In 2001, Col. Pat Lang, a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, a leading Middle East intelligence analyst and now a well-known television commentator, called together a small group to develop a program for the Knights to support grass-roots peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians. Among the participants was Dennis Ross, the former head of Middle East negotiations for the Clinton administration. To my surprise, Ross confessed that one of the reasons for the failure of the peace process in the Clinton era had been the lack of inclusion of grass-roots peace movements in the overall effort.
Over the years I have met and listened to many Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, including the mothers and fathers of victims. Recently, however, I met a young Israeli and a young Palestinian whose remarkable stories made the dim sparks of hope for peace burn bright in my heart.
Yaha and Aziz are members of Parents Circle/Families Forum, a peace group made up of relatives of the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They spoke at an event sponsored by the Fordham University Reconciliation Project, a student program begun by Sherihan Khalil and Aelia Shusterman, two young women at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Yaha and Aziz were no ordinary movement people with an ideology and a shtick. Each had a compelling story to tell.
Twenty-year-old Yaha spoke with affection of her late older brother, who was killed just as he was completing basic training in the Israeli Defense Force. Nine years her senior, Rotem had been Yaha’s mentor, taking her under his wing as others might have a younger brother. He taught her to play soccer and basketball, “like a boy.” But he also wrote music and poetry. Most remarkably, he practiced nonviolence in the schoolyard, leading a band of brothers who prevented fights and bullying and undertook conflict resolution among students.
As he completed boot camp after being drafted into the Israeli Defense Force, Rotem anticipated transfer to a noncombat unit. Unexpectedly, he died. (Yaha did not elaborate.) That day, Yaha said, “Something inside me died.” As she sat shiva, weeping, sharing stories of her brother and reading his poems, the talk turned to Rotem’s commitment to peace. It became clear what she had to do: “Agitate for peace and stop the violence.” In her brother’s name, Yaha committed herself “to make this world better.”
Aziz is a 24-year-old Palestinian from Wadi Joz in East Jerusalem, the youngest of seven children. When he was nine, Israeli soldiers raided his home on the pretext of checking I.D.’s. They hauled off to jail an older brother on suspicion of throwing stones. For 18 days, the family had no news of what had happened to him. The brother was returned home vomiting blood. At the hospital, the doctor turned to the beaten young man’s mother and asked, “Do you have other children?”
Ten years old at the time of his brother’s death, Aziz was filled with anger, bitterness and desire for revenge. He wanted to make Israelis pay a price for his brother’s death. At 16, he joined Fatah and became editor of a party youth magazine. But the writing made him introspective. He began to question. “Can the hatred do anything? Can it bring my brother back?” He felt “only more empty.” Then, to improve his job prospects, he joined an Ulpan, a Hebrew language program largely for adult Jewish immigrants. He was the only Palestinian in the class. There he began to discover the humanity of his Israeli classmates.
As he got to know them, Aziz recalls, “it was harder to hate.” When he saw them as human, he said, he “took a deep breath” and “departed the way of revenge.” From then on he decided “to take another path” and joined Parents Circle/Families Forum. Today the group numbers some 500 families in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Its members lecture, run summer camps and produce radio and Webcasts. “We are committed,” Aziz said, to “break the cycle of violence,” to persuade people to “give up the right of revenge.”
In divided societies, giving up the right to revenge is never easy. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, revenge attacks for suicide bombings by Palestinians and targeted killings by Israelis have become almost routine. The lex talionis—an eye for an eye—is the rule for militants on both sides. If peace in the Holy Land is ever to be more than a paper peace, both will have to foreswear acts of retaliation. Yaha and Aziz witness that the renunciation of violence is possible, even for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones.
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