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Bereaved Parents for Peace

Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children to the conflict make use of their moral authority to speak out together against hatred.

November 27, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

RAANANA, Israel — Both Israeli and Palestinian societies bestow a special, if undesired, status on parents whose children have been killed in conflict. It is an unhappy collective that has grown tremendously in a war now staggering through its third year.

Their status gives these families a moral authority to speak out, and a group of Israelis and Palestinians is using the platform to fight an atmosphere of hate. Calling themselves the Parents' Forum, they first came together seven years ago; what is remarkable is that they continue even now to meet and reach out to an increasingly resistant audience.

Their message is the antithesis of today's mainstream: No to revenge. Turn the other cheek. Peace over pain.

Choosing a potent symbol for one of their latest projects, they gave blood to the other side one day last month: Jerusalem resident Rami Elhanan and other Israeli parents trudged past their army's machine guns, across the dust-caked Kalandiya checkpoint, and donated blood at a Ramallah hospital. Palestinians did likewise at a Red Star of David emergency-services center in Jerusalem.

When Elhanan, a graphic designer whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing five years ago, went on Israeli TV that night to talk about it, the artist applying his makeup demanded: "How could you give blood to the enemy?"

That's a typical reaction, said Elhanan, a man of boundless energy and indomitable spirit.

"In Israel, bereaved families are sacred. We can say anything, do anything," he said. "We use this admiration to push a new way of thinking through a narrow hole .... The whole point of this is to show that if those who paid the price, the ultimate price, can talk to each other, then anyone can."

To prove the point, Elhanan and Palestinian lumber contractor Khaled Awwad drove to Ostrovsky High School in Raanana, a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv, on a recent sunny morning.

The Parents' Forum had written to dozens of schools offering to address pupils on the need for peace and reconciliation; only a few have taken them up on the offer. This was one of them, thanks largely to the principal, a former combat pilot who supports the project.

Elhanan is relaxed; he has spoken to such groups before. But it is the first time they'll bring a Palestinian to an Israeli school, and Awwad is both nervous and exhilarated.

Two of Awwad's brothers -- 14-year-old Said and 30-year-old Yusuf -- were killed within six months by Israeli soldiers who invaded their West Bank village of Beit Ummar during the current fighting. Awwad's mother, Fatima, a 60-year-old stalwart, joined the parents organization and then drew Khaled into its activities.

Standing before the chalkboard, Elhanan opens his talk to a classroom of 29 seniors, most of whom will be going into the army in a few months. They are slumped in their chairs. Most of them have their arms crossed.

He tells them that on the fourth of September -- 1997 -- Thursday -- at 3 p.m. -- a Palestinian suicide bomber killed his 13-year-old daughter Smadar as she shopped for school supplies in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. A friend with her was also killed. Another was seriously injured.

It gets their attention.

'Brother by Fate'

Elhanan introduces Awwad, "my brother by fate."

"Our pain is equal," Elhanan says.

Both men tell the students that the deaths in their families propelled them to pursue peace and reconciliation.

"After my first brother was killed," Awwad says, speaking in flawless, casual Hebrew, "I didn't want to see Jews anymore. My brain stopped working. But then I thought, that's not the solution. You kill me, I kill you -- it's not right. Then my second brother was killed. I have to tell you, they were my favorites of all my brothers.

"The first days were hateful, but then I calmed down. The solution is not to kill but to solve the reasons people kill."

The students are unusually attentive for a roomful of pre-lunch 17-year-olds. But they're not really buying the message.

"It's very encouraging to see people like you who want peace, but there is a minority that doesn't want peace, and they are the ones running things," says a girl with shoulder-length brown hair.

A boy in a black T-shirt and a headband says: "I know terrorist attacks don't just happen, that we've done things to them too. But what are we supposed to do when we get attacked, just sit there?"

The discussion grows heated. Voices are raised when Awwad describes the routine humiliation Palestinians meet at the hands of Israeli soldiers at roadblocks. Elhanan -- in calculated provocation -- compares the actions of a soldier whose recalcitrance forces a Palestinian mother to give birth at a roadblock to terrorism.

"How can you say that?" demands the boy with the headband. "That is your army! That soldier is there to protect you."

"OK, it's humiliating, it's not right," a blond girl tells Awwad. "If the Arabs want to criticize us, fine, but they don't have to come and kill us."

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