TEL AVIV - The face of the conflict in the recent war in Gaza was indeed the face of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. His call for help, broadcast live on primetime Israeli television, poignantly revealed the human tragedy of that war to the world in general and to Israeli viewers in particular.
Dr. Abuelaish lost three daughters and a niece in that war. Bessan was 20, Mayar was 15, Aya was 14, and his niece Nur was 17. He handled the dreadful calamity that befell his family with a rare dignity. His message to the world was completely free from the rhetoric of revenge. The fact that he used his tragedy to illustrate the madness of the conflict and to make a plea for reconciliation made an enormous impression on thousands of Israelis and must have moved even the most hardened of hearts.
It is impossible to comprehend the pain of losing three daughters. It is important to understand that harnessing this terrible pain into a tool for reconciliation is probably the most potent antidote to feelings of hatred towards the enemy and the desire to avenge one’s loss.
We at the Parents Circle - Families Forum are grateful to Search for Common Ground for giving Dr. Abuelaish the Common Ground Award last week and thus recognising the importance of his message. Dr. Abuelaish is now expanding his message through a foundation that he is creating in honour of his deceased daughters to provide leadership development and access to education for women throughout the Middle East.
As former recipients of the award which honours outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution and peace-building, we feel that this kind of recognition and publicity offers a ray of hope in an otherwise dark and depressing situation.
What we share with Dr. Abuelaish is the belief that a framework for a process of reconciliation must be in place when the next peace treaty is signed. Another handshake on the White House lawn will not suffice. Without reconciliation at the grassroots level, any treaty will be tantamount to yet another ceasefire agreement lasting only until the next outbreak of violence. Political leaders who ignore the need for such a process are making a serious mistake.
The message of Dr. Abuelaish and of the Parents Circle - Families Forum is clear: we must work persistently to introduce Israelis and Palestinians to one another because although we live in close proximity, we do not know each other.
In pursuing this goal, we hold over 1,000 classroom dialogue sessions every year where a Palestinian and an Israeli member of our group share their personal story and journey to reconciliation with 17-year-old students. We find that almost none of the Israeli students have ever met a Palestinian in their lives and that practically none of them speak Arabic. This is a certain recipe for fear, which leads to hatred and violence. It is also clear from our encounters with Palestinian students that the only Israeli they have ever met is one in uniform at a checkpoint or a settler—clearly not the most conducive reality for promoting empathy.
At the grassroots level, there are many people on both sides who believe in the message of reconciliation. At a recent seminar for 240 Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families we met a new member, Ilana Avrahami from Ashdod. She told us how she found her daughter crying while watching television during the war because she had seen a Palestinian woman running from a bombing with her two small children. That night her daughter was killed by a rocket from Gaza.
How sad it is that in order to have a voice it seems that our lives need to be touched by tragedy.
* Robi Damelin is a member of the Parents Circle - Families Forum, Bereaved Palestinian and Israeli Families for Reconciliation. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).