Bereaved Israelis and Palestinians call for ‘different future’ in joint memorial ceremony

Relatives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed since October 7 speak as rights groups call for an end to violence

People embrace at the 18th joint memorial ceremony, held in Tel Aviv in May 2023. Photo: Combatants for Peace
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“You can’t kill anybody in the name of my child,” was one of the first things Robi Damelin said when Israeli army officers arrived at her door to inform her of the killing of her son, David, in March 2002.

Weeks later, she spoke at a rally calling on Israel to leave the occupied territories, where her son had opposed serving as part of his conscription. He was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the West Bank settlement of Ofra.

“I’ve been working ever since,” she told The National from Israel. “It took over my life, but it also got me out of bed in the morning.”

More than 600 families, Israeli and Palestinian, are members of the Parent’s Circle-Families Forum, a network of relatives bereaved by the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

The forum, established in 1995, has offices in Tel Aviv and Beit Jala in the occupied West Bank.

On Sunday evening, Israelis gathered to mark the start of Memorial Day, which carries extra weight this year following October 7, the biggest attack in its history.

As people visited cemeteries, the families of hostages held in Gaza took to the streets of Tel Aviv to hold a silent protest, demanding the government secures a deal for their release.

An estimated 1,200 people were killed and 250 others taken hostage by Hamas militants on October 7. The ensuing war in Gaza has killed more than 35,000 people, injured 78,000 and destroyed vast parts of the Palestinian enclave.

In 2005, activist group Combatants for Peace began a joint memorial ceremony – the only one of its kind – for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the conflict. It was joined by the Parent's Circle, including people such as Ms Damelin, now a spokeswoman for the group.

Last year, 15,000 attended the ceremony in Tel Aviv, while Sunday's ceremony, held in Arabic and Hebrew, demanded a different future for children in the region.

Palestinian and Israeli children were shown speaking about the dreams they have had since October 7 – of safe rooms, “pirates” and air strikes at the beach.

Among those who spoke was Yonatan Zeigen, son of peace activist Vivian Silver, who was killed in Kibbutz Be'eri, and Ahmed Al Helou, who lost 60 members of his family in Gaza.

“They don't spare anyone in this war, not even the birds,” Mr Al Helou said through tears while describing the killing of family members who sought shelter at Al Shifa Hospital.

“Despite the destruction and hideous war crimes of the Israeli army in Gaza, we must stand strong against terrorism, war and violence against innocents,” he said. “We must build a safe future for our children without fearing tomorrow.”

Michal Halev, whose son Laor was killed at the Nova music festival on October 7, said “nothing in my life is natural any more”.

“There is nothing natural about losing a child,” she said.

“I find one purpose for which to live, which is to seek out what I can do to help our wounded humanity heal, so there will be no more mothers here who are crushed by killing, by violence and war. Stop the killing, stop the revenge.

“I allow myself to speak on behalf of all mothers who want their children to have a future. Laor no longer has such a future.”

The repercussions of the war overshadowed their efforts to jointly mourn, with Palestinian families in the occupied West Bank unable to leave to attend the ceremony.

“There's almost an element of miracle that we've been working together, for months, to do this ceremony together. It isn't that everybody isn't angry. You can't not be angry, and be human from both sides,” said Ms Damelin.

Najlaa, a native of Khan Younis whose brother was killed while searching for food and nappies for his twins, joined the Families Forum two months ago.

Her testimony was read aloud during the ceremony, in which she called for an end to the war in Gaza “and a better future for our children”.

“All I wish for today, as a sister who lost her brother, is the war in Gaza will end and that more lives on both sides will not be lost.”

A joint ceremony to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba will be held on May 15, where Israelis and Palestinians will hear testimonies from 1948 and focus on “collective liberation”, the Palestinian executive director of Combatants for Peace told The National.

“We're asking people, and demanding people not to choose sides, but to be on the side of humanity and human rights,” said Rana Salman. “We're working towards a shared future.”

“What we demand for is to end the occupation – because it's the root cause of the conflict – and currently, to use this opportunity to demand for an end to the war and the hostage and prisoner deal,” she added.

“I think this is like the place for those who don't define themselves necessarily as 'I'm just Israeli, so I only care about the pain of the Israelis', or 'I'm Palestinian, so I care only for the Palestinians',” said Mia Biran, Israeli programme manager at Combatants for Peace.

“It's to understand that, you know, we all live here, and if we want to keep living here and not just dying here, then we need to acknowledge this connection, that there is no way that one side will win.”

Mr Zeigen, whose mother Vivian was a prominent peace activist, said: “Every society must look bereavement in the eye, internalise the price they are paying and see the bereavement of the other. That pain is the same.”

The philosophy is not accepted by all – Ms Damelin acknowledges that “many” bereaved families do not feel the way they do.

Efforts were made to disrupt the online streaming of the ceremony, according to Ms Biran, with the YouTube link to the live-stream hacked shortly after it began.

A Facebook post advertising Sunday's ceremony drew mixed reactions online – with some users saying peace was “impossible” and others telling the families to “go to Gaza”.

Twenty families have joined the Parents Circle, and only three have left, since the war began.

“I think both nations are totally in trauma now. And so we have to do everything possible to change the circumstance of how these people grow up. Because then there will be different people if they have some hope,” said Ms Damelin.

The government is “very against” the work of the Parents Circle, she added.

Last year, the Israeli Education Ministry banned the group from visiting schools – where Palestinian parents spoke to pupils about to join the army – a decision later overturned by the Supreme Court.

“We specifically choose 17 year olds who are going to be in the army the next year. You will ask how many have met a Palestinian, and it's probably nobody.”

“It's so extraordinary to see how these kids listen in a very safe environment and how the Palestinians make themselves vulnerable. To actually come into a classroom and face 30 Israeli kids, together with an Israeli partner.”

In February, local authorities in Haifa also banned an event marking the Hebrew publication of Apeirogon, a book about the friendship between bereaved fathers Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, the Palestinian spokesman for the forum and a founder of Combatants for Peace.

“We all believe that the occupation took our children, that the occupation must end, and that we can and must live here together with mutual dignity,” Mr Elhanan later wrote for the Haaretz newspaper.

“You don't argue with pain. I will never speak out against other bereaved families, whose pain and anger, which passes through their minds, I know so well. But I am also a bereaved father and I also have a right to talk and express my pain publicly.

“The pain of someone who lost a loved one in general, and in a conflict in particular, has the power of nuclear energy. This pain can explode with atomic force. It is an Arab pain. It is a Jewish pain. And it is a human pain.”

Updated: May 13, 2024, 5:52 AM