As we have previously informed a delegation of the PCFF (Khaled Abu Awwad and Aaron Barnea) participated in the ceremony in which a selected group of the membership of the IGFM and guests were invited. Two olive trees were symbolically awarded to the PCFF and the Organization of the Swiss Friends of the PCFF was formally launched in this occasion.
The special meaning of this award for the PCFF is that it erases the artificial difference between “human rights organizations” and “dialog organizations”. The trend of the foreign donors to “peace ngos” in our region tended to be more generous towards the first of the above mentioned ngos. The PCFF, an organization that transformed the dialog and the encounter of the two peoples in its essential message, insisted that the very important struggle in the defense of human rights can not overlook the fact that in order to create a consciousness among the citizens of the inflicting side of the importance of respecting the human rights of the other, it is absolutely essential to dismantle the simplistic, uni-dimensional vision of the other. Only direct dialog, encountering the other, physically, face to face, can each side “discover” the humanity of the other, and understand that the other has rights too.
In the very emotional gathering which took place in an elegant venue at the centre of the Swiss capital, Berne, the General Secretary of the Swiss Section of the ISHR read greetings which were sent by Alexander Freiherr von Bischoffshausen, President of the ISHR and by Ms. Barbara Schmid-Federer, President of the Swiss Section of the ISHR.
Matthias Hui, Theologian in charge of Development and Cooperation at the Ecumenical World Department of the Reformed Churches (Bern-Jura-Solothurn) read the "Laudatum", The two delegates of the PCFF addressed the audience and received each one a special mention and were invited to address the public.
Ms. Schlegel awarding Khaled Abu-Awwad
Today's ceremony of the Swiss Human Rights Award by the International Society for Human Rights to the Israeli-Palestinian organization "Parents Circle - Families Forum" is a message of protest: “We had enough suffering in our families and our societies. Things must go on in a different way: No more deaths, no more prisoners and end to wars and violence”!
We, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, are here today to support this revolt. In its radical humanness it relates to ourselves. It goes beyond conventional political boundaries. This circle of Palestinian and Israeli families who joined together against violence is more and more growing. We are honored to honor this circle. We are listening to the testimonies of mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, grandmothers and uncles of those relatives who lost their lives. You have chosen not to remain silent in a situation of occupation and displacement, terror and war. On the other hand and out of great respect I remain silent at first: in memory of all the people who are victims of violence.
"May we not be victims anymore, neither the victims of our enemies nor the victims of our own fears" said David Grossman this summer, at the end of his speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association. The great Israeli writer investigates solutions to the vicious victim cycle. He himself - two years ago – had lost his own son Uri, who died in South Lebanon as a young soldier. "May we not be victims anymore, neither the victims of our enemies nor the victims of our own fears." And then the wonderful phrase: "May we come home."
In Grossman’s vision “Coming Home” means: Palestine / Israel as a home for all, finally, beyond exodus, destruction, persecution, exile and displacement: It shall not happen anymore that sons and daughters don’t return home one day, because they died in war and violence.
Dear Khaled Abu Awwad, you went through bitter experiences: your brother Youssef did not return home. In your village he was shot at close range by an Israeli soldier. Two years later, your fourteen-year-old brother Sa'ed did not return, killed by an Israeli sniper out of a watchtower. Another two years later your son Mo'ayed was shot during a demonstration and remains disabled. And earlier this year – in your own home –his twin brother, your son Mohanned was imprisoned in a brutal attack by the Israeli army. So much suffering. All deeds remained unpunished, the responsible soldiers and their superiors with impunity. When you heard during a conference that your son Mo'ayed was seriously injured, you said, 'Listen, we must not lose hope, whatever happens. We must not abandon the path of reconciliation."
I bow to your attitude of life.
Dear Aaron Barnea, you have gone through the same deep pain that we parents can ever suffer. Your son Noam died 1999 in action in southern Lebanon five days before the end of his military service. He wore a badge on his uniform, which he had received from his mother: "Let Lebanon in peace". Noam no longer believed in the need of the action. In the year 2006 - in a letter to your deceased son - you wrote shortly before the outbreak of the next Lebanon war: "Once again there are trumpets of war and again the primitive idea that power will overcome all. Again human lives are being sacrificed with intolerable ease. So you see, my son, our mutual struggle is not yet over! I’ll return to you time and again to draw spiritual strength from you".
I applaud your humanity with my deepest respect.
Aaron addressing the public.
Today we honor an organization of parents drawing a very personal conclusion from the disaster that their child did not return home one day. What they do across the normality of violence and counter violence, they try to transform pain, anger and helplessness - created by the violent death of their child – into life force. Opt for justice and reconciliation instead of revenge. Escape the threat of political exploitation by the own government. Not to allow certain groups to hit back in the name of martyrs.
Some do not succeed on this path of reconciliation. In Palestine, I have seen what violence can do to people. In our center for the disabled an intelligent and politically alert coworker of mine has lost her hope for peace completely after the brutal shooting of her brother by the Israeli army. Hearing messages about terrorist attacks in Israel, her despair made that she no longer perceived human beings, but only casualties and impotent revenge. Somehow I could understand her. She had no access to a Parents Circle, a Families Forum.
