I Forgave Him

Robi Damelin continues to seek reconciliation with the Palestinian sniper who killed her son. Through this process, she says, she stopped being a victim.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

She sits before the white balcony curtain, in a black galabia. "The really strange thing about my life today is that I have no secrets," says Robi Damelin, 65, an activist in Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace (also known as the Parents Circle-Families Forum, or PCFF). "I used to be a very private person. And though I had a public relations firm in Tel Aviv and a lot of journalist friends, none of them were ever invited to my home. Today everything is open, free. After David was killed I went to a psychologist. She said to me: 'You know, Robi, now you are free.' I didn't understand her then. She said to me: 'What else can happen to you? From now on, you'll do things and there won't be any fear or ego getting in the way.' She was right. Since David was killed my whole life has changed, it's taken another direction. All my priorities and sense of proportion changed. I don't think people can understand what it really means to lose a child."

Seven years ago, a Palestinian man took up a position on a hill overlooking the British Police Junction, north of the West Bank settlement of Ofra, and for more than 20 minutes used an old rifle to pick off soldiers and civilians at the Wadi Haramiya checkpoint. He fired 25 bullets and killed three civilians and seven Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including Damelin's son, David. The sniper escaped unharmed. The incident, and the excellent shooting skills it seemed to indicate, provoked wild speculations about the identity of the gunman. Some said he must have been a skilled marksman from the Palestinian Authority's Force 17, or even a sharpshooter from the Irish Republican Army. Two and a half years later, in October 2004, Ta'er Hamad, 24 and a member of Fatah, was apprehended by an IDF unit operating in the village of Silwad. During his interrogation he disclosed that in 1998 he had found an old rifle and 300 bullets, and would take it out to the wadis to practice shooting. He also said that on the day of the attack, he had only stopped shooting because the rifle had come apart in his hands.

The capture of the shooter and the discovery of his identity left Damelin restless. "When he was caught I didn't feel any satisfaction," she says. "There's no logic in revenge and I never sought revenge. For me, his capture was the real test of my perception of myself, a test to see if I really mean what I say when I talk about reconciliation, about peace. I thought, 'How can I go around the world talking about reconciliation and peace, if I myself am not ready to start on this path?' For four months I agonized, I searched deep inside myself, I tried to understand whether I really meant it, and in the end I decided to write a letter to the sniper's family."

Palestinian friends from the Families Forum delivered the letter to the family, which read as follows:

"This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin, I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. I know he did not kill David because he was David, if he had known him he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old, he was a student at Tel Aviv University doing his masters in the philosophy of education. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians. He treated all around him with dignity. David was part of the movement of the officers who did not want to serve in the occupied territories, but nevertheless for many reasons he went to serve when he was called up for reserve duty.

"What makes our children do what they do, they do not understand the pain they are causing your son by now having to be in jail for many years and mine who I will never be able to hold or see again or see him married, or have a grandchild from. I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death and the pain of his brother and girlfriend, and all who knew and loved him," Damelin wrote.

Military Court Judge Yehuda Lieberman convicted Hamad and sentenced him to 11 life sentences.

"I understand that your son is considered a hero by many within the Palestinian people. He is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent, viable Palestinian state," Damelin wrote in the letter to Hamad's family, "but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another is not the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a nonviolent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace... Our lives as two nations are so intertwined, each of us will have to give up on our dreams for the future of the children who are our responsibility... I do not know what your reaction will be, it is a risk for me, but I believe that you will understand, as it comes from the most honest place within me. I hope that you will show the letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet."

Something isn't right here

The movie had a profound impact on Damelin. It shook her out of her daily routine and led her to take a unusual step. "This process was percolating inside me," she says. "As long as they hadn't caught the guy who killed David, I was outside of it somehow. When they caught him, something changed. People from the army came and told me that they'd caught him, they thought I'd start dancing around the table and raising a toast in celebration. But I immediately told them that I wanted to meet the sniper. They didn't expect this reaction. They asked if I wanted to attend his trial. I didn't want to do that, it didn't seem relevant to me. I thought about him, too, about the sniper. I know that when he was a child he saw his uncle killed right before his eyes. It was brutal. In the second intifada, two of his uncles disappeared. So he suddenly decided to take revenge, but what he didn't understand is that there is no such thing. No matter how many people he kills it won't make him feel better."

