In 2004 I visited Israel and Palestine, to film for Scared Sacred
, for what was to become the powerful, moving conclusion of the film. Below are some excerpts from my journal. It features a remarkable group of people known as the Bereaved Families Circle
, parents of both Israeli's and Palestinians who were killed in the conflict, who have banded to together to say: enough. Enough killing. It's time to stop this madness. They have joined their sorrow together, in a bid for peace.
Israel and Palestine, 2004
By order of the Israeli Army, Israeli citizens are forbidden to pass through the one entrance to Qalkilya, a tiny Palestinian market village that has suddenly found itself completely encircled, by the wall. The Israeli army monitors every move of the villagers with the aid of video cameras that are positioned every fifty metres high up on the wall. Snipers are perched in gun turrets, positioned every hundred metres. What was once simply a peaceul market town now feels like, no small irony, a concentration camp. For some reason, the checkpoint is unmanned today, and we are able to enter. We stop in a small café for a coffee and a plate of humous, pita, olives and dolmades. My Palestinian cameraman knows everyone in town, and quickly sets up an interview with the town’s mayor. We arrange to meet him in front of the wall in half an hour.
The mayor is a handsome man in his late forties, neatly dressed, like most Palestinians. The wall towers behind us, 30 metres high.
“We are separated from nearby villages, we are separated from our water, we are separated from our land, we are separated from hospitals. So we feel like we are in a prison with a noose around our neck. People feel hopeless. They feel despair. And some people start shifting to the extremist parties, to the religious parties, they start supporting suicide bombing and violent activities.”
As is so often the case, the repressive measures taken to supposedly ensure ‘security’, only serve to make the world a much more dangerous place.
The mayor drives away, and we move in close to film the graffiti painted across the wall, at enormous risk: ‘We live in a reserve like animals or worst’, ‘No to another wailing wall’, ‘This wall will fall’. It seemed not that long ago that walls were coming down everywhere in the world. It’s heartbreaking to see one going up. As I stand in the shadow of the wall which, if Israel has its way, may one day snake through 700 miles of Palestinian land, I have a sinking sensation: perhaps this is the one place where my quest to find hope will fail. I pan down to a sign that reads: “Warning! Do not pass this point. Military zone. Mortal danger!” As if on cue, a shot rings out.
“Someone is shooting,” my Palestinian cameraman warns.
“Are they shooting towards us?”
“Seems to be-seems to be coming from the towers.”
“We'd better get out of here. The next shot could be at us.”
“Could be directly at us. I think it’s a sniper in the tower.”
Another shot echoes across the no man’s land at the foot of the wall.
“Yep-that’s towards us,” he points in the direction of an iron grating, “They are here at the gate now.”
An army jeep is just visible. An explosion blasts through the air, and I hit the ground.
The driver runs to the taxi. Samer gestures to me, “Head for that garage. Don’t run-just walk, quickly. If they want to kill us, they will, and running will only give them a better excuse.”
As I flee from the wall, I experience the phantom sensation of a bullet entering my back. I wouldn't have been the first documentary filmmaker to be killed in the Holy Land. Only last year a young director was shot dead by an Israeli tank. It was obvious that he was not a combatant. Up in that tower there is quite likely a bored, angry, teenaged sniper who knows damn well he can do whatever he wants. I’m struck with a visceral understanding of what the Palestinians live with, every day. What if one of my new friends was shot? What if it was my child? Would I want to strap a bomb to my body, and take revenge?
~ ~ ~
Rami Elahan sits across the table from me in his Jerusalem home. His gaze is soft, yet piercing. He is a man who has no time for small talk. In a single day, a few years back, his life was transformed forever.
“Thursday, three o’clock in the afternoon, my wife called and told me that there was a bombing in the centre of Jerusalem. I said to her, ‘It's nothing. Don't pay any attention.’ And then you find yourself running in the streets. You keep hoping that the dreadful finger will not turn towards you this time. Your blood runs cold, and little by little, you understand that this finger, this very finger, is stuck right between your eyes. Later, much later that evening, you find yourself in the morgue, and you see a sight that you will never be able to forget for the rest of your life. From that moment on, you're a whole different person. You change completely, your set of values, perspectives, everything. Your genes change.
