Tag Archives: Parents Circle – Families Forum

Ceasefire on social media (part two)

Sadat and Begin image by Peace Factory on facebook

Parents Circle image on Crack in Wall facebook page

Peace Factory image on facebook

There is thunder in Tel Aviv as I write this piece, but not the thunder of war, only of the heavens. The ceasefire between Israel and Gaza that began at 9 pm last night is still just about holding (there is a report on twitter already of a Palestinian shot and injured by Israeli troops as he approached the security fence), and the stormy weather can become news again. In my last post, I called for a ceasefire on social media, for an end to the exchange of hostile, hateful imagery of Israelis and Palestinians targeted at each other on facebook and twitter. From what I see on blogs, tweets and sites that I follow, that has to a large extent happened for now, in the wake of the military ceasefire. The Palestinians have more mourning and rebuilding to do than Israelis, among whom there is some disappointment that the army didn’t reinvade Gaza to end the missile threat once and for all. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is far from over, whether on the ground or on social media, and so the demonization of the Other as hateful by nature, and thus undeserving of peace, will go on too.

Social media during the war have not only been the terrain of hostile electronic propagandizing, the waging of war through hateful images. Social media have also been a field for peace-making, not only for explicit calls for a ceasefire, but also for images of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the Israeli-Palestinian groups that called for an immediate ceasefire is The Parents Circle – Family Forum (PCFF, also called Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace). It is a joint Palestinian Israeli grassroots organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. Through their facebook page titled A Crack in the Wall, PCFF kept up their strategy of seeking peace through reconciliation. They recirculated their slogan “it won’t stop until we talk” (in Hebrew this rhymes as: ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber) and asked visitors to use it as their cover picture. While the electronic propagandists were circulating photographs of casualties on “their” side, PCFF posted pictures that juxtaposed the suffering and destruction on both sides, underlined with the message that:

“The Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum shares in the grief of the bereaved families, who join a long line of victims of the conflict. We hope and wish the injured on both sides a speedy recovery.”

In their express call for a ceasefire, PCFF expressed concern for the civilians on both sides, pointing out that “anger and frustration only fuel the already existing fire of fear and hatred.”  The families hope to “serve as a bridge beyond hatred and fear by declaring their willingness to work together towards reconciliation between peoples despite their deep loss.”

Another constant stream of images of people refusing to see each other as enemies came through the “Israel-Loves-Iran” facebook page, along with its various offshoots, “Palestine-Loves-Israel” and “Israel-Loves-Palestine.” Following their typical format, there were lots of photographs of Israelis, Palestinians and others bearing the words: “Please stop the war.” They also marked the anniversary of President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 with a photograph of him meeting Prime Minister Begin, and a series of superimposed statements they made about war and peace.

The images of Israelis and Palestinians recognizing each other’s grief, pain, aspirations and hopes, acknowledging that the other wants peace, independence and security as much as one’s own side, were not those most visible amid the explosive flashes of the war. They may seem naïve, kitschy, obvious. Doesn’t everyone prefer peace to war? Isn’t the problem far more complex than a simple demand to ceasefire and live in peace can address? True, peace-making isn’t simple, and it’s proved elusive between Israel and Palestine in spite of the hope raised by the 1993 Oslo agreements. But to make peace we have to picture it, and we have to see, to imagine those we call our enemies as people who deserve peace as much as we do. See the peace you want there to be.

Putting Peace Back in the Picture

Banksy graffit art, Separation Wall

There’s very little talk in Israel about peace nowadays. Since the failed negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in 2000, the predominant belief in Jewish Israeli public opinion is that “there’s no partner for peace”. Yes, Israeli Prime Minister declares every now and again that he’s ready to talk to the Palestinian President Abu Mazen any time, but there’s been no movement at all since October 2010 when the talks promoted by the Obama administration ran aground on the issue of settlements: the Israeli government refused to freeze them, and the Palestinian Administration refused to negotiate while their land was being taken from them. Even if there were negotiations, talk about peace isn’t the same as peace.

The “Arab Spring’s” potential and actual dangers to Israel are far more often reported in the media and mentioned in conversation (attacks launched by Islamists from the Egyptian Sinai peninsula; concerns about the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979; anxiety about what sort of regime will take over in Syria). As seen in Netanyahu’s presentation of a cartoon bomb in his UN speech on September 27, in the Israeli mediasphere it’s simply assumed that Iran will use a nuclear bomb if it enriches enough uranium, posing an existential threat to Israel. And certainly for Israelis who live close to Gaza, the presence of war rather than peace seems to be confirmed regularly when rockets and mortars fall on them, often as part of a routine exchange of violence following Israeli “targeted killings” of Palestinians there.

