Gaza conflict: meet the champions of empathy we need

My recent columns from Israel and the West Bank have been depressing, reflecting my fear that we are in a bloody downward spiral that will make everything worse. So let me share what I saw as a glimmer of hope.

I didn’t expect to find something like this. On this trip I met with civil society organizations that have worked hard for years to unite Israelis and Palestinians, but, frankly, I was skeptical of their efforts.

All those programs, often funded by the United States, to build bridges — and today we are immersed in war.

But let me tell you about an Israeli woman I met, Meytal Ofer: several weeks ago, I sat down with her in Tel Aviv—on the 10th anniversary that month of two Hamas terrorists murdering her father with 41 blows of an ax.

“How could they do that?” he asked me. “It takes a lot of hate in your heart to do that.”

After the assassination, the possibility of demolishing the killers’ houses was raised, as sometimes happens in the territories occupied by Israel. He concluded that that wouldn’t help.

“It would just increase the cycle of revenge,” he told me. After her father was murdered, she joined the Parents’ Circle-Family Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian nonprofit made up of people who have lost loved ones in the conflict. They hold dialogues, uniting in grief with those on the other side and hold talks together to end the increasing bloodshed.

I expressed my skepticism: is it really accomplishing anything?

“I don’t think there is any other option,” he said.

“This is my home. “I don’t want to give up my home,” she added. “I don’t want to leave and the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either.”

So persist. “We have to do something,” she said. “You cannot stop violence with violence. “We tried it for 100 years and it doesn’t work.”

Listening to grieving Israelis and Palestinians together is “mind-blowing” for children, she said, because many have never given much thought to losses outside their own group. An indication that these conversations are effective: this year, the far-right government banned the Círculo de Padres from visiting public schools.

Bassam Aramin is sometimes the Palestinian speaker at these Parent Circle presentations. In 2007, his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed outside her school by an Israeli soldier who fired a rubber bullet. Instead of resorting to bombs, Aramin resorted to reconciliation. He studied the Holocaust in a master’s program, mastered Hebrew and tried to see the humanity in Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoints.

A process of mutual dehumanization has led each side, he said, to view the other as morally inferior.

“We don’t see ourselves as human beings,” he said, and told me about the Palestinian mother of a teenager murdered by Israeli soldiers who reluctantly came to a Parents’ Circle meeting, still furious against the Jews.

“She believed they were animals,” he recounted, quoting her as saying, “They don’t have hearts like us; “They hate their children because they send them to the Army.” But he met an Israeli mother who told him that she had lost her son to a Palestinian, and soon they were both sobbing and hugging each other.

Aramin is outraged by what he sees as Israel’s daily mistreatment of West Bank Palestinians at checkpoints, but he sees humanity in the soldiers there.

“They look like killing machines, but they are afraid of us,” he said. Aramin told me that the day before I spoke to him, he and his wife had gone to visit his children, taking a mountain road to avoid delays and humiliation at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. But he said they were stopped by four Israeli soldiers who angrily told them to turn around and threatened to confiscate their car. Aramin said he spoke calmly in Hebrew, acknowledging the soldiers’ fear, and soon they began talking. In the end, the soldiers still pushed them back, but they apologized for doing so.

I pointed out to Aramin that these organizations promoting mutual understanding mostly date back to the Oslo peace process, when two states were expected to emerge side by side. Now that process is hibernated, if not dead. It’s good that Parents Circle organizes camps for Israeli and Palestinian children to meet each other, but how does that save lives on both sides of the Gaza border?

The arc of history is long, he responded. Germany once tried to eliminate the Jews and now exchanges ambassadors with Israel. Someday Israel and Palestine will coexist as states, she said, and the question is simply how many corpses will pile up before that happens.

“We must share this land as one State, two States or five States,” he said. “Otherwise, we will share this same piece of land as our children’s cemetery.”

But even Yuval Rahamim, Israeli director of the Parents’ Circle, acknowledges that the group is swimming against the current.

“When I interview new employees, I ask them, ‘Are you ready to be frustrated every day?’” he said. “Because we don’t see success. But things will eventually change. Because there is no other option.”

After speaking with Rahamim, Ofer, Aramin and others, I thank them for providing moral leadership that so many presidents and prime ministers lack. I don’t know if they can really succeed in opening a path to peace, but we need those champions of empathy if we are to have any hope of moving forward.

By: intelligence/NICHOLAS KRISTOF

BBC-NEWS-SRC:, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-11-16 20:40:06

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