Do you know how his parents reacted to your letter, to your pain?

"They surely didn't expect to receive a letter from a mother whose son was killed by their son. I was told that they said that if everyone would sign my letter, there would be peace. But they didn't do anything with the letter. I hoped they would give it to their son, but they didn't. I don't know why. A little over a year ago, at my request, a Palestinian member of the forum who visits the Palestinian prisoners read my letter to the sniper. He was in shock, as you can imagine. He said that he wrote me a letter. Now I'm waiting for it to be given to me.

What do you expect his letter to say?

And how did you feel then?

"When he told me that, we were sitting having lunch. When I heard it, I almost threw up all over the table. At the end of our meeting, I decided to go home by bus, so I'd have time to calm down. I started to think. I asked myself - What did you expect? That he would come home feeling sorry? Is his behavior supposed to affect me? It's very complicated, you see. I thought - what is forgiveness? Can I come to terms with this thing only if the sniper tells me that he's sorry? Are my feelings dependent on him, or can I free myself from this without him? Does forgiving, trying to reconcile - does that mean giving up on justice?"

Are there answers sometimes?

"Sometimes. I feel that forgiving someone who did something bad to us doesn't mean that we accept the bad thing he did to us. Forgiveness doesn't mean that we forget what he did. Forgiveness doesn't justify the action. Not for a moment do I mitigate the injustice that was done or give up the right to justice. Forgiveness certainly does not invite the one who hurt us to hurt us again."

Casus belli

Yom Kippur was observed in her home, and great importance was attached to it. "My father was the chairman of the Orthodox synagogue in the city. But even though the synagogue was Orthodox, it wasn't like Bnei Brak and people would drive to services. Yom Kippur was definitely a day the whole family was involved in. Most of the family fasted, but not me. I didn't believe in it. As a child, I was rebellious, I remember it as if it were yesterday that on one Yom Kippur I went to the movies to see a film by Ingmar Bergman. My parents found out about it and there was a lot of drama in the house because of it.

"Yom Kippur was one of the most significant events in the Jewish community. But I never belonged to communities of people. It wasn't deliberate, that's just the way I am. My father always tried to get me to come to synagogue and I didn't want to. The religious ritual doesn't speak to me much, but the deep introspection does. Last Yom Kippur I actually decided to call people and ask for forgiveness."

What changed?

"It started with a Yom Kippur two years ago, when I met with Jews in a synagogue in the United States. We talked about the meaning of forgiveness and I read to them the letter that I wrote to the sniper. It was very powerful. The word 'forgiveness,' when it comes from someplace genuine, is an extremely powerful word. Nations can be changed with this word. Forgiveness is a giant step in creating negotiation. People don't understand the power of forgiveness."

Sensitive to pain

Her adjustment to the new country was not easy, and the Israeli mentality remained indecipherable to her for a while. "When I got here, I didn't know what a Sephardi or Ashkenazi was, I wasn't familiar with those categories," she says. I had no idea about the racism that is so inherent in this nation. I didn't make up my mind right away as to whether to stay. I went with the flow. After the kibbutz, I went to an ulpan in Jerusalem to learn Hebrew. It was very boring there. There I also met a Palestinian woman from Bethlehem who was studying in the ulpan, Vida Mashour, who later became the wife of Lutfi Mashour, the late editor and publisher of the weekly A-Sinara. The food at the ulpan was terrible and she invited me to eat at her parents' home. We became very good friends. It was easy for me to connect with her, I didn't have anything against anyone."

Later on, Damelin began working for the Jerusalem Post. Her first job there was to answer angry letters from readers abroad, she says a bit sarcastically. "There I also fell in love with someone and it took me two years to find out that he was married. After having my heart broken like that, I moved to Tel Aviv. In the new city I worked for the South African Zionist Federation. The main part of my job was to help new immigrants find work. During that time, I also married a Jewish widower from South Africa, but we divorced after a few years. We lived in Herzliya and had two sons, a year apart: Eran and David."

After the divorce, Damelin returned to Tel Aviv with her children, who were eight and nine, and opened a public relations firm that operated from the mid-1980s until 2004. "A journalist friend of mine proposed the idea and I thought it could be an interesting possibility, even though I knew nothing about public relations," Damelin recalls. "I like to take chances and the idea appealed to me. Little by little, I started to understand how it works. In time, I worked with the History Channel, with publishing houses, with Lehem Erez [a popular bread and cafe chain] and with the National Geographic Channel."

