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‘We Had to Meet.’ How Two Israeli-Palestinian Peace Groups Are Grieving Together

10 minute read
Eetta Prince-Gibson is the Israel editor for Moment magazine, the former editor in chief of the Jerusalem Report, and a regular contributor to Haaretz, +61J, and other international publications.

Spring and early summer are difficult times for both Israelis and Palestinians.

For Israeli Jewish citizens, the times move intensely from Passover, the holiday of freedom; to tragic Holocaust Memorial Day; to Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror; to the triumphant celebrations of Independence Day; to the anniversary of the Six Days War. In public and private observances, the days proceed through well-set rituals, intended to give us a shared meaning as a society and to inculcate and frame Israel’s official narrative: from slavery to freedom, from victimhood to victory, from powerlessness to sovereignty.

For Palestinian citizens of Israel and those living in the Occupied Territories, the season is marked by memories of the Naqba, the Palestinian Catastrophe of the displacement of the Palestinian people during Israel’s War of Independence, and the ongoing occupation and dispossession of their land and property. A set of observances and rituals marks their narrative of tragedy and victimization.

These narratives anchor us in our worlds. And like all ethnic narratives, these rituals are inherently political, intended to filter-out any inconvenient truth, to bind us to loyalty to our own, and to deny the humanity of the other. With almost surgical-precision, they cauterize pain and loss into divisions between us—and them.

There are Israelis and Palestinians who reach across the divides to mourn together and declare that war between their two peoples is not the inevitable cost of securing a Jewish state or creating a Palestinian one. For 19 years, Combatants for Peace—a non-profit volunteer organization of ex-combatant Israelis and Palestinians who have rejected all forms of violence in order to end the occupation and search for peaceful, equitable solutions to the conflict, in conjunction with the Parents’ Circle–Families Forum, which brings together Palestinian and Israeli families whose loved ones have been killed in the conflict, have organized a joint memorial ceremony on the day, according to the Hebrew calendar, that Israel observes National Memorial Day.

We had to meet.
- Rana Salman, Palestinian director of Combatants for Peace

The first joint memorial ceremony was attended by less than 100 people and held at a private venue. Last year, more than 15,000 attended the ceremony, which was held in a public park, and many hundreds more were turned away for lack of space.

As the number of attendees has increased, so, too, have the public objections and attempts to derail the ceremony, from both sides. Last year, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, like many of his predecessors, refused to allow Palestinians from the West Bank, who are banned from entering Israel without special permits, to attend the ceremony. In response to petitions filed by the sponsors, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that Palestinians be allowed into the country, subject to security checks. In the Israeli media, pundits accused participants of treason to their people, and hecklers have tried to disrupt the events. Palestinian participants have been denounced in the Arabic press and some participants have been physically threatened.

Yet the ceremonies have proceeded as scheduled, including both Palestinian and Israeli speakers and performers.

But this year is different, says Rana Salman, 39, who is the Palestinian director of Combatants for Peace. A resident of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, Salman says that for the first few months following the outbreak of the war, the coordinators could not even meet in person— partly because of Israeli military restrictions and partly because of their own feelings. Yet none of the members of the group, Palestinians and Israelis alike, considered cancelling the ceremony, she insisted.

“The events of October 7th and the new Naqba and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza forced us to think how we could come together as a joint community and bring our message of shared humanity and hope for a political solution for both our societies," Salman explains.

“Everything is so raw and painful. Israelis and Palestinians are traumatized and enraged. So many of us don’t even know if our loved ones are alive, or dying, or dead. But we knew that we had to meet, because otherwise, we would have no hope for a better future. We have to show both our societies that if we, people who fought each other in the past, can come together, then people who are fighting each other now can come together, too.”

The date of the event was also complicated, she noted. Usually, Memorial Day is in April and the Naqba Commemoration, which some Israeli Jews also choose to attend, is in May, so the two events are separate. This year, because of the Hebrew calendar, the dates were close. “But this also forced us to realize how truly connected the two events really are, because they both focus on pain, loss, and injustice,” she said.

Salman said that she is aware that some Palestinians and Palestinian-supporters, especially protestors abroad, may condemn the ceremony as what they refer to as a “normalization” of the occupation. “What we are doing is actually co-resisting both the occupation and the violence on all sides,” she insisted. “Both nations are totally in trauma now. I think that just the fact that our movements exist, despite everything, provides some hope.”