Those Israelis who prefer not to watch or listen to any news and just get on with their lives can imagine that the relative quiet in relations between Israelis and Palestinians is a kind of peace, especially because the mainstream news long ago forewent reporting the daily assaults by West Bank settlers and on-going displacement of Palestinians by the military government. If on this side of the Separation Wall’s it’s peaceful, what does it matter what happens on the other side?

In an effort to get people talking about peace again, women activists in a group called Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, often known as The Parents Circle – Family Forum, has launched a campaign to Put Peace Back in the Picture. Launched on a dedicated Facebook page titled A Crack in the Wall, the campaign invites the public “to dream, talk and think anew about peace.” Everyone is asked to post a picture of themselves on the page while holding a sign that says:  “I also want to bring peace back into the picture,” mostly in in Hebrew or Arabic, but also English and other languages too. The web page for the campaign says:

 We can blame the other side, the circumstances or ourselves, but the fact is that slowly but surely, peace as an option has vanished from our midst and we’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s not possible, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

…And when there is no vision of peace, nothing will happen to lead us there. Other visions and other aims will continue to lead us to more and more years of conflict and alienation between us and our Arab neighbors.

We stand here together – Israeli and Palestinian women of the Forum of Bereaved Families for Reconciliation and Peace. We want to bring peace back into the conversation of Israeli and Palestinian society; and to then call on our leaders to act, in any way possible, to bring about peace in our region and end the cycle of hatred and bloodshed.

In addition to the Facebook campaign which currently shows over 160 photos, the women activists also held a three hour event on Internatio

Jon Simons at Parent Circle – Family Forum event

nal peace Day, Friday 21 September, placing a few stalls by an entrance to Tel Aviv’s busy Carmel Market at which passers-by were invited to be photographed with a sign. Some were happy to do so, others were reluctant, and inevitably a few people wanted to argue. Taking turns to use the megaphone, the women activists dressed in white repeated the message of the

Parent Circle – Families Forum event, Bring Peace Back Into the Picture

Children painting peace at Parents Circle- Familes Forum event

event, while a young woman was on hand to photograph the willing. At the stall there were also blank placards on which children drew their images of peace (why do we imagine that only children can imagine peace?) and there were stickers handed out too bearing the group’s slogan “It won’t be over until we talk” (in Hebrew this rhymes as: ze lo y’gamer ad sh’ndaber). The highlight of the event for the women was the arrival of their Palestinian friends, allowed on this occasion to travel from the West Bank with military permits. Their presence didn’t prevent those who wanted to pick a verbal fight from insisting loudly, in line with Israeli “common sense of the age,” that “we want peace, but they don’t. They’d kill us if they could.” This obvious projection of intentions is sustained by an image of the enemy Other that is stronger than any reality.

The campaign is shaped by two metaphors that are slightly different, one visual, one spatil, yet that reinforce each other. The women have understood that if there is to be peace, we have to be able to see it, to envision it, to imagine it. But given current circumstances, it’s hard to imagine the kind of peace that would put an end to the killings that have bereaved these families (in contrast to the imagined “peace” that is the relative quiet on the Israeli side of the Separation Wall). And so there also has to be a new space opened up to see and imagine peace; there has to be a crack in the wall. This remarkable group, Parents Circle – Family Forum, both embodies such a peace and opens a crack in the wall, because instead of allowing bereavement to feed the cycle of violence and revenge, they have chosen reconciliation and dialogue. Their hope is that by example more people on both sides will see each other as partners for making peace rather than as antagonists for waging war. The campaign is a start, or rather another of many small efforts by Israeli and Palestinian peace groups to at least keep a crack in the wall open so that peace can be imagined and made real.


Within the Eye of the Storm

Poster for Within the Eye of the Storm

It was International Peace Day on Friday 21 September, a day marked by several events in Israel, including the screening of a remarkable documentary, Within the Eye of the Storm, directed and produced by Shelley Hermon. The synopsis of the film on the website reads:

Bassam and Rami, a Palestinian and Israeli, were once dedicated fighters willing to kill and be killed by one another for the sake of their nations. Yet each one of them came face to face with the price of war when their daughters were killed in the conflict. Left with the excruciating pain of bereavement, they chose to do the unexpected. They set out on a joint journey to humanize the very enemy, which took the dearest thing from them and prevent the vicious cycle of retaliation in themselves and their societies. Along the way they reveal the friendship and humor that keeps them alive. The film follows their two parallel stories and the moments where they converge, both in their personal experiences and peace work as they face their shattered families, confused communities and opposing society. This is a critical junction in both their lives, as their life mission and personal agenda clash and they stand the biggest test to their friendship.

