On Memorial Day, an Israeli-Palestinian experiment in reconciliation

Why We Wrote This

On Memorial Day, nations typically grieve for those who sacrificed for the homeland, the political embodiment of a collective identity. Expanding the grief to include an adversary’s fallen is challenging, but for some, healing.

Courtesy of Rami Ben-Ari/Combatants for Peace
Mohammed Darwish, addressing a shared Memorial Day ceremony for Israelis and Palestinians, tells of seeing his soccer mate die after being shot in a clash with Israeli soldiers near Bethlehem. ‘Help return us to the harmony we were rightfully born to,’ he implored the gathering in Tel Aviv on May 7.

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Israel typically observes Memorial Day with ceremonies extolling sacrifice and perseverance in the face of its enemies. The notion of a joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony is an outlier – and controversial. Yet from the 200 people who attended the first such event 14 years ago, it has grown to the 9,000 who attended Tuesday evening in a park in Tel Aviv. Among them were about 100 West Bank Palestinians who attended after Israel’s Supreme Court overruled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ban on their entering Israel.

The evening was organized by two joint reconciliation groups, Parents Circle Families Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian family members who have lost loved ones to the conflict, and Combatants for Peace, made up of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.

“It has had the resonating effect of bringing hope to people who never usually see the ‘other’ side,” says Robi Damelin, whose son David was killed performing military reserve duty in the West Bank in 2002. “These would usually be the least likely people on earth to have any contact whatsoever, but yet they feel this absolute need to continue with the work of peacemaking.”

The brother and sister sat under the night sky with thousands gathered in an exceptional Memorial Day scene: Israelis and Palestinians mourning their war dead together.

Among them were bereaved families like them who lost children, parents, or siblings to the ongoing conflict between their peoples.

In their case, it was their two older brothers who were killed, more than half a century ago, on the same June day during the 1967 Middle East war.

Mira Samet was 17 at the time, and her younger brother was celebrating his 11th birthday, when the news came that their brothers, Amram, 28, and Yochanan, 22, had both been killed.

“This feels like the most sincere and authentic way to share the pain that we have experienced and still experience, sharing the pain with not just people from our side of the tracks, but recognizing the pain of the other side of this conflict,” Mrs. Samet says. “The fact that we can mutually recognize that [shared] pain is possibly the only way to avoid a repetition.”

Controversy

Israel typically observes Memorial Day with ceremonies extolling sacrifice and perseverance in the face of its enemies. The joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony is an outlier – and controversial.

Yet it has grown steadily, from the 200 people who attended its first event 14 years ago to the 9,000 who attended Tuesday evening. Among them were about 100 West Bank Palestinians who were allowed to attend after Israel’s Supreme Court overruled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s order barring them from entering Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu lamented the court decision, saying, “There should not be a ceremony that equates the blood of our sons to the blood of terrorists.”

Even among Israel’s center-left there are some opposing the ceremony, saying it should not be held on Israel’s Memorial Day, which they argue is only intended to mourn the country’s own fallen soldiers and victims of war and terror attacks.

As those attending arrived, a group of far-right demonstrators, cordoned off by police, shouted epithets, including, “Traitors, shame on you. Ameleks!” referring to the Biblical enemies of the Israelites.

The evening was organized by two joint reconciliation groups, Parents Circle Families Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian family members who have lost loved ones to the conflict, and Combatants for Peace, made up of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.

This year, events were also held in New York, London, Berlin, and other cities.

“It is being held over the world because it has had the resonating effect of bringing hope to people who never usually see the ‘other’ side,” says Robi Damelin, a spokesperson for the Parents Circle, whose son David was killed at age 28 performing military reserve duty in the West Bank in 2002. “These would usually be the least likely people on earth to have any contact whatsoever, but yet they feel this absolute need to continue with the work of peacemaking.”

Addressing criticism of the event voiced by other bereaved Israeli families, Ms. Damelin says, “I don’t have any right to criticize another parent, but they too should respect our decision.”

Loss in Gaza

The ceremony, held in Hebrew and Arabic with translations broadcast on a large screen, was held on the grassy field of a Tel Aviv park and for the first time was broadcast to Gaza. Just the day before, a 48-hour burst of fighting between Hamas ruled-Gaza and Israel ended in a cease-fire after claiming 25 Palestinian and four Israeli lives. It was the worst fighting since a 2014 war between the sides.

Fathima Muhammadin, a young woman from Gaza who is currently living in Ramallah, in the West Bank, gave a recorded speech that was broadcast to the audience.

“It is difficult to describe life in Gaza. We live under horrific conditions,” she told the crowd, describing the pain of losing her brother to an internal Hamas conflict and her friend to an Israeli sniper. Her friend, Rouzan al-Najjar, a 20-year-old medic, was killed during one of the weekly demonstrations along Israel’s border fence.

Addressing her friend, she said, “I remember when you joked with your friends. ... I will never forget your last breaths saying goodbye to the world. ... We hoped we would live in peace.”

“I know politics are complicated, but let’s put our hearts, minds, and hands together,” she said.

Mohammed Darwish, a Palestinian boy, told of watching his friend and soccer mate die after he was shot in clashes with Israeli soldiers near Bethlehem.

“Stories that are told to us repeatedly about this land supposedly being worth human blood are untrue. I ask future generations to stop adopting this line, which is against the people’s interests,” he said. “I ask you to help return us to the harmony we were rightfully born to.”

Toward changing minds

Among the Israeli speakers was Mika Almog, a writer and co-host of the event and the granddaughter of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president and prime minister and Nobel Prize winner. She spoke of the evolution of national identity until empathy with the adversary can be achieved.

In an interview, she acknowledges how difficult that path is.

“I approach the whole issue with a great deal of humility ... and an acute awareness of the fact that the story of Israel is the story of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” she says.

“There is so much pain involved, so much loss. Human beings seek a clear narrative. It is easier for people to find solace in a story that is black and white, that has good guys and bad guys,” she says.

In response to the backlash against the joint ceremony, she wrote an op-ed in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, headlined, “What is so scary?”

“It’s so threatening because it touches upon a truth,” she says, something that requires a major shift in thinking on both sides. “The truth that force is not a solution.”

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