Avner Wishnitzer, a leader of Combatants for Peace who served in the Israeli military in an elite reconnaissance unit and is now a lecturer in history at Tel Aviv University, said, “I feel such sorrow—I feel it in my whole body, sorry for us all." He quoted cited a verse by Israeli national poet laureate Haim Nachman Bialik, “'In their death, they willed us life.' But for us to fulfill that, both sides must recognize that in order for us to live, we must all take responsibility to put an end to all this death.”

In fact, Wishnitzer acknowledged organizers were concerned, about security in such fraught times and about the safety of a large congregation of people, as Hamas from the Gaza and Hezbollah from Lebanon continue to fire missiles into Israel. They also doubted that even the Supreme Court would grant permits for Palestinians to come into Israel.

We are all here because we recognize that all of us
are both victims and perpetrators.
- Avner Wishnitzer, a leader of Combatants for Peace

So this year, Combatants for Peace and the Parents’ Circle decided to do things differently. The ceremony was held at an undisclosed location, limited to tape the ceremony for 250 invited invitation-only participants, and recorded. Viewing groups in Israel, the West Bank, and throughout the world were encouraged to watch on Memorial Day. Eszter Korani, Israeli director of Combatants for Peace estimates that over 4,000 people watched the ceremony as it was streamed on Facebook, and an additional 40,000 have watched since on YouTube and Facebook.

In Beit Jalla, a suburb of Bethlehem, some 70 people, mostly Palestinians, watched the recording in the Palestinian offices of Combatants for Peace. The offices, with signs in Hebrew and Arabic, are located in a residential neighborhood high on a hill and provide a panoramic view of Jerusalem - only just over five miles away yet unreachable for the Palestinians due to the military restrictions.

Milling about, munching on cake and fruit, the atmosphere was friendly and easy until the viewing began, and the mood turned somber and sad. The program was seamlessly balanced between Israeli Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic speakers, with subtitles in both languages, plus English, on the screen. There were bereaved parents and former combatants from both sides, videos of children voicing their fears and hopes, and musical performances.

Ahmed Alhilo, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s planning office in Jericho and Palestinian member of Combatants for Peace, who lost 60 members of his extended family members in Gaza, spoke on a tape. He struggled to maintain his composure, his voice breaking several times as he described the killing of his family members who had been sheltering at the Al-Shifa Hospital when the Israeli army attacked.

“The Israeli army is still killing shamelessly. Everyone in Gaza is a terrorist in their eyes,” he said. "I personally understand the great fear and hurt that struck Israelis after the events of Oct. 7. But does killing tens of thousands of people, causing hunger, fear, terror and indescribable pain, promise security and peace for Israelis?"

Many in the crowd also teared up as Michal Halev spoke of her son Leor Abramov, who was murdered at the Nova music festival on October 7th. “In the few times that I am able to raise my head above my private pain at the loss of my most beloved son, from the endless void that was once my heart, I find only one goal to live for—to search for what I can do to help our wounded humanity to heal, so that no more mothers will be broken by the killing, the loss, the violence and the war.”

Jonathan Zeigen told of the murder of his mother, longtime peace activist, Vivian Silver. Silver had initially been presumed to have been taken hostage, but her charred remains were identified by forensic archeologists two months later. Some of the participants had known Silver through their shared peace activities. The crowd turned reverently silent when Zeigen said, “I am heartbroken as I look at my children and think that their father may also never have the opportunity to see peace.” There was a murmur of quiet agreement when Zeigen concluded that “the joint ceremony is the only appropriate way to honor his mother’s life’s work.”

After the screening, the audience dispersed somberly. As she left, Mai Shaheen, a Palestinian member of Combatants for Peace from the West Bank city of Jenin, and a therapist and practitioner of non-violent resistance and communication, was still wiping her tears. “I am a mother, and I listened to the Israeli mother talk about the murder of her beloved son. And I think of my daughter. I think about the rapes and murders of civilians in Israel, about the genocide in Gaza, about the hostages, about the killings in my home city. And I cry. Yet being here gives hope. Being here is the most loyal action I can take as a Palestinian and a Muslim—to try to listen to the other person above the noise of the war and the hatred.”

Wishnitzer listened. “I am here as an Israeli and a Jew. But no less importantly, we are all here because we recognize that all of us are both victims and perpetrators. Death and killing are not a force majeure. They are decisions we make, and therefore we can also make decisions not to kill and be killed.”

He acknowledged that groups like Combatants for Peace and the Parents’ Circle are a minority in both societies even before Oct. 7., but said, “Both nations are totally in trauma now. I think that just the fact that our movements exist, despite everything, provides some hope.”

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