The film itself is an image of peace, or rather a set of images of peace. The key image is the friendship that is displayed between the two fathers, the Israeli Rami Elhanan, whose 14-year old daughter Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem in 1997, and the Palestinian Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year old daughter Abir was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet by an Israeli soldier in Anata, East Jerusalem in 2007. Bassam had already been politically active in founding the bi-national Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace in 2005, whereas Rami was roused to activism in the wake of his daughter’s death. Their friendship is highlighted in the public conversations the two fathers had with each other in weekly broadcasts on All for Peace Radio, in which Rami takes the lead. But the friendship is perhaps most evident at one point, after Bassam has had good news about the civil case he brought against the State of Israel for being responsible for Abir’s death, when Rami hugs him and tells him “You know I love you” in the same way that he hugs his son and his deceased daughter’s friend Danielle, who was badly injured in the same bomb attack as Smadar.

Another image or meaning of peace in the film is that Bassam does win his civil case against the State in 2011, although he’s still pursuing his criminal case against the soldier who shot his daughter in violation of military procedures. No justice, no peace, and although Bassam’s court victory is but one very small piece of justice, and such victories are very rare in Israeli courts, so is the friendship between Bassam and Rami but one small piece of peace.

Within the Eye of the Storm is a moving film, as demonstrated by the audience’s response, thanks in part to the intimate camera work that puts viewers inside the homes of Rami and Abbas, making us feel closely connected to their lives. The music also plays a significant role.  Yet, the main affective power of the documentary consists in its composition as an act of mourning for Smadar and Abir. For the most part, these are separate moments for the two characters and families. Bassam’s wife weeps as she holds up a younger daughter to compare her to Abir’s picture, and towards to the end of the film Bassam prays next to a poster size image of Abir in their temporary house in Bradford, England (where Bassam studied for an MA in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution). There are also photographs of Smadar on display in Rami’s home, but his mourning is most evident in his visit to and embrace of Danielle, his daughter’s friend who survived the attack. When Shelley Hermon described the film as a memorial to the two girls in her comments after the screening, she choked up, almost unable to continue. The sense of loss was palpable throughout the cinema hall.

The screening event itself was another image of peace, though more problematically so. The depth of feeling among the audience of about 400 people, of simple empathy, of shared grief, cannot be denied. As Bassam was called to the stage to speak, he received a standing ovation. One woman in the audience remarked that this film was the first time she felt that ‘her side’ had been listened to along with the Palestinians’, and so she said to Bassam and Shelley from now ‘I’m with you’. Other questions revealed more scepticism: how were Bassam’s activities and the film received by his extended family and community? Would the film get the same reception in the West Bank? Yes, he said, catching the implicit racism (and common assumption that ‘we Israelis want peace; it’s those Arabs who don’t) but responding cleverly with humour: they’d applaud it just as loudly in Ramallah, even though it’s full of Arabs. The film was screened on a Friday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque (and other Cinametheques across Israel), thus marking it as a ritual for a secular, bourgeois, Ashkenazi audience, who mingled and chatted as they would at any cultural event. Participation in such a ritual of spectatorship can easily displace any felt need to act to prevent the grounds for further acts of mourning. The film also leaves largely untold the stories of the two mothers, who are not seen to participate in the blood bond of shared mourning that prompts the men’s friendship.

Within the Eye of the Storm is not, however, a naïve documentary, certainly less naïve than my spontaneous feeling as an audience member that if there are such caring and sensitive people, surely Israel can find a way to make peace with Palestinians. In the film, there are several scenes of Rami failing to persuade Israelis that reconciliation and dialogue are the best way forward. Danielle’s boyfriend expresses a common view when says he can’t understand why Rami is helping those who murdered his daughter. Rami himself breaks off a discussion with a member of the public at a rally for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was then being held by Hamas, at the point when the man says he’s prepared to pay any price to keep a Jewish state. Rami has already paid the price, and even though he is distributing stickers saying ‘It won’t stop until we talk’ (a slogan of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace Circle), he cannot continue to speak to another Israeli who would have him pay the price again. And why should he? Why should we? Because we prefer to mourn?