Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad are two mothers on opposite sides of a bitter conflict, bound together by grief. Both women have lost sons to the fighting between Israel and Palestine. And both are determined to channel their private tragedies into a force for change.
Their friendship began, in a sense, with the worst day of Damelin’s life. In March of 2002, Damelin was informed by the Israeli army that her son David had been killed by a Palestinian sniper while guarding a check point in the West Bank. At the time, David was studying Philosophy of Education at Tel Aviv University, and he had been called up on reserves. He was a member of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the Occupied Territories, but ultimately decided against resisting his obligations to the military.
“You really don’t know the person behind the gun,” Damelin said during an interview with Women in the World. “You’re brought up to defend your country in this place … and that is why I keep saying that you don’t know who the person is behind the gun, and what dilemmas they have about serving, mainly in the Occupied Territories—not serving their country, per se.”
Not long after David was murdered, Damelin connected with Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son was kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Frankenthal is the founder of the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization of over 600 Palestinian and Israeli families that have lost a loved one to the conflict. The Parents Circle fosters dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians who are brought together by their bereavement, in the hope that individual reconciliations will someday repair the rift between two nations.
Damelin became an active member of the group, and on one occasion, she visited the Palestinian village of Beit Ummar with other mothers from the Parents Circle. It was there that Damelin met Bushra Awad, whose18-year-old son,Mahmoud, was shot by a sniper during clashes with Israeli soldiers in 2008. He had been getting ready to graduate from high school.
The initial interaction between Damelin and Awad was nothing short of hostile.
“When I first met Robi, I couldn’t look her in the face because she was a Jew,” Awad told Women in the World. “Then [Damelin] started talking about her son and she showed me his picture. Then I showed her [a photo of] my son. We cried a lot that day … I had lots in common with her. She’s not responsible for my son’s death.”
Now Damelin and Awad travel together, spreading a message of dialogue and peace. They give presentations in Israeli and Palestinian high schools, and run seminars for adults. During Operation Protective Edge, they participated in daily peace vigils in Tel Aviv, where bereaved parents and bystanders alike were encouraged to speak about the difficulties of living in a perpetual state of war.
“Some people were cursing us, some people were sitting down and hearing us,” Awad said of the vigil. “It was a very hard time for the circle, [but] I think we did a great job in the square. The fact that grieved people are talking about stopping the war so that we won’t lose any humans—it has had a stronger message and it affects people in a stronger way.”
Along with the rest of the Parents Circle Families Forum, Damelin and Awad hope to repair the strife between Israel and Palestine—not through diplomacy, not even through forgiveness, but through empathy.
“The long term goal is to have a reconciliation framework to be an integral part of any future peace agreement, because without that, we think there can only be a ceasefire,” Damelin explained. “You can [only] negotiate with a human being if you recognize, with empathy, their needs.”
Damelin and Awad will be speaking at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 22. Though Damelin has travelled abroad for speaking engagements , it is the first time that the duo will be addressing a live audience outside of the Middle East.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity to spread a message in a very, very important, gender-based conference, and also for the world to meet a Palestinian mother, and to actually see that the pain is the same pain,” Damelin said. “I am filled with a sense of joy that Bushra is coming with me.”
Watch the powerful “We Don’t Want You Here” PSA produced by Robi Damelin’s group.