by Trudy Rubin
TEL AVIV, Israel — Memorial Day used to be Israel’s most sacred secular holiday because it honored those who died in wars or terrorist attacks. Coming just before Israeli independence day, it used to unite the country.
Yet this year, the tensions over government threats to democracy breached even last Tuesday’s memorial services, sparking protests at military cemeteries where ultranationalist government officials like Itamar Ben-Gvir insisted on speaking — over the objections of bereaved families.
However, I attended one memorial service in Tel Aviv that rose above these tensions and penetrated to the heart of the issues troubling the country: a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian families who had lost relatives to the conflict and gathered together to share their grief.
Everything about this gathering was extraordinary, even though this was the 18th such Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony.
Cosponsored by Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle-Families Forum, it was held at night inside the large Park HaYarkon, with no signs or lighting directing visitors to the site. Security was tight since the idea of bereaved Palestinians joining Israelis risked attracting extremist protesters. Yet around 15,000 Israelis came.
Meantime, the nearly 170 bereaved Palestinians didn’t learn until late last Sunday whether they would get permits to enter Israel on Monday, because Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had initially denied them entry. His ban was overturned at the last minute by the Israeli Supreme Court, which pointed out that it had twice rejected government attempts to ban this joint commemoration in previous years.
But what was most astonishing about the event was to see the Palestinians fall into the arms of their Israeli hosts and hold on tightly.
Why astonishing? Because these days, Palestinians and Israelis almost never come into contact, except at Israeli military checkpoints on the West Bank, or when violent Israeli settlers attack their fields — or when Palestinian workers come to Israel to work in construction or in the fields.
Astonishing because, as Israelis turn out in the hundreds of thousands to demonstrate for democracy, the Palestinian issue is virtually off the table. The pro-democracy movement is focused on saving the Supreme Court from destruction by hard-line religious nationalists and has put off dealing with the seemingly intractable Palestinian problem.
Indeed, few young or even middle-aged Israelis are aware that in the 1970s through the early 1980s, Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals taught at each others’ universities and visited regularly across the 1967 Green Line. I lived in Israel as a correspondent in the early 1980s when Israelis traveled on weekends to Nablus and Jenin to shop and eat, and Palestinians went to the beach in Tel Aviv. During the Oslo peace talks, negotiators from both sides became close friends.
Virtually all that ended with the failure of the Oslo peace process and with the terrorist attacks in the late 1990s and the second Palestinian uprising (intifada). These events, along with walls and checkpoints, have severed most personal relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.
The lack of human contact has helped create a younger generation of Palestinians who view the other side only as occupiers, while most Israelis brand all Palestinians as terrorists. That total enmity makes it even more impossible to envision any kind of political solution.
This is why I found it so gratifying to watch groups of Israelis and Palestinians who viewed each other not as stereotypes but as human beings.
At the center of the hugfest was Israeli Robi Damelin, a mainstay of the Parents Circle. She told me about her graduate student son David, who had been reluctant to serve in the occupied territories. He was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002 while doing reserve duty at an Israeli checkpoint on the West Bank.
Gradually, Damelin got drawn into working with bereaved families from both sides of the conflict as “a way to make a difference,” and has spoken widely within Israel and abroad about reconciliation. But the 600 families in the Parents Circle are aware that reconciliation can’t be achieved simply by hugging. When her son’s killer was arrested, Damelin wrote a letter to him sent via his family, expressing her belief that nonviolent action offered the only prospect for reaching Palestinian statehood.
“Three years later, I got a letter from him saying I was crazy and to stay away from his family,” she recalled. She also learned that, when the sniper was a small child, he saw his uncle killed violently by the Israeli army, and also had two uncles killed in the second intifada. “You don’t condone, but you understand,” she said.
And Yuval Sapir, whose sister Tamar — his “soulmate” — was murdered in Tel Aviv in 1994 by a Palestinian suicide bomber. As he teared up, one of the handful of far-right protesters outside the fence shattered the silence, shouting through a bullhorn that Sapir was a “traitor.” Despite his tears, Sapir choked out these words: “It is easy and natural to hate. … I chose to try to break the chain of revenge and hatred.”
For one evening, it was possible to imagine a future in which more Israelis and Palestinians saw each other as individuals. Walking back through the park, as a small group of haters kept shouting, that hopeful bubble burst quickly. For now.