When violent men see the other as human
Rami Elhanan is an Israeli, Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian. Both live in Jerusalem, both grieve for daughters killed in the conflict. And somehow they fought off the urge for vengeance
By Joanna Moorhead, Guardian
August 03, 2013
Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are sitting opposite one another in a London sitting room: there is plenty of banter and laughter. They are obviously extremely close, and comfortable in one another’s company: two men who know that when you strip away the rest, what matters most is family and friendship.
But these men found out in the hardest way possible how precious life is, when their lives were torn apart by the deaths of their children. Bassam’s daughter Abir was 10 when she died; Rami’s daughter Smadar was 14.
The two families live in Jerusalem and their daughters died in the conflict there. Abir was shot in the head with a plastic bullet outside her school on the West Bank and Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing when she was shopping with her friends on a busy street.
So the two fathers have much in common, but Bassam is Palestinian and Rami is Jewish. In their youth, each man played his part in the violence: Bassam served seven years in jail for throwing a hand-grenade at a group of Israelis; Rami was a soldier in the Israeli army. And each man lost his daughter to the violence of the other side: the bullet that killed Abir was fired by an Israeli soldier, while the suicide bomber who killed Smadar was Palestinian.
All of this makes the camaraderie in this room truly remarkable, because Bassam, 45, and Rami, 63, now regard one another as brothers and have pledged to devote their lives to working together for peace in their divided community. “The bottom line is that this conflict is not worth the life of one more child,” says Rami. “The only way forward is to talk to one another, to understand one another’s point of view – and to make concessions.”
Rami says that after his army service ended, he settled into “a kind of bubble” after his marriage. He built up a successful graphic design business, bought a nice house in a good part of Jerusalem, and he and his wife Nurit had four children. Everything changed on 4 September 1997. “It was the beginning of term and Smadar was out at the shops, buying stationery with her friends,” he says. “I was on my way to the airport and Nurit called me and said there had been a bombing and she had lost touch with Smadar.
“I went home and we started looking for her – when we couldn’t find her, we starting touring the hospitals. We went to hospital after hospital, and to police station after police station. And then came the terrible moment when someone said, you need to start looking in the morgue …”
Smadar was his only daughter; the sight of her lying dead will never leave him, he says.
By the time Rami met Bassam, Smadar had been dead for eight years; the two men were introduced at a meeting of Combatants for Peace, an organisation of former fighters now united in the search for peace. In prison, Bassam had seen a film about the Holocaust and begun to understand for the first time what the Jewish people had experienced. “One of the problems with our communities is that we are shielded from ever seeing things from the point of view of the other side,” he says. “I knew nothing about the Holocaust. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It explained so much about the Jewish people, to see what they had gone through.”
Palestinian Bassam Aramin, left, with his Israeli friend and fellow campaigner, Rami Elhanan. Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Despite being committed to working for peace, Bassam remembers the awkwardness of meeting Rami, a man whose child was killed by a Palestinian. “What can you say to a man who has lost his daughter?” he says. “I wasn’t sure what to say.” But the two men became friends in the cause and when Rami heard, two years later, that Bassam’s daughter Abir was in hospital fighting for her life after being shot in the head, he could hardly believe what was happening. “It felt to me as if Smadar was dying all over again. Nurit and I went to the hospital to be with Bassam and his wife Slawa. We wanted to be with them, to support them, to do whatever we could.”
He will never forget the exchange he had with Bassam after Abir died. “It felt so terrible, because I knew exactly what Bassam was going through. Seeing him standing there, I felt the hope draining away from me, and I said to him: ‘What are we going to do now?’
“I’m not a believer but Bassam is: and he said: ‘God is testing us.’ That seemed such a remarkable thing to say at that moment.”
“I realised straight away,” says Bassam, “that I had a choice. What happened next was up to me.”
Rami agrees. “Before we lost Smadar, we thought everything was fine, we didn’t think about what else was happening. Our family was well-off and happy. And when it happened, at first, every inch of your body cries out for revenge. But you ask yourself: would that take away my pain? And you know it would not. So instead you start to ask, what is happening here? Why are men so angry that they are prepared to kill children to get what they want?”
