Let Peace Be

Foto: sxc.hu

At Regent’s College in London, I took part in an interesting and deeply moving event with bereaved families from the Palestinian and Israeli side. Two speakers – one from the Israeli side, Robi Damelin and one from the Palestinian one – Ali Abu Awwad.

Were I to summarize the meeting with Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad in just one sentence, I would say that it was probably the most remarkable lesson on peace and philosophy of life that I ever experienced. Even before attending the event, I was expecting it to be a moving moment that would leave room for thought, but I can say it was even more striking than I had imagined it to be. It’s not every day that one gets to sit face to face with people for whom the Arab-Israeli conflict is not merely a page in a history book, but an intrinsic part of their existence, people whose lives will never be the same because of that very war that most of us analyze and write papers on in a detached way.

The Israeli speaker, Robi Damelin, lost her son David in the conflict. It was a touching moment to hear her read aloud the letter that she had sent to the family of the sniper who killed her son; even though it probably wasn’t the first time she was reading it in front of an audience, I could sense her voice trembling at times, as if it were just about to break into tears. It takes not only a tremendous courage but also an immense empathy to be able to forgive the person who has deprived you from the thing that meant the most in your life. Sitting in that room and listening to her reading the letter, I couldn’t help not wondering if, in her place, I would have been strong enough to do that, to ask for reconciliation with the person that I would probably have been humanly entitled to despise. I still don’t know the answer to that question and I hope with all my heart to never be forced to find it.

As a person who is an outsider to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, hearing about Israeli children who have never met nor talked to a Palestinian in their lives definitely comes as a shock. After reading about the conflict, hearing about it on the news and even writing papers on it, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that these two peoples are each fighting an “invisible” and “abstract” enemy. Just like Robi Damelin convincingly expressed it “For most of the Israeli and the Palestinians there is no face on the other side”.

This is the true narrative that nobody can see, the one that is taking place on a daily basis, beyond the closed curtains of the negotiations and intents of peace agreements. Listening to Robi talking about the way Israeli and Palestinian children never even get to meet each other, I could truly understand why this conflict is still ongoing. Even if peace was signed at international level, it would still take a significant amount of time until people would get to understand and accept each other, simply because at the human level they don’t have any idea what the other side is all about.

Most of the bad things in the history of mankind have come from our fear of the unknown, leading us into destroying others for fear of not being destroyed ourselves. So I cannot help but wonder, how can anyone preach about reconciliation and peace in the Middle East when these two peoples that have co-existed there for more than half a century now still don’t have a minimum knowledge of each other at the individual level?

When in college, I remember reading extensively about the Holocaust and what the Jewish people had to go through. I visited museums of the Holocaust throughout the world and I even have friends whose relatives have lived those dark times. Nevertheless, there was no other moment I could figure out with so much clarity the whole psychology of the Jewish people than the moment I listened to Rubi Damelin talking about her childhood. If at the beginning I was surprised to see how much empathy she was showing for the people on the other side although her son had been killed by one of them, after hearing her speak about her childhood in Germany, I completely understood.

She is one living proof of the fact that a little bit of empathy can go a long way, it can bring lifelong enemies together and make them try to understand each other for maybe the first time. And I also understood the “psychology of fear” that the Jewish people still have entrenched in them, a fear that Robi Damelin experienced herself and therefore can recognize in the people from the other side.

To Palestinians, Hebrew is the despised “language of the occupier”, just like German was the despised language for the Jewish people in the Second World War. One who has experienced a drama can understand another drama. And this is what makes Robi Damelin such an extraordinarily courageous person. However, what can now seem as an admirable and outstanding way of thinking to those from the outside probably took an immense amount of effort from her part. Getting over the death of your own flesh and blood and being able to understand the pain of the people that you deem guilty for his death…that cannot possibly happen overnight. Nevertheless, I truly admire her for reaching the point in which she can identify herself with someone else’s pain, instead of judging it. It takes not only audacity, but also an enormous generosity and will of helping others and ending this painful war.

Even if I am lucky enough to have never experienced anything similar, I could truly relate to her story merely by understanding her philosophy of life. When something as awful as losing a loved one happens, especially in the given circumstances, the first feeling than one experiences is utter anger. Then comes sorrow and eventually, after an endlessly long amount of time, comes the feeling of letting go, but not in terms of forgetting nor renouncing justice, but simply no longer feeling a victim. For most people who have ever lived dramas, letting go of the feeling of being a victim is probably the hardest thing to do, above all because anger and victimhood go together. As long as you carry anger inside of you, you remain stuck in the state of victimhood.

Having this as an anchor point, it is easier to understand from the broader perspective of IR that the peace in the Middle East is not just a question of a cease-fire or of an international truce. People have to make peace with their own feelings and sorrows and to understand the dramas on the other side in order to live together in a peaceful way. Just like the Jewish people carry inside them the same fear they experienced in the times of Holocaust, the Palestinians have the inborn fear of Israel and of all it stands for, because most of them come from refugee-families, just like Ali Abu Awwad.

