Participants: Aesha Hatib, Ali Abu Awwad , Ayelet Harel, Guy Goldstein, Fida Zidan, Muhammad El Bau, Niv Sarig, Osama Abu Ayash, Rami Elhanan, Robi Damelin, Seham Abu Awwad, Suhair El Alami.
Last summer, twelve PCFF-members participated in a small workshop "Healing through Story Telling" in Neve Shalom. Alistair Little from Ireland, Wilhelm Verwoerd from South Africa and Ruth Scott from London were joined by six Palestinian and six Israeli Forum members, six women and six men, some experienced speakers and some new ones. During an intensive and intimate week-end, all of them told the story of their lives and listened to the stories of the others.
Alistair Little, a Protestant from Northern Ireland, joined the Protestant paramilitaries UVF when he was 14. When he was 17, he murdered a man, was arrested and spent 14 years in jail. Alistair was freed under the "Good Friday" Agreement in 1988. As a result of this agreement, all the prisoners, even those with blood on their hands, were freed. They were freed under certain conditions, one of them not to return to terrorist action. Alistair had left the path of violence in prison already and now dedicates his life to reconciliation.
Wilhelm's grandfather, Hendrik Verwoerd, was Prime Minister of South Africa and one of the major architects of the Apartheid regime. Wilhelm "changed sides" and began to fight against Apartheid and for human rights. Today, he lives and works in Ireland, amongst other places in Belfast.
Wilhelm and Alistair were very impressed with the Israeli and Palestinian participants and the activities of the Forum, and invited the group to continue their joint journey in Ireland and acquaint themselves with the Irish conflict. The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation gathered the necessary funds and invited the Israeli-Palestinian delegation for eight days.
The Palestinians traveled via Turkey. Their first flight was moved forward because of expected snow, and the Palestinian members found themselves stuck at the Turkish airport, where they were treated with total disrespect and not allowed to leave the airport, unlike the other passengers. They arrived in Ireland exhausted.
Glencree is about one hour from Dublin, high up in the mountains. The old structure was built as a military basis by the British and looks like a fortress. Over the years, it served as a reformatory school for young delinquents, and in 1974 it became the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. The Centre organizes a broad range of activities in the field of dialogue and reconciliation, for victims as well as for former combatants, from the Irish conflict as well as other conflict zones worldwide. The Centre is run by employees and volunteers from all over the world. In Glencree, the group met among others the volunteers Roni from Israel and yasser from Gaza.
The weather however was freezing cold, a rough welcoming for a delegation from the Middle East (especially for the members who went smoking outside), but a day after our arrival, the sun shone over the Centre in Glencree -- a sun that, according to the locals, had not shown its tail in weeks.
The beginning of the trip in Ireland was dedicated to two issues: How to improve our capacity to transmit the message of the PCFF, and how to deal with "difficult" questions that come up on either side in the dialogue sessions. Suhair and Guy, who had never given a presentation yet, were asked to put up a simulation meeting. Rami and Ali, two of our most experienced presenters, did the second simulation meeting.
The director of Glencree, Dr. David Bloomfield, gave the group a presentation about the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
In the evening, the group went out to an authentic Irish pub and enjoyed the local music and food.
On Saturday, a panel discussion on the conflict in Northern Ireland was organized. The panel was composed of victims of the conflict and ex-combatants, among them: Annie Bauman from England, whose father, a soldier in the British Army, was killed in the attempt to neutralize a hidden bomb. Don Brown and his daughter Caroline -- Don belonged to the Catholic underground organization INLA, which split off from the IRA. Don served a prison sentence for murder and was freed as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Caroline was ashamed for her father and for many years, she and her family cut all contact with him. And finally Gerald Maclaren the Catholic, whose two brothers were murdered in cold blood by their Protestant colleagues from work during a card game.
All the participants, who came especially to meet the PCFF-delegation, are active members of the Sustainable Peace Network.
The members of the PCFF are all victims of the conflict. To meet with victims and perpetrators, of whom all had blood on their hands, was mind-stirring, and different from everything the delegation members had experienced so far.
A short moment before the moving encounter with the panel, as it always happens to us, the reality of our conflict broke into the peaceful rooms and darkened the light blue sky over the Glencree Centre. We received a message about the arrest of Muhaned Abu Awwad, son of Khaled Abu Awwad, the director of the PCFF, and a peace activist himself. Muhaned was arrested with other young people from Beit Omar, among them the nephew of Osama Abu Ayash. Later, it turned out that the son of Seham Abu Awwad had also been arrested. The uncle and aunt of Muhaned, Seham and Ali, were part of the group, as well as other members from Beit Omar and Israelis who know Muhaned since he was a little boy. The news arrived in the middle of an activity and made it impossible to carry on. The group was shaken. Finally it was decided to continue with the meeting despite everything. .Ali told the group and the guests what happened. The meeting was particularly moving and mind-stirring.
Just before the group left Glencree, the maintenance manager of the Centre proposed that the members of the Forum plant a tree at Glencree.
