"At 4 A.M., I got out of bed and went to read the letter," says Robi Damelin. "Palestinian friends knew that the Palestinian news agency Maan published a letter of response from the sniper to the letter I wrote to him, but it was hard for them to tell me about it. One night, at 11 o'clock, I turned on the computer and saw an e-mail that a friend had sent from America, in which she told me that there was a letter. Think about it: I'm living alone, it was already late and I couldn't start calling anyone. I was shocked and afraid to read the letter. I couldn't fall asleep, as much as I tried."
Just before Yom Kippur, Robi Damelin, 65, an activist in the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace (also known as the Parents Circle - Families Forum, or PCFF), revealed in these pages ("I forgave him," Haaretz Magazine, September 25) an unusual letter of reconciliation that she'd written to the Palestinian sniper who killed her son David, an officer in the reserves. In March 2002, Ta'er Hamad positioned himself with an old carbine rifle on a hill opposite a checkpoint in Wadi Haramiya, killed eight Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians - and escaped unscathed. Two and a half years later, in October 2004, he was arrested by an Israel Defense Forces unit operating in his village of Silwad. After learning of his incarceration, Damelin decided to contact him and his family, seeking reconciliation.
"This is one of the hardest letters I'll ever have to write," she wrote them, some months later. "David was 28, studying for a master's degree in the philosophy of education at Tel Aviv University. He was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had compassion for all human beings and he understood the Palestinians' suffering. He treated those around him with respect. David belonged to the officers' movement that refused to serve in the occupied territories, and yet, for many reasons, he served when he was called up for reserve duty. I cannot describe to you the pain I have felt since his death. After your son was apprehended, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do: should I ignore the whole thing or try to find a way for closure? I came to the decision that I wish to choose the path of reconciliation."
Robi Damelin waited several years for Hamad's response, which swiftly dashed any hopes she harbored of reconciliation. "I recently learned of the contents of a letter by Robi Damelin, mother of the soldier David, who was one of the 10 soldiers of occupation who were killed in the operation for which I was sentenced to 11 life terms," Hamad wrote. "I cannot address the soldier's mother directly. Not because it is difficult for me to convey my response from prison, but because my hand refuses to write in a style that epitomizes the policy of the occupation, that refuses to recognize and to accept the rights of our people. I cannot hold a dialogue with someone who insists on equating the criminal and the victim, and on equating the occupation with its victims. This is my response to the letter of Mrs. Robi, and I hereby criticize her sarcastic style when she thinks that with emotional words it is possible to resolve this decades-old conflict."
Hamad bluntly rejected the bereaved mother's outstretched hand. "Mrs. Robi did not explain what led the soldier David to enlist," he continues. "She doesn't know the iron fact that her son not only took part in the torture of my people, but stood at the head of the perpetrators of the killing and murder. From her letter, it appears that she is living on another planet. She forgets that the late Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat) called for peace 35 years ago. I wish to remind the mother of the soldier David that history proves that a people that does not fight an occupation with all means, including arms, cannot obtain its rights. This is the lesson that must be taken from looking at your ally the Americans who were humiliated in Vietnam and this is the lesson of your army's withdrawal from Lebanon. You must remove your hands from our land and from our people, and if not, it is our duty to kill the murderers.
"Mrs. Robi says that she joined the Palestinian and Israeli parents' organization for peace, after the death of her son," Hamad added. "This is an organization of parents who lost their children in the arena of the conflict, while she, Robi, is determined to equate our martyrs with their casualties, likening those who are fighting for their rights with the occupiers. Just as I refused to directly address the soldier's mother, I cannot wish to meet her. I cannot meet with the occupier of our land on the same land. I carried out the operation as part of the struggle for freedom, justice and the establishment of an independent state, not out of a lust or love for killing. Acts of violence are a necessity imposed upon us by the occupation and I shall not abandon this path for as long as the occupation continues."
"For more than two and a half years I waited for a letter and suddenly, after the article on Yom Kippur, I received a response," says Damelin at her home in Tel Aviv. "I have no doubt that the article was a catalyst for him. I admit that I didn't expect his letter to be so cruel and political. I searched for something personal, because maybe I wanted it to be a personal process. But there is nothing personal in his letter of response. It's a kind of declaration. This is also a statement, but in the end, his letter is full of political cliches. It contains no deep thinking beyond the political justification of freedom fighters who seek to achieve their own state."
A few days later, Damelin decided to write back to Hamad. "Ta'er," she wrote, "you wrote that David went to the army in order to kill, but this young man, who spent most of his time attempting to effect a change through education, said: 'If I go to reserve duty I will treat everyone with respect and so will my soldiers.' I think that these are not the words of a violent person. I think that these are the words of a person who is certain that we should not be in the occupied territories. A Palestinian I met after you killed David told me that he spoke with my son the day before and that he was sorry to hear that David had been killed. This is the human side of the conflict. You say that you killed 10 soldiers and civilians with the goal of ending the conflict. Is it possible that there was an element of personal revenge, as you had seen your uncle violently killed by Israeli soldiers as a child and had lost another uncle in the second intifada? Do you think you changed anything? I think that the killing of human beings, on both sides, only contributes to the cycle of violence."
Only through writing, Damelin says, is she able to think and to put things in proportion. "I sat down by myself and after 20 minutes I was done. Then I understood once more that I am really no longer this man's victim. If I were a victim, my writing would be much angrier and more bitter. But it wasn't. My reaction was sadness about the whole situation, about the lack of hope, about a person who, after receiving such a letter from me, writes me back the way he did. I found it sad that he, or his friends in prison who perhaps helped him write, didn't look at all at the human side: his and mine."
That's obvious. But what's the point of another letter? You've seen now what he has to say.
"Almost everyone tells me that. But when you're fighting with someone, the first encounter is the most dramatic. In the second encounter, you're less angry. I want this man, who killed my son, to understand what I'm doing."
Still, you can't ignore that he views your son as a criminal and an occupier.
"He basically said my son is a murderer. That's why it was important for me to write to him again. I know that if this sniper would have had a chance to know David, he wouldn't have been able to kill him. In this sense, my response is almost to protect my son. And yes, there is something insulting in his saying that I'm not being honest, when I know to what extent I examine every day just who I am, [and ask myself] do I really mean what I say."
Is there something in particular that motivated you to write the second letter?
"Ever since I received his letter, I couldn't sleep at night. One morning, very, very early, I started getting food ready for my cats and I was listening to the radio. That morning I heard a BBC interview with Jo Berry, daughter of a British MP, and with Patrick McGee, an activist in the Irish underground who was responsible for the bombing of the parliament in London in which her father was killed. They talked about their first encounter and about the reconciliation process they're going through. It was like it was custom-made for me: When I heard them I thought that maybe I'm not really crazy like everybody thinks, and I went into the room to write.
"It's hard for me to imagine that Ta'er and I will do something like that. It's hard for me to imagine the continuation of what I'm doing. I don't expect to receive any letter next week and I don't expect us to meet one day. This is a process that could last 20 more years."
What does you older son say?
"When I told Eran that I received a letter from the sniper, I expected him to say, 'For god's sake, Mom, let this thing go.' But he said something very beautiful. He said, 'Mom, this is also the beginning of a dialogue.'"
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