Their outlook on the people from the other side is influenced by their personal dramas, by their feeling of homelessness and confusion and of not belonging anywhere, of feeling uprooted from their very birth. It’s their personal dramas that add up to the point in which hatred is born. That is why, in my opinion, more people like Robi Damelin and Ali Abud Awwad are necessary in order to make the change happen, people who can go to all the effort of understanding one another and not viewing each other as enemies but merely as people united in a mutual cause – attaining peace.

If Robi Damelin is definitely a courageous and generous woman, Ali Abu Awwad is a just as daring human being, since he was capable of letting go of his past in Intifada, of his bitter childhood in which his mother was repeatedly arrested for being a political leader and even of the death of his brother in the hands of the Israeli. Robi showed tremendous courage in turning her personal tragedy into an engine for helping other people and preventing other similar dramas, while Ali showed just as much courage in turning from a jailed militant who used to fancy violence as a way of solving things into a warden of peace and a fighter for reconciliation.

Beyond the personal tragedies which brought them together, it is that inner strength and capacity of changing themselves and reassessing their fears and their feelings that makes Robi and Ali get along and fight together for their cause. They might come from different sides of the conflict, but they are both of one kind – they are people who chose to be fighters instead of victims and chose, as Robi put it “to sit around a table and talk instead of seating by a grave and cry…”.

Each of them could have turned his personal tragedy into a reason for hating the people on the other side even more; instead of that, they decided to identify themselves with the misfortunes of the people who harmed them and to look beyond what meets the eye. To look for the internal reasons that make people react in a certain way. Just like Robi, instead of pointing to the other side and saying that the enemy comes from there and has to be destroyed, Ali chose to look for peace, to make sure that nobody would go through what him and his family have gone through.

Extrapolating from their two personal tragedies into general IR and leaving aside the guilt and hatred that nourish the conflict from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, the conflict between the two peoples has one more decisive partaker – the rest of the world. Just like Ali pointed out, as much as other states would try to help the two sides solve the clash, the division of the world into a “Pro Palestinian” and “Pro Israeli” one is not only not going to lead to a positive outcome but will fuel the conflict even more.

On an international level, all states have a more-or-less straightforward position in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but their approach is mainly directed onto the idea of having a “positive” character and a “negative” one respectively; their mere narrative is built in such a way that a solution would have to lead to a win-lose rather than to a win-win situation. The pro-Palestinian embark from the start on the foundation that the Israeli are at guilt and they have to be defeated, while the pro-Israeli start on the premise that Palestinians carry the guilt and that they are the ones who must surrender their fight. In a divided world, peace is unattainable and utterly impossible, as each side awaits the other side’s defeat. This is why Ali’s words are indeed wise, as they have that wisdom that only sorrow and the experience of pain can give one: “Peace is something to work for, not to wait for…”.

After listening to both Rubi and Ali, I share their opinion that peace has to come from both sides and crystallize into a mutual agreement that would provide each of the two peoples with the dignity of ending a chapter and starting a new one, of peace and reconciliation. This is why the agreement should be seen as a compromise, not as the action of the strong imposing on the weak. In fact, nothing should be forced on any of the sides, as any imposition would just defeat its rightful purpose of installing peace.

The best way of expressing the difference between attaining peace and imposing it is by making use of the example of Hebron, where the Israeli reached the point in which they had to put bars on people’s houses, so that they wouldn’t throw stones at the occupiers. In the absence of true peace and will of both peoples, this is what an international agreement with equal; it would be merely the band aid trying to protect a not yet healed wound. It would be the formal and fully-diplomatic way of preventing people from throwing stones, but not the way to do away with the inner tensions that drew those people into stoning their occupiers. No peace can be attained if the solutions only aim at the consequences and not at the causes of people’s actions.

Overall, after hearing Rubi and Ali talking about their projects, about the one-day of hunger strike weekly and after watching “Encounter Point” again on YouTube, I just sat and thought about everything that was said. If one had asked my opinion on the peace perspectives in the Middle East just a couple of months ago, I confess that I would have been skeptical. But after meeting both Rubi and Ali, I truly think that there is a way. It’s just a question of choice and a question of people fighting for the same goal. Just like Robi said in the trailer of “Encounter Point” – “You have only two ways – to seek revenge, hate and continue the same cycle or to try to do something about it”. To that, I would just add what A.J. Muste, the famous pacifist leader used to say – “There is no way to peace, as peace itself is the way”.

P.S. If you are interested in the process for peace in the Middle East, watch the 7-minute trailer of Encounter Point, in which you will also see the two people that I have written about:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiZ7vlRf8aI

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