for something else, no one will say what.
Faraj’s father was six years old in 1948 when he was forced to flee his Palestinian village with his parents to a refugee camp. He and his siblings grew up in the Daheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, where he continues to live with his wife and child. Having already lost his mother as a young child, the murder of his father left him an orphan, filling him with hatred for all Israelis.
"The only Israelis I knew at that time were soldiers, settlers, and jailers," said Faraj, who spent three years in an Israeli jail for throwing rocks at the Israeli army as a teenager. All he had on his mind was revenge – until he reluctantly joined the Parents Circle.
"At the Parents Circle I met Israelis and for the first time realized that they are human beings like myself," he said. Like Demelin, he believes that dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is the key to living together. "I listened to their stories of loss and suffering and the Israelis heard me talk of my anger and pain," Faraj continues.
"Their message is of hope and reconciliation," emphasized Demelin, who has been an active member of the Parents’ Circle ever since losing her 28-year-old son David in 2002.
"We are not interested in politics," Demelin added. "We realize that we have already paid a huge price for this conflict. We are for any agreement between Palestinians and Israelis that will stop the circle of violence." David was a musician and student of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and a reservist in the army. When Demelin was informed of his death, she recalled telling Israeli soldiers not to use her son’s death as an excuse for revenge.
"I did not want them doing any more killing in my son’s name," she said.
Despite the pain, which she says does not go away, Demelin has made a conscious choice to spend the rest of her life working towards peace in an effort to prevent other families – both Israeli and Palestinian – from suffering the similar loss of loved ones. Nothing is more sacred than human life, she says, and no revenge or hatred can ever bring her child back.
Demelin and Faraj traveled to Vienna after receiving the Three Cultures Foundation Award for Peace and Dialogue, presented to the Parents’ Circle on March 10, 2009 in Seville, Spain. The objective of the Foundation is to unite Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures in Morocco and Andalusia. As part of its 10th anniversary celebration this year, the foundation has placed the problem of the Palestinians at the heart of its agenda.
Mehru Jaffer is the Vienna-based Europe correspondent of the Indo Asian News Service (IANS), Hardnews magazine and the Women’s Feature Service (WFS)