On Wednesday, two speakers from the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) hosted a talk with the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss the importance of reconciliation and achieving peace between Israeli and Palestinian citizens.
Founded by Yitzhak Frankenthal and other Israeli families in 1995, the PCFF is a group of Palestinian and Israeli citizens who have lost family due to violence in the region and work to increase dialogue between the two sides. The PCFF has offices in Israel and Palestine, and their first public meeting took place between Palestinians and Israeli families in 1998. According to their website, over 600 families are members of the PCFF.
The talk focused on how dialogue and open discussion between people on both sides of the issue can play an important role in moving towards peace. Public Policy Professor John Ciorciari, director of the International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center, moderated the discussion and introduced the PCFF.
“Today we’re going to discuss a remarkable initiative to promote peace and reconciliation, one led by the Parent Circle Families Forum,” Ciorciari said. “(PCFF) members share a commitment to exchange feelings of rage and despair for activities to promote hope and reconciliation.”
PCFF member Laila Alsheikh, Jordan native and resident of Bethlehem in the West Bank, began the discussion by sharing her experiences as a mother living in Bethlehem in 2002.
“In our second year together (with my husband), we had our second child, a boy,” Alsheikh said. “He was a very intelligent, beautiful boy, and our happiness started to grow because our family started to become bigger.”
In April 2002, Alsheikh said she remembers Israeli soldiers coming into Bethlehem to throw tear gas. The next morning, her son woke up in critical condition at 4:00 a.m. and needed immediate hospital attention, but was delayed due to military zone blockades. Alsheikh said she believes his condition was exacerbated because he inhaled some of the gas.
“At the time, the treatment in my village wasn’t good enough so we tried to take him to the hospital,” Alsheikh said. “We reached an Israeli checkpoint and they told us we couldn’t enter because it was a military zone.”
Alsheikh said her next option was to take her son to the hospital in the next city over, but the main road was closed. The Israeli soldiers told her that she must remain in the car and take a longer road. Even after telling soldiers that her son was in critical condition, Alsheikh said she was still told to remain in her car.
“At that time my son was between my arms, he was dying,” Alsheikh said. “I start to think, ‘What should I do to save his life?’ So I took the risk to talk to the officers (despite) not having my Palestinian I.D. on me. If they found this out, they could take me to jail or send me back to Jordan, where I could never see my children again. But at that time, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was just thinking about my children. I wanted to save (my son).”
After five hours of waiting, Alsheikh was let through the checkpoint and went to the hospital. Once the doctors examined her son, she was told that if her son was to make it through the next 48 hours, he would be handicapped.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Alsheikh said. “It’s the first time I felt helpless. I couldn’t save my son, I couldn’t do anything for him.”
Alsheikh’s son was placed into intensive care that afternoon. Later that night, the doctor’s told Alsheikh that she and her family should leave the hospital, explaining that Israeli soldiers were set to search the location.
“(Leaving) was so hard for me. How could I leave my son alone there without anyone beside him?” Alsheikh said.
At just six months old, Alsheikh’s son died later that night. She found out on a phone call with the doctor.
Alsheikh said following the death of her son, she was filled with anger towards Israel and the Israeli people.
“From that moment, I was filled with hatred and anger towards all Israeli people because for me, all of them were responsible for (my son’s) death,” Alsheikh said. “I didn’t take revenge, but at the same time I took another decision that I didn’t want a relationship with another Israeli person.”
For more than 16 years, Alsheikh said she refused to have communications with Israeli people. Things started to change in 2018 when she was introduced to PCFF by a friend.
“When he was telling me about (PCFF), I stopped and asked if he was crazy,” Alsheikh said. “I told him I was the last person that you could talk to about something like that.”
Later in 2018, she decided to attend a meeting. Alsheikh said she considered leaving multiple times, but the meeting went much differently than she had expected.
“I saw something amazing. I saw both sides hugging each other,” Alsheikh said. “They weren’t just friends, they were like family members.”
After a couple meetings, Alsheikh shared her son’s story.
“(The meeting) was the first time I spoke about my son after his death,” Alsheikh said. “It brought all the memories, pain and anger back and in the middle of it I began to cry. In the middle of it an Israeli woman came and sat in front of me and started to cry. She told me that while she didn’t hurt me, she knew her people did, and that she was a mother too, (so) she could understand what I went through.”
After that meeting, Alsheikh became a member of PCFF and has since given many talks on Israel and Palestine around the world. She said that being a member of PCFF has allowed her to forgive others on her own terms.
“This gives me a chance to rethink about forgiveness, and some people think that when we say forgiveness we forget, but forgiveness for me is to put the hatred and the anger away and to continue my life,” Alsheikh said. “When we think of hatred and anger it covers our eyes, our minds and even our hearts, it doesnt let us think clearly.
PCFF member Yigal Elhanan, an Israeli citizen who grew up in West Jerusalem, also spoke at the event. Elhanan said his experience growing up in West Jerusalem was completely segregated and he had very little contact with Palestinians growing up.
Elhanan said in September 1997 — just two days before his fifth birthday — his 14-year-old sister, along with four other Israeli civilians, were killed by three Palestinian suicide bombers.
“There is not a word or a term or a phrase or a sentence I know, in Hebrew, in English or (in) Arabic, that can take that feeling (of) what happens to a family (when) one of their loved ones is violently ripped out from it,” Elhanan said. “I would like you to imagine a body that is missing an essential organ or a limb, something you will always feel is absent and never grow back.”
Elhanan said that because he was so young, he struggled to comprehend his sister’s death which caused him to resent his parents for joining the PCFF and using her story to propel activists against the Israeli occupation.
“I grew up very angry because I couldn’t understand how they could take this personal experience … and share it with complete strangers like I am doing here today,” Elhanan said. “Because I thought what happened to us happened to us and what happened to my sister was our trauma, our catastrophe … and it’s no one else’s business.”
Elhanan said once he reached the age of 14, the age of his sister when she was killed, he began to question why this all happened. Elhanan said he came to realize that what happened to his sister was the fault of the political reality in Israel and Palestine.
“What happened to us is the reality of the political situation and the cause of decisions and choices made by men and women, and the political game formed (our) situation,” Elhanan said.
Elhanan said this realization encouraged him to join youth organizations within PCFF where he worked at summer camps with young Palestinian and Israeli children.
“All of a sudden, those Palestinians who were completely foreign to me … although we lived in the same city started having faces, started having stories,” Elhanan said. “So all of a sudden I realized this reality … that has been happening on and on and on for many years could be changed and break completely as the barriers between us break completely in one encounter.”
Elhanan also stressed the need for an end to the situation, especially given the harm that both Israeli and Palestinian families have endured.
“Enough is enough, for the past seven decades you are taking us as hostages in this reality,” Elhanan said. “And we’re saying we’re not hostages, we’re taking responsibility for our future and for the future of our families. We’re telling you to stop the occupation and to sit down and create peace.”
Both speakers emphasized the importance of looking at their counterpart’s perspective and trying to move forward with peace and forgiveness.
“Forgiveness for me is to put the hatred and anger away, because hatred clouds your mind and your heart,” Elhanan said. “We can start to look at each other as human and work to make a better future for our children.”
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