Rami and Bassam now attend rallies and events together, both inside and outside the Middle East – which is why they are in London – talking about peace. The Forgiveness Project, which exists to foster alternatives to resentment and retaliation, uses their story as an example of what can be done, and they are the subject of a new documentary. Yet both men know that their biggest challenge lies within their own families: they both have other children and, for peace to happen, those children must choose the path of non-violence. Rami’s eldest son, Elik, was in the army at the time of Smadar’s death and, says Rami, was given the chance to take revenge during a sortie: thankfully, he refused. Yigal, 20, the youngest, was five when his sister was killed, and is now in the Israeli army: Rami tried to dissuade him from joining up but, he explains, all his son’s friends were enrolling: “If you want to have a voice in Israel, if you want to be accepted in any way at all, you have to have served in the army.”
Meanwhile Bassam’s eldest son, Arab, is 19, and has sometimes talked about revenge. “I’ve tried to help him to understand that more violence is not the answer and I think I trust him now – I think he realises that working for peace is the way forward and the best way to remember Abir,” says Bassam.
Both families have a new reason to work harder for peace: Rami and Bassam are now grandfathers. Rami’s son Guy has a son called Yishai, who is 18 months, while Bassam’s daughter Areen has a three-month-old, Jude. “Next time both our families get together for dinner, which we do every couple of months or so, both the babies will be there too – a constant reminder of how much is at stake in this work of peace,” says Bassam.
And peace will come, says Rami. “In the end there will be a peace agreement, that is absolutely clear. It will happen at the moment when the price of not having peace exceeds the price of having peace.” Their message to their communities is that the moment has come because the price of one more child is a price too far.
By Shelley Hermon, director, Within the Eye of the Storm, Combatants for Peace blog
October 09, 2012
A few days ago in an interview, I was asked the question “do you think film has the capacity to change lives?” I thought it was a bit of a bombastic question, though I have always believed films do have the potential to provoke us and inspire change.
The past month has been a real highlight and landmark in my life, as a director. A time when I can truly feel something I have done has made a difference.
In the past few weeks I witnessed the reactions of hundreds of people from all walks of life, to my film and it was extremely moving. I recalled all the moments I almost gave up on the project… How close that was… the uncertainty throughout the journey of whether it would make it to the finishing line, whether it would be seen… Wether it would be well received…
Finally the vision that was so vulnerable and alone, is not my own but a shared one.
I only wish the team that was part of the creation of the film could be there to enjoy it too.
All those hours, days, weeks, months and years of carefully crafting every moment and second that appears in the film, were worth it.
Everything we had hope it would do, it’s doing!
So many people have come up to me and thanked me, or written in to say they had a transformational experience through the film, that they felt they were there with Rami and Bassam so intimately that it was like having a first hand experience and a real insight into the situation on the ground. Individuals and communities really got the price of war and the possibility of another way… That dialogue is the only way for all conflicts, not just this. Some said they were reminded of our humanity and given courage and hope.
The Q & A’s went on and on and drifted onto the streets outside the venues and best of all People asked what they could do to help change the situation…
The remarkable thing was seeing the story transcend cultures, background and religions. Whatever community we screened it to, they go it.
Thank you to Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan for letting me follow them and truly letting me into their lives and hearts. It is the basis for why audiences are literally touched and shaken to the core…
May the story and experiences of the 2 of them continue to inspire hundreds and thousands and may Bassam and Rami truly know, that they are channels of hope and transformation…
As for me, i got the biggest blessing meeting them, going on this adventure and now baring the fruits by seeing it do its work in the world. And if there was any last remaining cynicism in me regarding the capacity of film to make a difference, I got an email from a woman just after that interview literally saying the film changed her life.
So… May our faith be restored in the capacity for change and may it give us strength to continue taking these steps, however little they may be… As long as they are in the right direction
Watch the trailer or the entire film On-Line on the official website : www.withineyeofstorm.com
The Forgiveness Project
The Forgiveness Project uses the real stories of victims and perpetrators to explore concepts of forgiveness, and to encourage people to consider alternatives to resentment, retaliation and revenge.
When Enemies Become Brothers
Posted on June 20, 2013 by marina
The Forgiveness Project was proud to co-sponsor the first UK screening of Shelley Hermon’s Within the Eye of the Storm at Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre on 19th June 2013. The film is an impressive, stirring, fly-on-the-wall documentary following the lives of two bereaved fathers – a Palestinian and an Israeli – who have become the closest of friends through the worst of tragedies.
