Some 6,800 Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the political divide came together Tuesday to mourn and acknowledge each other’s grief for loved ones killed in the conflict at a unique joint Memorial Day ceremony, where they called for an end to the violence.
All of the 5,500 seats set up for the event in Tel Aviv’s Ha’Yarkon Park were taken, and hundreds more people stood listening while bereaved Palestinian and Israeli family members took turns speaking on the outdoor stage built in front of a grove of palm and eucalyptus trees.
Jihad Zhayar of Bethlehem spoke of the pain of losing his son Ala and urged everyone to work for reconciliation. “Silence is the tragedy don’t be silent,” he said. Zhayar was one of the 90 Palestinians who came to the event from the West Bank, after initially being barred from attending.
“I think it’s the only event that happens on Memorial Day that actually brings hope, because if you watch people who have paid the highest price talking in the same voice to end the violence and for reconciliation, surely that should be an example for others,” said Robi Damelin, one of the event’s organizers, “and that’s why we see more and more people coming each year.”
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Damelin is an Israeli activist in the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that work together for reconciliation. Her son David was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper at a West Bank checkpoint in 2002.
The group co-sponsored the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, which has been held since 2006, together with Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called the joint event insensitive and in “bad taste,” tried to prevent bereaved Palestinians from attending but the High Court ruled against him after the organizers appealed his decision.
Author David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War and who on Thursday will be awarded the 2018 Israel Prize for Literature, closed out the speeches with a rousing call to break away from what he called the cynicism and fearmongering of politicians.
As Grossman spoke, the din of several dozen right-wing protesters shouting and blowing fog horns could be head in the distance. They were kept behind a police barrier with a wall of border police standing in front of them to separate them from those coming in, and later exiting the ceremony. Nearby there was a large security presence including border police on horseback.
“There is lots of a noise around our ceremony, but we don’t forget this is most of all about memorializing, and beyond the noise behind us there is deep silence around us, the silence of the void of losing our loved ones. My family lost Uri, a young, sweet, smart and funny man. Almost 12 years later it is still hard for me to talk about him publicly. The death of a loved one is the death of a private world, with own special language and its own secrets and will never be again.”
Grossman said at the event that he would donate half of the Israel Prize money he will be awarded on Thursday to the Parents Circle and to Eliphelet, an organization that works to benefit refugee children.
Referring tacitly to criticism directed to Israelis and Palestinians for choosing to grieve together, he said: “No one can instruct someone else how to grieve there is strong feeling that connects us, a pain only we know ... Please respect our way,” he said. “it deserves respect.”
“It’s not an easy path, but it is our way to give meaning to the deaths of our loved ones.”
Grossman, referring to the loss of his son, Uri: “I found that every time I am tempted to give in to anger and hatred I feel immediately that I am losing the vital connection with my son. I choose my choice and it seems that everyone who is here tonight has made the same choice.”
For Israelis, Memorial Day is marked as a sacred occasion, one traditionally focused exclusively on mourning the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. Families and friends visit military cemeteries, ceremonies are held and sirens sound twice as the nation stands at attention to honor the dead. The very idea of Israelis and Palestinians marking the day together and acknowledging each other’s pain is anathema to some.
A few hours before the ceremony on Tuesday, the High Court of Justice ruled to allow a group of 110 bereaved Palestinians to travel for the ceremony from the West Bank. The court issued the strongly worded ruling following an urgent petition filed by the ceremony’s organizers.
The judges said in their ruling that "the defense minister's judgment is completely devoid of sensitivity to the bereaved families' considerations, who want to hold a ceremony with Israelis and Palestinians."
The court dismissed Lieberman’s argument that the ceremony was in bad taste, saying he "completely ignored" the fact that there are bereaved families and part of the Israeli public wanted an alternative ceremony to take place.
Last year, some 4,000 people attended the event, which also drew a loud crowd of right-wing demonstrators who threatened and assaulted participants, spitting, kicking and cursing at them.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, among the speakers, all bereaved relatives, the daughter of a long-time peace activist and Israeli war veteran who was killed in a 2002 terror attack spoke of her struggle to continue to choose the path of reconciliation after her father’s death. A Palestinian woman whose brother was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during a demonstration asked how much longer the suffering and grief would go on.
Grossman, the novelist, brought the crowd to their feet with a standing ovation as he expounded on the meaning of home.
“Home is a place whose boundaries are clear and accepted and a person feels relaxed inside of it, a place where one has a future,” he said. “And we Israelis, even after 70 years, we are still not there.
Israel’s Memorial Day will be directly followed starting Wednesday night with celebrations for Israel’s Independence Day.
“Israel at 70 may be a fortress, but it’s still not a home,” he said. “The solution to the great complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be summed up this way: if the Palestinians don’t have a home then Israelis won’t have a home either.”