“You come back home, and you're alone, and you have to look yourself in the mirror: where are you going to take this new and unbearable pain? What are you going to do with the rest of your life, now that you are a different person? There are only two alternatives. The one is the obvious, and the natural, and the way that most people choose, which is the way of retaliation and revenge. Because when someone kills your 14-year-old little girl, you are very, very angry, and you want to get even. This is natural. This is only natural.”
~ ~ ~
Posters of the dead are plastered over the walls and ancient stone columns of the Palestinian side of Bethlehem. Many are young men, some are boys, photographed with sub machineguns, rocket launchers, or bombs strapped across their chests, staring brazenly into the camera, with the steely determination of those who have chosen to die, secure in the knowledge that they will be going to heaven, to a garden of endless delight. One image is very different, and recurs throughout the city-it is a little girl, ten years old perhaps. Many of her posters are torn and ripped, the inscriptions unreadable. Just outside the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ was born, surrounded by a particularily virulent collection of armed martyrs, we find an intact poster of the little girl, and Samer is able to translate. Her name is Christine. She is the daughter of George and Najwa Sa’ada, Christian Palestinians, who live here in Bethlehem.
~ ~ ~
George Sa’ada speaks softly as he drives his car through the dark streets of Bethlehem, remembering.
“We were driving at 6:30 one night, going shopping, when suddenly we saw three jeeps, army jeeps, parked outside the store, with no soldiers around. They were ambushing two wanted people from Hamas who had the same type of car that we were driving in. We came just two minutes before they were supposed to arrive. Suddenly, the Israelis started raining us with bullets. And they killed my daughter, Christine.”
Najawa turns to face me from the front seat of the car.
“She was sitting there on the floor in our old car.”
“She was laughing, she was very happy going to the store.”
“The floor…was like a pool of blood. My hand, to here, was covered with blood, when I went to hold her.” She raises her arm, her face lost in memory, “I can't believe it, even now, I can't believe that I was there. That I, Najwa—that she wanted to help her daughter. I can't believe that I held her. I can't believe it.”
~ ~ ~
Rami brushes away a few stray tears, and continues his thought: “You start to think, will killing someone else bring back my baby? Will causing pain to someone else ease my pain in any way? Of course not. And it takes time, a long time, to choose the other way. the way of understanding, why did it happen? How could such a thing happen? And the most important question: what can you do, now that you have the burden on your shoulders, to prevent it from happening to others?”
~ ~ ~
Tel-Aviv is another world, far from the heavy religiosity of Jerusalem, far from the suffocating enclosures of the West Bank. But it takes an F-16 fighter jet, leaving from a base in Tel-Aviv, only 15 seconds to reach it’s target in the Occupied Territories. Still, here people can fool themselves, for a moment, a day or two if they avoid the papers, that the war is far away. For someone who has a lost a child in the conflict, that illusion will never again be maintained.
“He died for what?” Robi Damelin speaks in a low voice, her eyes shining sadly, ”For what? Doing something he didn’t believe in. I wish I could say he was defending his country, I wish I could say he died for Israel, but that would be a lie. He died for nothing.”
David Damelin was not a soldier at heart. He was just a young man doing his enforced military duty. He'd been a leader of the student peace movement and was on his way to joining a group called the Refuseniks, soldiers that refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. One day, at a remote checkpoint, he was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper. In his back pocket was a book on Ethics and Philosophy, the subject for a class he was to teach that night.
“After David . . . after David was killed, I went to try and run away. But I discovered that you really can't run away, it just goes with you wherever you go. I went to speak to a psychologist, and she said, ‘You are now free.’ I was horrified. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Look, you can do wonderful things because you've got no fear. What else could happen to you?’”
Robi takes a pull at her cigarette, and studies the smoke that curls up towards the ceiling.
“I really wanted to put energy into making a difference, and the making a difference, for me, is by looking for a way to have a dialogue with the Palestinians. I think that Israelis and Palestinians have got so much more in common, than they know.”
In the wake of their loss, Robi, George, Najwa, and Rami all made the decision to join a remarkable group of Palestinians and Israelis called the ‘Bereaved Families Circle’. It is an organization of parents from both sides who have lost children in the conflict. They have chosen to seek healing, closure, an end to the cycle of violence, through the power of reconciliation. Rami explained that, “all the activities of this organization, which are many activities, are designed to put cracks in this very high wall of hatred and fear that divides our two nations…and we will knock it down, eventually.”