The greatest weapon

The more she saw of the forum's activity, the more she realized that this group she was initially so averse to joining would actually be a warm home, a place she would like to be and through which she could take action on behalf of change and reconciliation between the two peoples. "It took me a while until I decided to devote myself to this, and now it's my whole life," she says. "After David was killed I started to search for a way to prevent Israelis and Palestinians from experiencing such a terrible loss. I searched for a way to stop the cycle of violence. Very powerful moments caused these encounters to take hold of me."

She gives one example of such a moment: "I was traveling in Italy once with Nasra Shihab, a Palestinian mother who lost two children. We were sitting next to each other on the bus, on the way to a joint interview on Vatican Radio. She doesn't speak Hebrew or English and my Arabic is pretty pathetic. So she took out two pictures of her children from her wallet and placed them on my lap. Ever since that moment, we've had an extremely strong bond that transcends language and culture. It has to do with pain. I realized then that pain is our greatest weapon for shared trust."

David, an officer in the combat engineering corps, was one of a group of reserve duty officers who refused to serve in the territories. Why did he report, then, when he received his call-up notice?

"When a group of officers formed who didn't consent to serve in the territories, David joined them and went to all the demonstrations. Throughout his regular service he agonized over that, he didn't want to serve in the occupied territories. When he was called up for reserve duty, the matter came up again. He didn't want to go. But at the time he was also teaching in a secular pre-military academy for young leaders that was started on Kibbutz Metzer in the Golan Heights. He felt that if he didn't go to reserve duty, he would be letting down his soldiers and his students. In the end, he found a reason to serve there and to offer a personal example to others, by treating the Palestinians with respect."

What was your relationship with him like?

"We were very good friends. We used to sit up until four in the morning talking about the demonstrations he arranged, on how to bring down university tuition, for instance, or how to get the press to take an interest in the students' social struggle. We listened to music together, we cooked together."

The checkpoint was dismantled the day after her son was killed, she says. "I'm angry at myself, too, for not protecting him, for not preventing him from going there. It's not a black-and-white situation, but I know that in seeking reconciliation with my son's murderer, I'm seeking reconciliation with myself. In this sense, grief is a catalyst. I never would have arrived at such deep thoughts if it weren't for the pain. It's very hard. It even pains me when I see my grandchildren, when I go to their birthday parties and I think: Where's David? Where are his children? At the happiest moments in life, there is always sadness."

Hamad's name appears on the list of prisoners that Hamas is seeking to have released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. How do you feel about the possibility that he might go free?

"I can't say that it's easy for me. It's hard to think that he could be walking around free. But life is more important than anything else. If the release of the person who killed my son will save Gilad Shalit, there's no question in my heart that he should be released. A prisoner exchange is part of progress in negotiations. That's how it was in [Northern] Ireland and in South Africa, too."

Robi Damelin organized an international exhibition of cartoons dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through which she hopes to raise awareness of the activity and message of the Parents Circle-Families Forum. The exhibition, entitled "Cartoons in Conflict," on display at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, contains works from five continents. The exhibit will travel to the United States and to European capitals, says Damelin, accompanied by two representatives of the forum, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who will use it as a "catalyst to promote a message of reconciliation and hope."

The PCFF includes more than 500 families, half of them Israeli and half of them Palestinian, all of whom have lost immediate family members in the bloody conflict between the two peoples. "Precisely through cynicism and humor, the cartoons show how crazy and unnecessary war is," says Damelin. "The Parents Circle-Families Forum has taken upon itself a very difficult and challenging task," says Michel Kichka, the curator of the exhibition. "Challenging because peace, reconciliation and tolerance seem unattainable in the morning, closer than ever in the afternoon and far away in the evening. Challenging because the circle of families, who have all suffered so, turned to a kind of art that is radical in nature in order to deal with this very sensitive and complex subject. Caricature is by definition scathing and sometimes very blunt - both funny and painful. And it manages to strike at our soft underbelly, because it tells the truth with a few strokes of the paintbrush."

When you enter the exhibition, you see a lot of humor and caring on the part of the illustrators," says Damelin. "I see very apathetic people, who in their day-to-day life don't give a thought to the issue of reconciliation, standing in front of the cartoons and being very moved and thinking to themselves: Why are we really losing our children?" W