On Sunday, we traveled to Northern Ireland for a political-educational tour about the conflict. On the way to Belfast, we stopped in a small town (Newry) on the borderline between the South and the North. There we met with bereaved families from the British Army and the British police, SAVERNAVER (South/North Armagh Victims Encouraging Recognition). In Israeli terms, they would roughly correspond to the Israeli organization Yad LeBanim.
In the Irish Conflict, memory and commemoration are relatively new, and on both sides there is a great need to obtain recognition, to remember and to commemorate the victims. Some of the members of the PCFF had difficulties with this constant preoccupation with the victims. As a response, the group tried to present to the hosts the activities of the PCFF and to explain to them how the Forum concentrates on reconciliation and on preventing further bloodshed. The hosts were amazed at the warmth and the close-knit ties between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the group.
Memorial on the walls of Belfast for the victims killed by rubber bullets
In Belfast, the group started with a bus tour of the city to get familiar. Gerry from the Catholic Marxist underground organization was our guide on the Catholic side.
Gerry, a funny and joyful man, told the group with a big smile that he was caught when planting a bomb that didn't kill anybody. He didn't tell us what were the things he didn't get caught on.
Jack, who was together with Alistair in the Paramilitaries, led the group on the Protestant side. Jack started on his path of recognition and reconciliation with the past only a year ago. He still has trouble calling the activities of the Paramilitaries in which he participated "terrorist" activities. "The Catholics were terrorists, we only used methods of terror..."
The situation in Northern Ireland today is far from being ideal. In the thirty years of the "Troubles", from 1969 - 1998 (which were part of a conflict that lasted 800 years), there was never a real war, but an ongoing conflict during which people were killed as part of life -- during demonstrations, in bombing attacks, while walking in the street or playing cards. Meeting with people from both sides showed us that there is still a lot of anger, hatred, blame, pride and feelings of victimhood.
This said, since the Agreement violence has disappeared from the streets. The conflict continues in Belfast through the graffiti on the walls. Some reconciliatory, some aggressive, provocative and full of hatred. The local police decided not to erase the graffiti and to allow for complete freedom of speech on the walls, in order to avoid an outbreak of violence. The hosts explained that the nature of the graffiti was slowly changing over the years.
On the Catholic side, we saw graffiti that compared what happened in Gaza to the Holocaust. On the Protestant side, there is graffiti calling for the extermination of the Catholics. The graffiti deeply shocked the group.
Some parts of Belfast are still fenced off. Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods that were at the heart of the conflict are separated by a wall which closes every evening at 19:00, out of fear that the youth will start throwing stones at each other. Today, the people of Belfast walk freely in the streets, even in neighborhoods that were once the center of the conflict, along the border between the communities. There are now also mixed neighborhoods in Belfast. Still, when the group entered a Catholic pub, Alistair, who was immediately recognized by the crowd, got very tense, was afraid to sit down with us and looked like he needed support from the group. (Alistair's story has been turned into a movie, "Five minutes of Heaven", starring Liam Neeson, 2009).
Graffiti in the Catholic part of Belfast
Next was a tour of the cemetery. The group visited the graves of the Catholic prisoners who died in prison during the big hunger strike in 1981. The prisoners fought the British government in order to obtain a change of status from regular criminal prisoners to politicial prisoners. The hunger strike lasted over 60 days. The British government decided that to break the strike, they would give the mothers the "right" to demand forced feeding through tubes once the prisoner had lost conscience. All the mothers, with the exception of one, chose not to save their children and not to make them stop the hunger strike, even at the price of their sons' lives. The leader of the strike, who became a legend and who was the first one to die, after 66 days, was Bobby Sands.
Names of those who died during the big hunger strike
The next encounter was with British disabled police officers who suffer from physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder, the Disabled Police Officers' Association of Northern Ireland. The ex-police officers, all of them older and tough men, started crying after the members of the Israeli Palestinian delegation had presented themselves and talked about who they lost in the conflict. The officers, who fought the different underground organizations during the Troubles, met for the first time with Alistair -- the ex-underground fighter.
On Tuesday, the delegation met with one last group: "Relatives for Justice" -- mainly Catholic Irish who battle for an official recognition that their relatives were killed by British police officers while being completely innocent.
After some additional pub experiences all over Belfast and with a serious mental overload from the intensity of the visit, the meetings and the processes encountered, the group returned to Israel and Palestine to their own complicated situation at home.
We haven't invented anything new. Conflicts, cruelty and hatred existed long before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they have been many people's lot. Next to great suffering, clinging to memories, and pain that will never go away, we also came back from this journey with a glimmer of hope.
During the week-end of the visit, heated debates took place between the different sides about the transfer of judicial and legal power from the British to the joint government that was set up after the "Good Friday" Agreement. On Irish televisions, the fear was voiced that the entire agreement could go down the drain. A week after our return to Israel, we read that despite the problems, an agreement between the sides had been signed. The road is still long, it will take many years until the two sides will be able to live truly in peace. But it seems that they are on their way. The Irish have proved capable of slowly and prudently advancing on their way to a different reality. Now it is our turn.
Our heartfelt thanks go to Alistair Little, Wilhelm Verwoerd, to the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, and to Teresa Dillon for the logistic support.
Photography: Niv Sarig, Rami Elhanan
Translation: Oshrat Cohen