ארכיון הרשומות עם התג "Peace"

Last December I was invited by the city of Kyotango [north of Kyoto, Japan] to share my preservative of our conflict and how it should be addressed. The city invites a speaker each year to talk about human rights issues and this is the first time they had a speaker coming from outside of Japan. I've focused on emotional aspects for the enduring conflict, mainly as they manifested in the last cycle – summer 2014.

Kyotango, December 2014

Acknowledgements

I would like to warmly thank Mayor Nakayama san, people of Kyotango and the people coming from other Japan cities, for inviting me for the second time to share with you the philosophy, ideology and activities of my organization – The Israeli Palestinian bereaved families forum for peace and reconciliation. I’m standing here two days after my first visit in Hiroshima, maybe the deepest wound in history that was made by man. It is a great honor and excitement for me to give this talk here in Japan, to the people that have suffered so much from the trauma of wars and have found the way to be in Peace.

Introduction

Where I come from, the end of the conflict is not yet in sight. The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is more than one hundred years old. It has many layers and aspects, historical, national, religious, political, social, and racial, to count only some. Every few years it manifests with a brutal and painful mutual attacks and counterattacks and the ones who pay the price are mostly innocent people. Around every victim of the conflict there are circles of pain, of lost dreams, of lost creation and unfulfilled potential. A loss for humanity. Families will never heal and hearts will never stop bleeding. Such was the fate of my family and the others in our organization.

This is not an academic lecture. I came to share with you today my very personal story which may be similar to the stories of many others in my region. This is not the truth, but my personal observations and interpretations of many years of living in a war zone and watching how our bleeding nations are trapped in an endless circle of violence and pain. As a joint, binational organization, we always present our work together. Today I will do my best to represent also the angle of my missing Palestinian partner.

A personal and yet national history

Abraham, my father was a farmer, growing strawberries. He loved his country with all his heart. He immigrated as an eight year old child, accompanied by his father only. He grew up and took an active part in the construction of the state of Israel believing it is his mission to build a refuge for the Jewish nation, fleeing from the persecutions and holocaust over 2000 years.

Father and me in 1962

Father and me in 1962

In the spring of 1967, at the age of 41 he was called to the army to defend the state of Israel. I was eight years old, knowing very little about the reasons of the conflict but well educated by the system, with the Israeli narrative of “who is right and who is wrong”. I know that our state was surrounded by Arab enemies who did not want to make peace with Israel, although we wanted. I learned that they were strong, mighty and outnumbered Israel. I knew the Arabs were threatening to destroy the 19 years old state of Israel, and this is why my father was called to the ranks.

The entire Israeli society was experiencing deep anxiety. We felt that something terrible might happen if the Arab states will attack Israel. And it was that fear that drove the Israeli government to strike on the morning of June 5th 1967 and start the war. Many still believe that Israel had no other choice.

No one really recognized at the time how much stronger and more sophisticated was the Israeli army over its adversaries. In only six days, Israel achieved a swift victory over all its neighboring countries, conquering land three times larger that its own. The world stood amazed, the Arab countries were in a deep trauma and the Israeli society was rejoiced, and relieved from its darkest fears. Many thought that with this victory our national problems are now over. I now believe, that in many aspects our problems have just became worse.

My personal angle of this victory is that on the day after the war was over, a small army delegation came to visit our home and gave us the message that on the second day of the war, Private Abraham was killed. That day signs the end of my childhood.

As an 8 year old boy, I did not know what to do or how to understand my new reality. What shape will my life take without father? Who will guide and protect me through life? Who is to blame? And where will I take my rage?

So I made a vow, to take revenge on the Arabs who killed my father. I did not know who they were or what the war was about. All I could feel, with the mind of a small boy, was the natural sentiment of getting even with the ones who did this to my family. I hoped that one day, when I’m old enough, I will have the chance.

Years went by and there were more wars. Many more people lost their lives and more families lost their loved ones. Fear, despair and hatred continued to grow on both sides of the border. I graduated from the military academy and served as an officer in the Israeli army for six years. I was convinced that my day will come. But in the meantime I also began to ask questions every young man and woman are asking: Why do we keep fighting? Who is our enemy? Why do they want to blow us away?

