Tel Aviv, Israel – In January 2007, Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. She had just gone out to buy sweets with her sister and two friends.
Aramin was devastated. Only two years before, he had begun working with Israeli peace activists to start Combatants for Peace, an organisation that expands understanding between Palestinians and Israelis and demands an end to the second Israeli occupation of Palestinian land taken since 1967.
Faced with assumptions, even demands, that he would be consumed with rage and abandon his work building bridges, Aramin told the ynetnews website at the time: “I cannot blame an 18-year-old boy for shooting an innocent 10-year-old girl.”
At a news conference the same evening of his daughter’s death, he recalls saying: “Especially now, we need to double our efforts to achieve peace … I have another five kids I want to protect.”
Where to lay the blame?
Aramin’s other children survived, as did his commitment to Combatants for Peace and the message that people can put hate aside and work together to end the occupation.
In late April, Aramin, now 55 years old, helped organise the Joint Memorial Day in Tel Aviv’s Ganei Yehoshua Park – a commemoration of all the Palestinians and Israelis who have died since 1947, when Zionist militias began expelling at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands and killed at least 15,000. This is commemorated as the Nakba (Disaster in Arabic) by Palestinians.
Organised by Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle Family Forum (PCFF), Joint Memorial Day is an alternative to Israel’s Memorial Day, which is held to commemorate all the Israeli soldiers who have died since Israel’s founding.
Neither Combatants for Peace nor PCFF has a singular vision for how peace will look, focusing instead on the first steps: dialogue, reconciliation and agreeing on the need for a return to the pre-1967 borders. Their annual commemoration of the losses on both sides has grown from 200 attendees in 2005 to 15,000 this year.
When pressed to identify the cause of the current conflict, Aramin weighs his words carefully. The problem, he tells Al Jazeera, is “not so much either side, it’s the situation, which means the occupation”.
While he says “it is very clear” that the occupier is responsible for the occupation, he resists accusing Israel outright because his goal is for Israelis to understand they are to blame.
“It’s possible to use our pain in a different way. Not just to continue preparing our kids to kill and to be killed,” Aramin says.
Parallel but different
Israel’s Memorial Day is a martial affair imposed across the country from sunset on the day before, with a one-minute siren, to the end of the following day.
A longer siren sounds the next morning, and the day is filled with people visiting the graves of their loved ones for prayers and remembrance and memorial services that Israel’s top soldiers and politicians attend.
A similarly sombre but pacifist atmosphere pervades the Joint Service as people come together to mourn their loved ones and celebrate their decision to nurture peace.
This year at the Joint Memorial Service, Israelis and Palestinians who lost a family member to the conflict shared their story of loss, reconciliation, and hope for the future on the event stage.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had refused the travel permit requested by Palestinian speakers and participants from the occupied West Bank, but his decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court a day before the event.
Two of the Palestinian speakers did not have time to arrange their travel, however, so their recorded addresses were played for the audience.
Mohammed Abu Rnan, a 27-year-old Palestinian member of PCFF from Ramallah who was able to attend, told Al Jazeera he came because “peace between the Arabs [Palestinians] and the Jews is the most important thing in the world”.
Not many Palestinians or Israelis agree with Abu Rnan. To them, the idea of recognising the suffering of both sides on the same stage is unacceptable, Aramin said.
During the event, right-wing Israeli protesters stood outside, shouting “shame” and “leftist traitors” into megaphones.
The shouts were drowned out by the speakers but, in a few instances, a speaker had to pause, disrupted momentarily.
“Palestinians,” says Aramin, “want to remember Palestinians killed in the conflict without remembering the soldiers who killed them.
“Israelis want to remember their … soldiers without thinking about the ‘terrorists’ who killed them,” he adds, using a term widely used in Israel.
Uri, a 20-year-old Israeli from Tel Aviv, said the way the event continued despite the protesters gave him hope and deepened his “commitment to fight for justice and equality”.
A Palestinian’s story of loss
Today, Aramin is an important figure in Combatants for Peace and PCFF and fully embraces their philosophy.
The younger Aramin was a freedom fighter, resisting the occupation in a way that gave him a “feeling of dignity”.
At age 17, he was arrested when the group of Palestinian fighters he associated with threw a grenade at Israeli soldiers.
In prison, he saw a movie about the Holocaust, which started the soul searching that ended with him rejecting violence in favour of peace.
The movie, which years later Aramin learned was Schindler’s List, was impactful because it encouraged him to start thinking about the Holocaust in a different light.
“At the time, I considered the Holocaust a big lie because [Palestinians] don’t know anything about it,” he said.
The film made him realise that the Palestinians “paid the price for this crime we never committed and we never knew”.
Thus began what Aramin describes as “a long process to change oneself”.
With the start of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Aramin “realised that we need to change our way of achieving our goal of freedom”.
“Palestinians have a right to resist,” he said, but in the past 100 years, violence begot violence. In his eyes, he added, all the efforts to resist the occupation just resulted in “more pain, more blood, more victims”.
Again and again, Aramin has been asked to revisit the moment his daughter was killed and account for his feelings.
Is it really possible that he did not doubt his non-violent convictions, even for a moment?
His answer has remained unchanged. “I don’t even think about revenge because we need to co-exist.”
An Israeli’s story of loss
Yuval Sapir, a 53-year-old Israeli, spoke at the Joint Memorial Service about losing his sister Tamar to a suicide bus bombing in Tel Aviv in 1994.
He told Al Jazeera it is hard to remember what exactly he felt in that moment besides grief and sorrow. For him, he explains, “one of the best ways to deal with trauma is to shut down all emotions”.
In Sapir’s speech at the service, he compared this shutting down to a “black hole” that followed him since. A scientist and an academic, he spent decades after Tamar’s death drowning his grief in work.
Recently, he was finally able to revisit his loss.
Although he knows it is “easy and natural to hate, be angry, and want revenge”, he said he “never experienced anger or hate because the sadness covered everything”.
Several years ago, he heard that right-wing protesters prevented a bereaved Israeli from speaking about his grief at a high school because he wanted to speak alongside a Palestinian. Sapir recalls being so angry at this that he felt he had to do something.
He decided to join PCFF because, as he tells Al Jazeera, “I was convinced that this is the best way to leverage my feelings and my loss for the good of my people and this country.”
At the Joint Memorial Service, he emphasised his belief that, through dialogue and recognition, “the flames of hatred will subside, and there will be room for reconciliation and life”.