Robi Damelin is Israeli. Bushra Awad is Palestinian. They are divided by language, by religion, and by war. But what Damelin and Awad share is more powerful than their differences. They are mothers, who have each lost a son to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And at the Women in the World Summit on Wednesday night, Damelin and Awad communicated a single message of reconciliation.
In a panel discussion moderated by Tina Brown, both women spoke about channeling their grief into a force for peace.
Damelin was first to appear onstage. In March of 2002, her son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while guarding a checkpoint in the West Bank. At the time, he was studying Philosophy of Education at Tel Aviv University, and he had been called up as an officer on reserves. David did not want to serve in the Occupied Territories, but ultimately decided against resisting his obligations to the military.
“You don’t know who the person is behind the gun,” Damelin said during the panel. “[David] said, ‘If I don’t go, what will happen to my students? What will happen to my soldiers? If I do go, I will treat people with dignity and so will my soldiers.”
After David was killed, Damelin was, of course, consumed by grief. But she knew immediately that the answer to David’s death was not more bloodshed. “Apparently the first thing I said was, ‘You may not kill anybody in the name of my child,” Damelin told Brown. “I don’t [even] remember that.”
“So many people feel such rage and such desire for revenge,” Brown said. “What was different about you?”
“I understood very early that this man didn’t kill David because he was David,” Damelin replied. “If he had known David, he never would have done that.”
Damelin’s quest for closure and peace even prompted her to contact the man who killed David. He is being held in an Israeli prison, and did not respond to Damelin’s letter for two years. When he finally answered, he did not impart the words of reconciliation that Damelin had hoped to hear.
“[It] was hardly a letter from Martin Luther King,” Damelin said. “But once I had written the initial letter, I was no longer a victim of this man.”
Six years after Damelin’s son was murdered, Bushra Awad also lost her son to a sniper’s bullet. The two women first met at a gathering 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 goal of the Parents Circle is to foster dialogue between two warring factions by revealing the shared humanity of grief.
Onstage at Women in the World, a video of the first interaction between Damelin and Awad was screened. In the clip, Damelin spoke while Awad sat in stiff silence. But Awad seemed to soften when Damelin showed her a photo of David.
“Haram,” Awad said, meaning “It’s a shame,” in Arabic.
“Haram,” Damelin repeated in agreement.
At the conclusion of the video, Awad came onstage, accompanied by a translator. Dressed in black, she wore a photo of her son on a thin chain that was clasped around her neck. When Awad sat down, Damelin scooted her chair over, so they could sit closer to one another.
Awad’s son Mahmoud was killed during clashes with Israeli soldiers. He was 18 years old, and was getting ready to graduate from high school. “Mahmoud was very beautiful,” Awad told the audience. “He was very good at school, with good grades. He wanted to be good in his community. He wanted to learn in college. He was my first happiness. I gave birth to him after five years of getting married. He was my candle, my lighted candle.”
“What did you think of Robi when you first met her?” Brown asked.
“I didn’t like her,” Awad said with a laugh.
“What changed about that?”
“I loved Robi very much after I knew her pain was my pain,” Awad said. “After she told me her story and her son’s story, I recognized that she’s a mother and I’m a mother also. Robi lost her son and I lost my son also.”
Now, Damelin and Awad are partners in peace. Along with other members of the Parents Circle, they deliver lectures to Israeli and Palestinian high schoolers. They run seminars for adults. During Operation Protective Edge, they participated in daily peace vigils in Tel Aviv.
But extending an olive branch to the perceived enemy is not always a simple path, particularly for Awad. “Some of the people in my community accept [my activism] and some of them don’t,” she said during the panel. “Some of the people say to me that I’m selling my son’s blood. But I’m not. I’m buying the blood of my other kids.”
On the night of the panel, Damelin and Awad wore the same sneakers etched with “peace birds.” “[The shoes are] a symbol of ‘walk the walk’ and ‘walk the talk,’” Damelin explained. “Women all over the world will wear these shoes and say “Why?” to conflict. We aren’t just strangers coming out of Israel and Palestine. There are so many like us.”
But Damelin and Awad are more than twin victims of tragedy, more than collaborators on a plan for reconciliation. They are also friends. And before the lights dimmed onstage, they embraced as the audience cheered.