I was searching for the bad people but the more I looked the more the image become blurred. I learned by myself that in our region, everybody is a victim, even the “bad people”. Everybody in the Middle East are fighting for survival, feeling that fighting is their only choice to get what they need. And so I could see how the years go by, war and terror continues, the killing continues and nobody gets the peace and freedom they need.

These were big questions and, like most people, I felt they are too big for me and the best is to leave it to our leaders to resolve. So I began my life, invested my energy and time in my career and family, my three children. I knew something is basically wrong in our reality, but I did nothing to change it. As most people, I knew this was beyond my power.

Understanding the responsibility

Ten years ago my eldest son turned 18, the age where Israeli men and women are called to start their mandatory military service. This duty is considered to be part of our identity, of belonging to the Israeli society. It is so deeply embedded in our narrative that it is hardly ever questionable. You could say that this is the Initiation Phase you have to pass in order to be part of the “Israeli tribe”. So young men and women give their best to serve their country, challenging themselves, knowing they are sacrificing their best years for a noble cause.

My son started his long training to become a commander in an elite unit. When he successfully completed his training he was posted in a checkpoint on the west bank. All his extremely challenging military training prepared him to serve only as a guard on a checkpoint, controlling the passage of Palestinian civilians from one village to another. On vacations he would tell me about the routine at the checkpoint and how far that routine was from what he thought would be the mission of defending his country.

It was then that I understood how the conflict, once again, is becoming my personal issue. Forty years after I lost my father in the war, I could see how the conflict is still fueled, only this time, my son is on the line. Not only he’s risking his life but he’s also forced to following orders that eventually suppress the basic human rights of innocent people. And this is in a direct conflict with all the education and values I was trying to provide him.

It was then that I understood this is no longer the responsibility of our leaders only – all of the sudden it turned to be my personal responsibility. I understood changing the course of this reality will require the enrollment of civil power. So I started to look for partners, people who also believed it has come to be their personal duty.

A partnership for peace

My search led me to meet the Israeli and Palestinian members of the PCFF, Parents Circle – Families Forum; a bi-national non-governmental organization of bereaved families, from both sides of that conflict. I have found people who committed to the mission of carrying the voice of peace and reconciliation to our two communities. People who transformed their personal, painful loss to a key that opens other people’s hearts to the possibility of peace. I have found enemies, who against all the odds, turned their back to the natural desire for revenge and became partners in the mission for peace. I immediately knew I have to join these extraordinary people.

The partnership between Israelis and Palestinians is not obvious. As Israelis we enjoy living in a free and prosperous country, we enjoy the freedom of movement, of profession, of speech and of organization. However, our Palestinian partners live in the west bank. It is only twenty kilometers away from our cities but under an impossible administration mix of a paralyzed Palestinian Authority on one side and the Israeli military regime on the other. They need to apply for a written permissions to do many of the things most of us consider basic and obvious rights. Because of the unstable politics and military situation they suffer from poverty, unemployment, collapsing infrastructures, environmental negligence, lack of personal security, high crime rate and poor civil services. The Israeli army is constantly monitoring their lives with checkpoints, arrests for investigations, curfews, home searches and other sanctions. They suffer from harassment and sabotages by some of the Jewish settlers of the west bank.

Our Palestinian partners still believe peace is the only solution but under these living conditions it is easy to understand why many others don’t. Because these conditions are also the greenhouse where hostility grows. This is where despair reigns. With no hope for a change in sight, these living conditions create resistance. Young people with no hope for a better future turn their rage to violence. Over the years, this has become the face of the conflict. Popular resistance to the occupation that often takes the shape of brutal terror attacks on the Israeli side, and on the other side an Israeli government becoming even more fierce and stubborn.

And in-between, us, bereaved families, trying to demonstrate that there is another way. In normal days most of our activity is educational. We give presentations and seminars to Israelis, Palestinians and internationals in order to try to convert the audience from the regular one-sided outlook conversation of the conflict to understanding the cost and the urgent need to end it. But then came summer of 2014 and turned everything over.

Summer 2014

In 2013 another round of negotiations for ending the conflict went on, with the mediation of the EU and the US.  The Israeli government agreed to release a group of Palestinian prisoners, convicted for committing terror attacks, and the violence was relatively low. But in 2014 the negotiations reached a dead end and stopped, the level of frustration and despair raised and violence from both sides quickly followed. Acts of hatred and racism became more and more frequent. Violent clashes between the army and the Palestinian population happened daily. In the streets, in conversations with people, in public expressions and in the media, levels of aggression and hostility were unprecedented. The tension was so high that everybody knew an explosion will soon take place.

