Osama Abu Ayyash tells his story to Israelis who've never met a Palestinian

Osama Abu Ayyash visits Israeli classrooms, telling his story of loss and forbearance to humanize Palestinians to Israelis who may have never met one.

Joshua Mitnick
Osama Abu Ayyash, a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank and has lost relatives at the hands of Israeli soldiers, will spend three hours waiting at a roadblock in order to travel to Israeli schools to tell his life story. Some of the students in audiences he speaks to are about to go into the Israeli military.

Osama Abu Ayyash greets the classroom of Israeli teaching students in Arabic and then switches to Hebrew: "I am a Palestinian from the territories," he explains.

Mr. Abu Ayyash, who has made dozens of lecture trips to Israeli schools from his home in the West Bank village of Beit Ummar, knows well by now that Israelis view him, the brother-in-law of two fugitives killed during the recent Palestinian uprising, as the enemy. He also knows his own Palestinian countrymen may consider him a collaborator for speaking in Israel.

But that has not stopped Abu Ayyash from telling his story about how his wife's brothers went from being gainfully employed to being in the cross hairs of the Israeli security forces as accused terrorists. More important, it's also a story about how Abu Ayyash and his wife, Sara, overcame their grief and became activists in a group of bereaved relatives promoting reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

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"I believe in the personal story: Bereavement helps open the doors to talk about the situation," Abu Ayyash says.

In the nine years since his brothers-in-law were killed in Nablus, the psychology major-turned-truck driver has visited numerous Israeli high schools, and has even faced chants of "Death to Arabs."

His goal, he says, is to humanize the conflict for audiences in which many may never have come in contact with a Palestinian before. "If they start thinking how to put themselves into the shoes of the other, things will change," he says.

Four months ago Abu Ayyash's appearance at a high school in a Tel Aviv suburb stirred up protest from parents and right-wing figures against allowing a relative of Palestinian militants to speak to Israeli teens. The Education Ministry disqualified him from speaking at high schools.

Abu Ayyash denies his lecture is political. His appearances are part of a program by the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians whose immediate family members have been killed in the conflict.

"We find the [Israeli] youths an important crowd, especially youths in high school prior to the army service," says Nir Oren, an Israeli and the director of the group, who lost his daughter in a Palestinian suicide attack in the 1990s.

"At this age, most have opinions. They grasp something [about the conflict] from school, at home, and the media. But it's not rigid. They still have the capacity to listen to the other side," he says.

Abu Ayyash tells how his wife's brother vowed to take revenge after waking up in a hospital – Israeli soldiers had beaten him unconscious. When he bought a gun and began searching for the soldiers, he became a wanted terrorist. After he was killed by soldiers, his brother began plotting revenge and he, too, was killed.

Abu Ayyash also tells how, in order to attend the funeral, he and Sara walked over mountains and navigated West Bank back roads to get around Israeli soldiers blocking Palestinian road traffic. Afterward, he watched over his wife so that she didn't try to take revenge.

He talks about an epiphany he had one day after noticing an Israeli car at the house of a neighbor who had lost a child. He accused the neighbor of hosting "murderers." But Abu Ayyash was persuaded to listen to the Israeli, who told of losing his 14-year-old daughter to a Palestinian attack. "I was crying inside…. How could they talk together? I started to think from the beginning" about the conflict, he says.

Right-wing critics say this dialogue confuses and softens up Israeli youths. Michael Ben Ari, from the right-wing National Union Party, says, "Identify with the families of murderers? That is insanity which is impossible to understand."

An Israeli Education Ministry statement explaining the ban on Abu Ayyash objected to equating the grief of relatives of "terrorists" to the grief of Israeli families whose loved ones were killed by militants.

But at least one Israeli student got the message, writing on the Facebook page of Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar that Abu Ayyash's visit exposed students to "pluralism" and that the student now could see another side to the story.

Abu Ayyash gives one of the most influential and effective lectures because Israelis can identify with his story, Parents Circle director Nir Oren says. Despite that, the organization is respecting the ministry's decision because it doesn't want a ban imposed on its other Palestinian speakers.

But Abu Ayyash continues to speak with young Israelis, including at military preparatory schools.

At a class of teaching students, the audience of about 20 sat in rapt attention during a recent Abu Ayyash lecture. After the talk, Noa Bassin, a young Israeli teacher, noted that the lecture was the first time she had seen a Palestinian in person.

"I am encouraged," she said, "but I think [reconciliation] will take much more time ... it's much easier for people to hate than to reconcile."

Abu Ayyash says he hopes the Israeli Education Ministry will lift its ban on him.

"It's important that we talk," he says.

• For more, visit theparentscircle.com.

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