Tuesday, July 23, 2013

3rd Report from the Ground

Dear Friend,

Are We Closer to Real Engagement?

A Third Report from the Ground, by John Kleinheksel Sr.

Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard to get the two parties to sit down and talk. There is skepticism and cynicism on all sides. Will Israelis and Palestinians truly interact, hear each other’s grievances, address them honestly and take steps to resolve the issues?

Let’s put it this way: Has the ground been prepared? Have life-giving seeds taken root that can bear fruit for peace? Are life-giving structures ready to take the place of death-dealing realities? What will bring about changes in personal relationships and institutional dysfunction/disease?

Upon my return from another exposure to a variety of spokespersons from both sides, I’ve been plunged into reflective meditation about our region and how we can “move forward” toward resolution of basic issues.

I have made no secret of my profound discouragement when I reflect, yet I was encouraged when the New York Times (July 13, 2013) published a great article by Rina Castelnuovo about the “Parents Circle-Families Forum”. Entitled “Bereaved”, she writes:

They are Palestinians, and they are Israelis. They have lost their sisters and brothers and children, lost them in terrorist attacks, clashes, suicide bombings and military service.

They understand that the only way to break down the barriers and come out of their darkness is by recognizing one another.

They are dreaming of reconciliation . . . .

They say it is critical to learn the other side’s narrative, because the only hope for ending the bloody struggle is through empathy and reconciliation.

In sharing the pain of bereavement, many have bonded and work closely together. Reconciliation with the enemy has become the purpose of their lives in the name of their dead.

After more than 30 years of photographing war and funerals, I find hope in meeting the bereaved families and witnessing their reconciliation process. If they can do this, everybody else should.

I attended their meetings, reconciliation sessions and activities. They devote much of their time to lecturing both Israeli and Palestinian youth about the sanctity of life. By appearing together at high schools and in public venues, they are living proof that there is another way. There are many activities to nurture their friendships: tours, field trips, cultural events. But forgiving is not forgetting (some refuse to use “forgiving” in their vocabulary.)

Many of the parents talk about the difficult progression to reconcile and befriend the enemy, and their own commitment is tested over and over again when they face hostility from their own people, or their own family members.

Bushra Awad, a 48-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank village of Beit Ummar, lost her 17-year-old son, Mahmoud, during a protest against Israeli soldiers in 2008. He was a high school student . . . . [After Mahmoud was buried] I wanted so much to go out and take revenge for my son. I wanted to go out and kill any Israeli. I’m a mother; I did not know I possessed such feelings of wanting to take somebody’s life. I was so full of pain and hate . . . .

I knew I had to do something, anything that would save my other children from a similar fate. But how? Then a friend, a woman who lost her family member in same circumstances, invited me to a meeting in her home with other bereaved. She told me there would be Israeli mothers present as well. I would not hear any of that; she was inviting me to meet my enemies! Those who caused us such great pain.

For two years, she kept inviting me, telling me it was important for our children, it was important to save more lives. I decided to go but I would not look at the Israelis or shake their hands, I would just listen. There I met an Israeli mother. She showed me a picture of her dead son; I showed her a picture of my son Mahmoud. We both cried for our loss.

Ever since that meeting, I’m part of the circle of bereaved mothers. We share a pain, and we share a hope to end the bloody cycle and maybe one day our leaders will negotiate peace . . . .

Then Ms. Castelnuovo tells about Ben Kir, a 65 year old Israeli from Ashkelon, who lost his 22 year old daughter Yael, in a Palestinian suicide bombing in 2003. Here is part of his story:

I could not stop crying for days, and I was so full of anger that I could explode. I was angry at the Palestinians for killing my child. I was angry at the army for not preventing the attack. I was angry at the leaders for not reaching a deal. And I wanted revenge.

I started planning it into particulars. I was lying in bed for days planning my revenge. I thought it was either revenge or I die; there was no meaning to my life any longer.

I was fantasizing how I would walk over to the construction site near my house where Palestinians were working and shoot them.

I was planning it in such detail that I even knew what clothes I would wear to do the killings. The more I planned, the more I realized that, while achieving my revenge, my acts would bring more death to my people.

The families of the dead workers would surely seek revenge on Israelis, the army would retaliate in Gaza, and the circle of death would never end.

Desperation overcame me because I also realized I was only thinking of myself and my immense pain. I thought there was no other way, that I should just die.

In those awful days I received a pile of condolence letters which I hardly looked at, I was so immersed in my grief, anger and quest for vengeance. But I read this one, from a woman named Hagit, a bereaved mother.

I called her and we cried a lot. She invited me to a gathering of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians.

I hung the phone up on her.

But then, I just went. I did not know why, I went. I sat and listened to some 60 people, Israelis and Palestinians, and I was not alone in my grief any longer.

Those wonderful people gave me a reason to go on living. I realized that the Palestinian stories and my story are no different. Our tears taste the same; our blood is the same color. I feel more comfortable with a bereaved Palestinian then with a regular Israeli citizen. We know what loss is, the shadow of our dead following us every day, every moment of our lives. But I’m not a walking dead any longer.

I live for a cause, and this is what I am saying in every lecture. Whether Israelis or Palestinians, revenge is not an answer. It will only bring more and more death. It is not easy to open up your wounds and expose yourself in front of so many people every day, but I believe today that only through mass reconciliation can we make peace one day . . . .

What can we learn from bereaved families? Can we apply these lessons to the larger society?

The unjust death of a family member triggers pain and outrage. If anger seethes long enough without being harnessed, it leads to revenge and the cycle of violence spirals downward.

These parents have gone through purging fire, refining them to arrive at the essence of human existence: making room for each other; ending the spirit of revenge; sharing common pain, even with the enemy; and sincerely seeking reconciliation.

There have been many Israeli and Palestinian deaths. Both peoples have suffered. It is hard to face the truth about actions that have brought outrage: 1) doing violence to Palestinian villagers and villages; 2) doing violence to Israeli buses, restaurants and schools in retaliation.

It takes “grace” to admit we are all flawed human beings in need of undeserved favor. Yet, the world does not look with favor on those who mourn. To be vulnerable and subject to criticism is to be weak. And we want to be seen as “strong” and in charge. Never admit you might have been in the wrong!

As you read these words, the “basis” for talks between the parties is being “formalized”. Each side has its precious shibboleths (settlements are OK; there is no Occupation) and historic positions to defend and protect (restitution is a must; and the right of return). Each side wants to avoid betrayal (again)!

Can we break out of predetermined “roles” that we are expected to play?

Can’t we just sit down and talk about what’s bothering us? Please . . . .

Will the parties truly interact? Can we be frank with each other?

My devotions today included Jesus’ Parable of the Soils (Mark 4:1-20). I wondered what kind of soil we have in I/P now? Is it “good soil”? Do life-giving seeds have a chance to take root, be free of distracting weeds and bear fruit for the flourishing of all the people in that tortured land? Or are hearts hard, ears closed, hands clenched into fists, and feet paralyzed?

Bushra Awad and Ben Kfir and the bereaved parents are working on it. Simple people, not the walking dead, but the wounded living, who steer clear of detours, distractions and dead ends and lead us forward toward a hopeful future for everyone, Israelis and Palestinians alike.