After the screening, in front of an audience of eighty people, Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin (who were both in London to promote the film), skilfully steered the discussion away from the mire of politics, to focus instead on the human cost of violence. Their message is simple: the only real way of affecting change is through heart to heart discussion, one person at a time. As Rami says: “We don’t have any expectations of our politicians, we need to work from below.”
At the same time, both men make it clear that their joint struggle is to campaign relentlessly to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Speaking as if to his Israeli neighbours, Bassam declares: “I don’t want to pay the price of your fear any longer.”…..
Within the eye of the storm: Our partners:
“Combatants for Peace” movement was started jointly by Palestinians and Israelis, who took an active part in the cycle of violence; Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli army (IDF) and Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon sights, they decided to put down their guns, and to fight for peace. Since the beginning of 2005 they have been organizing meetings between Israeli and Palestinian veterans, in which both sides tell about the violent actions that they have taken part in and about the turning point which led them to understand the limits of violence. They organise joint projects and events which educate towards non- violence and they initiate political activities and demonstrations in order to bring about change. It became apparent that despite years of fear and hatred, there is more that unites us than divides and only by joining forces, will we be able to end the cycle of violence, the bloodshed and the occupation. Their goals are; to raise the consciousness in both publics regarding the hopes and suffering of the other side, the national aspirations of each other and to create partners in dialogue. To educate towards reconciliation and non-violent struggle in both the Israeli and Palestinian societies and to create political pressure on both Governments to stop the cycle of violence, end the occupation and resume a constructive dialog.
Combatants for Peace: www.cfpeace.org
The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) is a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. Joint activities have shown that the reconciliation between individuals and nations is possible and it is this insight that they are trying to pass on to both sides of the conflict. Moreover, the PCFF has concluded that the process of reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable peace. The organization thus utilizes all resources available in education, public meetings and the media, to spread these ideas. Although the PCFF has no stated position on the political solution of the conflict, most of its members agree that the solution must be based on free negotiations between the leadership of both sides to ensure basic human rights, the establishment of two states for two peoples, and the signing of a peace treaty. The historic reconciliation between the two nations is a necessary condition for obtaining a sustainable peace treaty.
The Parent’s circle Families Forum www.theparentscircle.com
All for Peace is a not-for-profit joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station that was founded in 2004 by people who wanted media to have a positive role in resolving the conflict. All for Peace broadcasts on 107.2 FM, 87.8 FM and Israeli Podcast, and currently reaches over 33,000 listeners. It is a multi-lingual station that reaches many parts of Israel and the Palestinian Authority including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jallah, Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Jenin, Hebron, and parts of the Negev. The programs include talk shows, interviews, music, and weekly programs by civil society organizations. Philanthropic organizations and private donors support the station. The idea of a joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station is unique and innovative, and one through which we can bring the vast accumulated experience of an Israeli and a Palestinian organization together through the electronic media in order to reach a new audience, one previously not exposed to the message of peace, and bring to them our message. A central aspect of the conflict between the two people arises from the distance and alienation between them. Common sense dictates that the more we know about each other the less we will hate, be angry at and fear each other. Showing the true face of each side will assist in grappling with these obstacles, which have been built up over the years of the conflict, and will assist in opening hearts towards the better days to come.
All For Peace Radio Station www.allforpeace.org
Yesh Din is a volunteer organization working to defend the human rights of the Palestinian civilian population under Israeli occupation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which is anchored in international human rights law and international humanitarian law, guides the organization in its work to uphold the rule of law in the occupied territories and monitor the Israeli law enforcement system in those territories. Yesh Din is an Israeli organization registered as a non-profit in Israel. It is subject to Israeli law and is served by a volunteer corps and by a professional staff. The organization cooperates with Israeli and international organizations to protect human rights.
People’s Peace Fund is the first fund established specifically to promote a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through grassroots activities. We work together since 2007. In partnership with Alliance for Peacebuilding (Washington DC), People’s Peace Fund institutionalizes the tradition of its co-founders, Sulaiman Khatib (Ramallah) and Gadi Kenny (Tel Aviv), to share their experiences, connections, and funds with competent, highly motivated grassroots leaders and entrepreneurs, mostly young, that they appraise on the field, face-to-face, over time. They use joint fund-raising operations around the world in order to enlarge the small pie of financial resources available for the many difficult and costly dialogue, empowerment, education, and conciliation projects that are absolutely necessary to actually resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict