Those following the escalating conflict in the Middle East might find Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin an unlikely pair. A South African peace activist who raised her family in Israel, and a Palestinian who spent seven years in an Israeli prison, now travel the world together speaking about their common bond.
Both Damelin and Aramin lost children in the conflict and have a powerful message: “We don’t want you here.” As members of Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization for bereaved parents, they are not looking for new members. Their goal is to help others seek peace and reconciliation instead of retribution. They relayed their stories to students and members of the Madison community at an event hosted by Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict on Monday, September 15.
“It’s the most painful thing that can happen to you, losing a child,” Damelin said. Her son David, a peace activist and a member of the IDF reserves, “never wanted to serve in the occupied territories,” she said. He was killed by a Palestinian sniper there.
Damelin began meeting with other Israeli and Palestinian parents in mourning. “All of us had the same pain. Our tears were the same color. We could become a powerful weapon of peace and stand as one voice,” she said.
When the army told Damelin they had captured the man who killed David, she says, “I gave up being a victim. If you figure out how to not be a victim, you’ll find a massive amount of freedom. How could I talk about peace and reconciliation if I wasn’t willing and able to do it myself?”
Taking inspiration from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Damelin has dedicated her life to ending the violence and to creating a collaborative, formal truth and reconciliation process in the Middle East that will be ready to roll out when a political peace agreement is reached.
When Damelin wanted to meet her son’s killer, she turned to Aramin, another bereaved parent, to serve as mediator.
Aramin recalled what landed him in jail: “As a child, you are not safe in your home, at school, or on the street. You think you have no option but to fight. You don’t understand the people who are occupying you.” At thirteen, he had decided to become a fighter.
“In jail, it is very difficult to keep your humanity. People leave even more committed to continue the struggle,” Bassam said. But during his time in prison, he started studying Hebrew and watched films about the Holocaust in an attempt to better understand his enemy. Bassam became friendly with prison guards, one of whom saved his life when he was being brutally beaten. He eventually started questioning the value of armed resistance.
Several years after his release, Bassam co-founded “Combatants for Peace.” He has refused to pick up arms since his release, even when, in 2007, his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet on her way home from school.
“I never wanted revenge. At that time, I was already working with former soldiers. If you are an occupier, you are not yourself. It is not easy to see your own humanity in ‘the other,’” he said. Today, Bassam is completing his Ph.D. in Holocaust Studies.
Both Damelin and Bassam say Americans can make a difference by not taking sides as pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, but instead can be pro-peace. “We don’t come here to import the problems of the Middle East to your country, but to ask you to help us in the resolution,” Damelin said. “We can’t afford not to have hope.”