Peacemakers Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin stand united for peace
Smadar Elhanan, a 14-year-old Israeli, and Abir Aramin, a 10-year-old Palestinian, are just two of many civilians killed in decades of violence.
They both played their part in the violence that has shaped their lives. They are both bereaved fathers, of young daughters. Somehow, against the odds, both have resisted the urge for vengeance.
Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, were once united by their anger and grief.
Elhanan lost his 14-year-old daughter Smadar when she was killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997. She had been out shopping with friends to buy books ahead of the new school year.
Aramin’s daughter Abir was 10 when she was shot in the head and killed in 2007 by a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier as she stood outside her school with some classmates.
Now they are close friends, refer to one another as “my brother” and share the belief that no amount of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians will lead to peace, just more killing in a “circle of blood.”
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Elhanan and Aramin are part of the Parents Circle, a club that nobody wants to belong to: a community for families from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have lost close relatives to violence and who have sought to turn their personal tragedies into a grassroots peace movement.
The organization, now with over 700 members who have lost loved ones to the violence, includes those − controversially for some − whose children have been suicide bombers. They count all its members as victims.
Now, with Israel embroiled in a war with Hamas, both men say their message is more relevant than ever − even if it risks being dismissed by those who seek revenge, ridiculed for its alleged naivety, or simply ignored.
“We have the moral authority to tell people this is not the way,” said Elhanan, 74, a former solider in the Israeli army whose father was an Auschwitz survivor.
He was referring both to the Hamas attacks and his country’s military response, which has caused the deaths of more than 3,600 children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.
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Aramin, 55, who was imprisoned by Israel for seven years when he was 17 for hurling a grenade at a group of Israelis, has a message for the parents of people killed in Gaza, as well as the relatives of Israelis killed by Hamas.
“You will never heal,” he said. “It’s up to you to make a choice. Invest in hatred and revenge and suffer again from the sad circumstances. Or look forward to the future and try to use this pain as a power to create more bridges instead of more graves.”
Elhanan and Aramin both spoke to USA TODAY for a special edition podcast on their decades of peace activism, their unshakeable conviction that violence will only beget more violence, and their belief that every person involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately a victim of it − even if they don’t realize it.
“In the end, there is no difference between the victim who killed my daughter and the victim pilot who is bombing civilians in Gaza,” said Elhanan, expressing a view that angers many Israelis and Palestinians because it refuses to apportion blame.
“Killing more and more people only brings more killing. It is our job to tell people to stop it.”
Struggling to explain his conversion to ‘peace warrior’
In response to the devastating Oct. 7 attack, Israel says it aims to destroy Hamas’ military capacity and end its rule in Gaza. It has rejected calls for a cease-fire to help facilitate the release of hostages and to allow in more humanitarian aid for civilians to access food, medicines and water. Hamas, as part of its founding charter, has sworn to destroy Israel.
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Elhanan has said he still struggles to explain his conversion to a “peace warrior.” It coincided with a meeting of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families he was invited to by Yitzhak Frankenthal, one of the co-founders of the Parents Circle. Frankenthal’s son Arik was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994.
“I saw an amazing spectacle. Something completely new to me,” Elhanan said. “I saw Arabs getting off the buses, bereaved Palestinian families: men, women and children, coming towards me, greeting me for peace, hugging me and crying with me. … From that day on … I got a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
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Empathy: a new feeling
For Aramin, the journey to non-violence began as he was being beaten by Israeli prison guards. He said that while in jail he was treated like a hero by other Palestinian prisoners for throwing the grenade. One day, so sharp in his memory he recalls the specific date − Oct. 1, 1987 − he was stripped naked and beaten until he could hardly stand.
“As I was being beaten, I remembered a movie I’d seen the year before about the Holocaust. At the time I’d been happy that Hitler had killed six million Jews. I remember wishing that he’d killed them all, because then I would never have been sent to prison,” Aramin has previously recalled.
“But some minutes into the movie, I found myself crying and feeling angry that the Jews were being herded into gas chambers without fighting back,” he said. “If they knew they were going to die, why didn’t they scream out? I tried to hide my tears from the other prisoners who wouldn’t have understood why I was crying about the pain of my oppressors.”
“It was the first time I felt empathy.”
Aramin, like Elhanan, said avoiding violence is “the only way.” Because even if all Israelis and Palestinians on Earth were killed, “you will never reach your daughter or your beloved one again.”