The fathers and mothers of the Parents Circle will meet in a lifelong path, which leads by definition - and this is the breakthrough - across national borders. People from different backgrounds share their pain, anger and history together. They recognize the suffering of others and find themselves in the suffering of others. But: is it really necessary today in Israel / Palestine, to lose one’s son or daughter, in order to receive people on the other side as human beings? The women and men in the Parents Circle are members of an organization that does not recruit new members. It is their fate, not visible to non-affected people, that selects them.
I found an impressive comment of the Parents Circle concerning the Israeli military violence against the Gaza Flotilla this year: "Those who long for peace and dignity in our country understand that a solution will not come if we do not recognize the human rights of all in the area. Recent events make it clear that violence is not the answer and will not lead to a solution for the conflict. We urgently need a new way of thinking which is based on the principle of knowing the needs of the other and respecting their human rights. A new attitude recognizing the existence of the other.” Human rights for all are the common ground. This goes far beyond a conciliatory commitment to coexistence. That is why this organization deserves the Swiss human rights prize of the ISHR.
Just because I am deeply touched by the work of the Parents Circle, I would like to mention two traps. The first one is the apparent symmetry. The mothers and fathers in the Parents Circle come from both societies, Israeli and Palestinian, they work together in a bi-national partnership. We can distinguish an organization that gives us a good sense of fairness and equity, mutual respect and symmetry. But the Israel / Palestine conflict is highly asymmetric. The consequences of the expulsion and dispossession of people since 1948 are one-sided. The settlements in the West Bank and the dominance in Jerusalem, in short the power politics of one of the two sides. And also concerning the number of victims, such as in the war of Gaza - that they are completely irrelevant when a family loses a member - there is complete asymmetry. It's about power and fear, racism and violence. It is not enough, what we long for: that people on all sides should just show good will to reconcile and integrate their forces. Political solutions are needed. And that’s what organizations as the Parents Circle are preparing, e.g. by telling young people in schools about individual stories of loss and the collective stories of the trauma of both of the “other sides”.
And yet another trap: sometimes we feel as spectators of the Middle East tragedy. Many people in Switzerland don’t really believe in a solution "down there”, assuming that they have nothing to do with it. They ignore our history of nationalism, anti-semitism, religious claim to the Holy Land or colonialism, the never-ending demands for oil. No, mere spectators, we are not. To our credibility's sake, we must demand a more consistent stance from our government in the Middle East conflict. It is irritating that the Swiss Government helps the Parents Circle and many other human rights organizations - and that same Swiss government through its Defense Department works closely with the Israeli army, which is responsible for so much violence and suffering in the families, developing common weapons systems or buying military equipment war-tested in Israel. Switzerland is capable to act differently. It is intended as the guardian of international humanitarian law, as those of the Goldstone report that it has so much welcomed, to make the issue of impunity their task. Until war criminals of all sides will be judged.
We can act. The Parents Circle and many other groups and organizations in Israel and Palestine prove it. Only little hope and pressure is coming into from diplomatic processes in the times of violence and counter violence. Remains the civil society. Efforts to reach a just peace from the bottom does not mean simply dialogue, peace, joy and harmony. Peace work today can mean the acceptance of obligation to boycott, divestment and sanctions. I realize that an unstoppable process - as against apartheid in South Africa - is in transition, a process in which people use non-violent action for a dignified life for all people in Palestine and in Israel. The policies remain controversial, even in the Parents Circle. We need to open conversation with each other. And sometimes the shared silence. In Bern, for almost fifteen years, we have been standing on the streets once a month for five minutes in silence for a just Peace in Israel / Palestine.
I come back to David Grossman. He also will not remain spectator, he gets involved when Jewish settlers conquer Palestinian homes in Jerusalem. Also he is the author of bedtime stories for children. One is about Joram, who when not asleep at night, climbs up the walls until he reaches one of the pictures hanging in his room, for example the one with two lions in the jungle. Then he climbs over the frame and into the picture. Not to remain spectator, but to put himself into the picture, acting and continuing to write his own story. My son loves Joram. Perhaps this story gives him the courage to climb up the walls after a big loss - in my son’s case the loss of his mother - which has something to do with outrage, in order to re-enter life afterwards and to remain in the picture.
In the midst of the experience of death and destruction one can unexpectedly receive life, resistance and will of reconciliation. A member of your circle drew the following conclusion: "The wall that separated me from the other side of the story keeps crumbling." Against all appearances you bear witness to this. Thank you, dear members of the Parents Circle, for the encouragement that comes from your attitude and your particular work.
* Matthias Hui is a theologian and employee of the Federal Service for ecumenism, mission and development cooperation of the Reformed Churches Bern-Jura-Solothurn. From 1994 to 1998 he worked in the West Bank / Palestine as co-director of the Star Mountain rehabilitation center for children with disabilities. Since 1998 he has been working in the Swiss Forum for Human Rights in Israel / Palestine. He is a single father of a ten year old son.