By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
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By Jon Campbell
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In 1995, Dr. Rihab Essawi was pruning plants in her garden in her village with her nephew, Fadi, on a sunny day off from her job as a social worker for people with special needs. It was nearly time for lunch, so Fadi, 17, stood up, stretched his lanky limbs, and strolled alongside the road to gaze over the hill that slopes toward Jerusalem. Essawi heard a car, and looked up to see Fadi "just drop in front of me, his head almost cut off from his body." The IDF soldiers who had shot him did not stop. Fadi had been hit in the neck with notorious dum-dum bullets"the kind that explode inside your body," Essawi says. She rushed him to the hospital, but "he was gone before we got there. Just a pool of blood."
Only a few years before, Essawi had taken a similarly heartbreaking trip to the hospital. In 1991, during the first intifada, she was home visiting her mother when soldiers used tear gas to break up a demonstration of stone-throwing kids outside. Essawi closed the windows, not realizing that a canister had landed in their living room. It gushed gas into the sealed house. "My mom's face started to turn blue and she was screaming for air," Essawi recounts. "Before we reached the hospital she was dead."
Among both Israelis and Palestinians, relatives of victims of the spiraling conflict often harden their hearts and positions, and are easily recruited into factions calling for vengeance. Psychiatrists in both societies have lamented what they describe as dangerous "death cults" in their respective communities.
But Rihab Essawi and Amiram and Tilda Goldin are bucking this tendency, becoming comrades in an unlikelyyet growingmovement for Jewish-Arab reconciliation: the Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum for Peace. They will speak in New York on Saturday as part of a 14-city tour of the U.S. sponsored by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, a pro-Israel, anti-occupation organization that was founded last spring. "Our future is the same future," Amiram Goldin says of his Palestinian colleagues. "We share a destiny."
The Families Forum, which now includes 200 Palestinian and 200 Israeli families, was founded by an Orthodox Jew, Yitzhak Frankenthal, after his 19-year-old son Arik was killed in 1994 by activists with Hamas, the militant Islamic movement. "As I was sitting shivah for Arik a friend said to me, 'Now you understand it is impossible to make peace with an enemy that understands only violence,' and I knew that was all wrong," Frankenthal says. "I knew the only reason Arik was murdered was that there was no peace between our peoples and I blamed the leaders. The Palestinians were acting exactly as we would if we would be under occupation. The occupation is a kind of terror that we are doing against Palestinians, and they are doing unacceptable terror against Israelis. As a man who loves his people and his country, I decided that I had to do whatever I can to help bring reconciliation and peace. There is no other solution."
It took Frankenthal three months of poring over old newspaper clippings in the Tel Aviv library to put together a list of Israeli families that had lost members to the conflict. He wrote to 350 of them. About 100 letters came back undeliverable, and most who did receive the letter ignored him. Two sent what he calls "very negative reactions," but 44 asked how they could join. Soon after their first gathering, in 1995, the fledgling group planned a trip to meet counterparts in Gaza"We couldn't make reconciliation by ourselves," says Frankenthaland they were warmly received. "We share the same sorrow," Frankenthal explains. "When someone tells you about his infant killed by a soldier, you cry the same tears as when someone tells you his child was killed by a suicide bomber. We all want no one else to suffer the pain we share."
That doesn't make the work easy. Ask Frankenthal to describe some of the obstacles to carrying out the group's mission, and he'll answer, "Got a few hours?" There's the problem of permits for Palestinians to enter Israel and of Israelis being barred by their own government from entering the Occupied Territories. In any case, Palestinians have to go through so many checkpoints that, says Frankenthal, "It can take them seven hours to make a trip of five miles. Really. That's how crazy it is." And then there are the pressures from neighbors who tell forum members on both sides that they are consorting with the enemy. Frankenthal gets threatening phone messages and even death threats: "I'm used to it," he shrugs.
Though this is the group's first national tour, it's not their first trip to the U.S. Last March, they brought a symbolic display of flag-draped coffins representing 773 Palestinians and 203 Israelis who had been killed in the current intifada by that point, and set it up outside the United Nations. They also met with half a dozen members of Congress. In the short time since, those numbers have climbed to more than 1500 Palestinians and more than 500 Israelis, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. Meanwhile, says Frankenthal, those Congress members have "done nothing at all."
That's one reason Brit Tzedek is sponsoring the tour, says Marcia Freedman, the group's president and a former member of the Israeli Knesset. "Americans hear only one voice on each side of the conflictHamas on one side, and the Sharon government and the settlers on the other," she explains. "The agenda of the conflict is being decided by extremists on both sides, so the more representative, and larger variety of voices who support Israeli withdrawal from the settlements and a two-state solution must be heard here."
"Sharon and Arafat are not going to do it by themselves," says Essawi, even though "people are tired and want things to change." "Israelis are suffering," she adds, and Palestinians "feel more desperate every day, and the way some are responding, going and killing people in a restaurant, is not right."
She and her five-year-old son, Bashir, moved back to her late mother's house outside Jerusalem soon after the intifada erupted. It's safer there than in Ramallah, where they had been living with her husband. But that means Essawi has barely seen her husband in the last two years; he doesn't have a permit from Israel to spend the night in Jerusalem. Essawi works from home most days rather than spending several hours at checkpoints to and from her Ramallah office. Besides, Bashir has become so traumatized by the guns and tear gas at the checkpoints that he cries whenever he hears they're going to the West Bank city. When Bashir was introduced to Yitzhak Frankenthal, he wondered aloud whether the Jew would kill him. "All he knows is soldiers and settlers," Essawi explains. "I told him they have good people and bad people just like us, but he was terrified to meet Yitzhak." She sighs and adds, "I just want my kid to have a normal life."
That's the simple desire shared by all members of the Families Forum, but one Amiram Goldin, for example, believes is being thwarted by his own government. "When Omri was killed, I didn't feel vengeance," he says. "My major feeling was sadness that we Israelis had not done everything we could to protect our children by bringing an end to the conflict, by making peace."
Yitzhak Frankenthal, Amiram and Tilda Godin, and Dr. Rihab Essawi will be speaking on Saturday, October 19, at 7 p.m. at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, 15 West 86th Street.