At the PCFF we felt that we should not wait for it to happen but act immediately. This time we understood our regular dialog meetings is not enough and we need to face the levels of hatred and anxiety where they manifest – on the streets. So in the beginning of July we decided to put ourselves right there in the city square and to see what happens. We printed big signs “It won’t stop until we talk”, brought some tatami and chairs, and prepared ourselves to interact with the passing people. It happened to be that on the same day we finished our preparations and setup at the place we called “The Peace Square” – the war started between Israel and Gaza.

Thousands of rocket and mortars shells were flying from the Gaza strip to the cities in all of Israel, terrorizing civilians and making many of them leave their homes. The Israeli air force bombed the launchers and the Hamas army facilities, destroying by the way thousands of homes and civil facilities. The war escalated when Hamas worriers started to hatch from holes in the ground inside Israeli villages after digging tunnels that went from the town of Gaza, under the border and all the way to the Israeli side. The terror tunnels brought a new level of anxiety and rage to the Israeli tensed community. The Israeli Army reacted by throwing tanks and troops into Gaza, looking for the tunnels, destroying by the way more houses and killing more people. They were trying to destroy the infrastructures of terror, but they did not understand that the infrastructure of terror is despair. The absence of hope is the greenhouse of terror.

The media on both sides celebrated on the spectacular images of fire, smoke and blood, opening live studios with experts analyzing the situation. Leaders on both sides carried hostile declarations and speeches full of threats to the other side. For them force seemed like the just solution while giving up on that option would be considered as act of surrender. As usual the poor people was dragged deeper and deeper into a whirlpool of fear, hate, and rage.

Our mission in the Tel Aviv city square was harder because a nation under attack requires total solidarity and becomes intolerant to messages of peace and reconciliation. For many these are signs of weakness, fear and defeat. But we decided that this is the place for us to be and to offer an alternative to the option of fighting. We stood in the “Peace Square” for 70 days, meeting and talking to people from all views and tempers. We had a microphone and whoever approached our circle shouting and yelling at us, we gave him the microphone and asked him to be clear so everyone could hear him. Tel Aviv was also under rockets attack so when the sirens were yelling for warning we ran to the shelters and right after the attack was over we came back to our spot and continued.

Every evening a few dozen people stopped to see this unusual event, to listen and to react. Sometimes it seemed useless or impossible. We had to listen to Israelis accusing us for being traitors or delusionaries. Some wishing us all kinds of deaths and suffering. But there were also other voices. People who were inspired and encouraged by our stand. People who thought that no chance for peace is left have found in our stand a source of hope and trust and came day after day for encouragement. There were countless of inspiring and emotional moments when people from the crowd started to share their own fears and despair, their yearning for peace, the pain, the loss of lives and feeling of meaning. Many identified with the terrible destruction and number of casualties in Gaza. Others wished there would be even more. The members of the PCFF were there every evening, sharing our personal stories of loss and hope and listening to all the voices coming from the crowd that was gathering.

While I was standing and talking about the possibility of peace and reconciliation at the “Peace Square”, it was my youngest son turn to serve in the Israeli Army. He and his fellow soldiers were thrown to the battle, risking their lives and souls in the name of protecting the citizens of Israel. It is still hard for me to describe the levels of anxiety I experienced knowing not only that my son has to follow military orders but that he and his friends are the direct target of every Hamas soldier. I know very well that my son, like my father, believed he was protecting his country but I didn’t want to be the father of a war hero. Every evening and every morning I was anxiously waiting for the text message on my cellphone saying shortly that all the soldiers in his platoon are safe. But as always in wars, not all the young soldiers returned home safely. Military and civil funerals took place almost every day in Israel, going on the TV with the names and stories of young lives that were lost, elevating more national trauma and stress. At the same time death and destruction on Gaza was reaching disastrous measures taking more than 2000 lives, more than ten thousands wounded, turning thousands of families homeless.

peaceday06

Peace Square in Tel Aviv

Reflections

By the end of August, after seven weeks, the war was over with the only “achievement” to the two sides is destruction and death. While life in Israel almost immediately returned to normal, for the Palestinian people of Gaza it will take years before they will be able to restore the damage. Only we know, that for many on both sides there will never be a restoration.