Billboards throughout the Occupied Territories and Israel promote one the Bereaved Families Circle’s projects, called ‘Hello Peace’, with the slogan: ‘Stop Shooting. Start Talking’. It is a free chat line that connects Palestinians with Israelis. Over 600,000 people have spoken since they started in 2003.
“It's a way of having dialogue,” says Robi, “because everything that we do is geared towards dialogue. It's getting to know the person behind the stigma. I don’t care if they’re shouting at each other, as long as they’re talking.”
When the number of dead reached 1,200 people, the Bereaved Families Circle set up 1,200 coffins, covered with Israeli and Palestinian flags, in front of the U.N. building in New York. Throughout the year they travel to hundreds of high schools telling their stories of loss, always in a pair: one Palestinian and one Israeli bereaved parent. Standing together to say, enough.
“When you show a picture of your child who was killed, he suddenly becomes a human being. I've showed David's picture to many Palestinian mothers, and when I look at their children . . . if I look at Christine, Najwa's daughter, that's looking at a human being, seeing who they are.”
Robi pours us each a glass of Scotch. The interview has brought up difficult memories, and she needs to dull the pain. The fact that she has chosen the path of understanding, in the face of such grief, is awe inspiring.
“I was tested once, really tested, by a Palestinian, who said he knew how to find the man who killed my son. He could have him taken care of, if I wanted. But I didn’t-I let it go, because I realized that the man wasn’t killing my son, my David. He was killing a target, something he saw as an abstracted symbol of Israeli oppression. Just like we kill them in the abstract, not seeing their humanity. We have chosen to forgive, to stop this cycle of killing.”
She pulls out a book by Michael Henderson called, ‘Forgiveness-Breaking the Chain of Hate.’
“Listen to this, it’s really wonderful: ‘forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did. Forgiving does not mean that we want to forget what happened. Forgiveness does not mean that we excuse the person who did it. Forgiving does not mean that we take the edge off the evil of what was done to us. Forgiving does not surrender our right to justice. Forgiving doesn’t let whoever hurt us once, hurt us again.”
Forgiveness. At it’s heart, it is a profound spiritual practice, one that requires that we transcend the narrow confines of the ego and it’s desperate clinging to separateness, to fear. Fear of the other. Ken Wilber writes that to forgive others ‘is to weaken the boundary between self and other, to dissolve the seperation between subject and object. And thus, with forgiveness, awareness tends to let go of the ego and it’s insults, and revert instead to the Witness, the Self, which views both subject and object equally.” Forgiveness becomes a way to let go of the self, and become the Self.
To step beyond the fear when every fibre in your body is retracting into itself, when all the evidence makes vengeance the logical response: what a tremendous leap. Robi told me that there is nothing that could be worse than losing a child; it would have been easier, far preferable, to have been killed herself. The Bereaved Parents have made a leap in the face of a personal crisis. Perhaps this is at the root of the immense power I have felt in each member I have met; they have found strength by transcending the small self. In that leap, they have discovered a sense of meaning, a way to continue, to create a life out the ashes, rather than choosing the much easier slide into oblivion, into the ego’s path of hatred, isolation, and fear.
~ ~ ~
Najwa Sa’ada stands in front of the tomb of Christine. She is sadly beautiful, dressed in dark velvet. It’s dusk, and the bells of the Church of the Nativity toll softly. Her hand caresses the ceramic oval imprinted with the image of her fallen daughter.
“I don’t have any hate for the Israeli people. Only one of them killed my Christine, not all of them. They are suffering, the same like us. I don’t want anybody to be like me, or in my place at all. Any mother.”
Her eyes glisten under the street lamps. She hugs me goodbye, then turns away, climbing a narrow stone passageway, her footstep echoes fading. Night sounds fill the emptiness.
~ ~ ~
My eyes rest on a photograph on the wall behind Rami Elahan: his 14 year old daughter. There can’t be a day that goes by when he doesn’t see that photo, and suffer the loss of this precious child, his little girl, who was about to become a woman. He leans towards me, his voice measured and strong, though his eyes are moist.
”We are people, we are human beings. Our blood is the same colour, our pain is the same pain. The taste of our tears are as bitter. If we can reach out for one another and call each other brothers of pain, if we can say to the world that, ‘if we who paid the highest price possible can talk to one another, then anyone can.’ This really gives you a reason, for existence.”
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