More than before, this violent, aggressive and emotionally intense period led me to take a deep reflection about the nature of this conflict and the chances it will ever be resolved. The expressions of hostility and aggressiveness from both sides were extremely intense. As an Israeli I was sad to see it coming also from my people, with whom I share the same values and identity. The “Peace Square” gave us the opportunity to listen to voices we didn’t accept and positions we did not like. Some of which were offensive, revolting and disgusting. But they were authentic and for me it was clear that if I want to lead a change, I cannot ignore these voice because understanding them will be an important step in breaking the vicious circle of hate and violence. I would like to share with you where this reflection has taken me.

Israel is a small country with land area of only 10% of Honshu. But also Israel is the most powerful nation in the Middle East. We have the most powerful economy, society, social services, education and military. And we managed to create all this in less than seventy years. Yet we still live as a nation in survival. As survivals from the ashes of the World War II Holocaust, the Jewish state believes it is living with its back to the wall and that it cannot allow itself to take the least risk. This survival strategy over the years became one of the pillars of our national identity. No matter how strong and sophisticated we are – this fear is in the DNA of every Israeli. It is the driver for our military philosophy and ever protective and suspicious attitude. The feeling that Israel is the only safe place for Jewish people and that without its military power the Arab nations will completely destroy it is the root of the Israeli narrative.

When fear is the guiding element in the life of an individual or an entire nation, it leaves no room for compassion, tolerance and acceptance of the other. When survival is your motive, you cannot exercise generosity or trust. With all the power and might of the state of Israel it still cannot move away these feelings. It has made security and defense its main definers.

And this is our tragedy. In the name of defense and security, the basic rights of millions of Palestinians are deprived. In the name of defense and security to the citizens of Israel, thousands pay with their lives. When fear is the driver, the results are horrific.

I’m often asked by my Israeli friends- what about the responsibility of the other side? “How come Israelis should take all the responsibility for the conflict?” My answer is that as an Israeli I can only be accountable and influence actions taken by my side. Therefore it is within my responsibility to look at my actions. If I try to understand the Palestinian’s violent actions, it does not mean I accept or justify these actions. But I can see that its origin and source are despair and loss of hope. With no hope for a peaceful solution for their unbearable situation, Palestinians too are driven to act on their survival. And exactly as it happens on our side, the survival struggle, for many, might justify the most horrible terrorist actions.

While in many places of the world, nations have made a huge progress towards living in peace and resolving conflicts in a nonviolent way, in other corners of the world people and communities still feel that their lives, rights and freedom are under a constant threat. This basic fear is in the origin of the ongoing violence in our region. It got to a point where it became the defining character of the Middle East. How can we use this distinction to change reality in our region?

The future

Violence takes different shapes and titles. It is not evil, but Fear for Survival, that drives violence in the Middle East and all other conflicts on our planet. All forms of injustice, brutality, genocide, terror and oppression are justified by fear for survival. It is the basic insecurity of individuals and communities that drives them to lose their humanity. The way to restore humanity starts with providing people and communities with the confidence that they are not threatened by anyone.

The conflict in the Middle East is one of the oldest active conflicts it the world. It also has an enormous influence on the world’s economy, security and culture. It saddens hundreds of millions of people around the world, who are passionately waiting for peace so they can safely come to visit this holy land. It is not our own business but the business of every citizen of the planet.

It is now within the hands of the people. The vitality of the role we have taken in the PCFF is again reconfirmed, following the last cycle of violence and bloodshed in our region. Our unusual partnership with the other side is the bridge that can overcome barriers of fear and hostility and build trust. By bringing a comforting message of peace from one side to the other, we help to remove the prejudice and suspicion. By demonstrating that the pain over a loss of a son is the same for a mother on the enemy side, we help to remove the demonizing stereotypes that nations in conflict stick to each other.

This is a very long process. It is very often frustrating and challenging. We are facing governments, organizations and media channels who build their power on the fear and anxiety of the common people. However we are not giving up because we want no one to suffer what we had suffered.

I started my journey believing that changing the reality is not within my power. Now I know the power is in the hands of ordinary people like us. We are a small organization but our voice is clear and powerful: If individuals who have paid the highest price in a conflict can reconcile with their enemies, then our nations should follow.

Arigato gozaimassu.