By Robi Damelin
TEL AVIV: The whole country is talking about it: over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were involved in suicide attacks in which lives were lost, were freed in exchange for the kidnapped Israeli solider Gilad Shalit who had been held in captivity in Gaza for over five years.
Today the prisoner’s swap dominated world news when Gilad was freed at the same time as 477 of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. While it’s clear that everyone in Israel is happy to see Gilad reunited with his family, among bereaved parents there are some who feel that those responsible for the death of their loved ones should never walk free.
I lost my son David in a shooting incident in the West Bank in 2002. Initially, I was told that my son’s killer would be released this week. Now it is not clear whether or not has or will be freed as part of the deal. But when it seemed likely that he would, I took some time out to search deep inside myself to see what I honestly feel. Do I really mean the things that I have been saying all these years about the need for reconciliation between our two peoples? About the need to understand both the pain of the Jewish mother and the pain of a Palestinian mother? How do I really feel about the fact that David’s killer could be freed?
The answer I came up with is that the life of Gilad, and peace for his family is worth everything. Besides, what petty satisfaction and revenge would I feel if the man who killed David stayed in jail for the rest of his life? That wouldn’t fill the void which is always in my heart. There is no revenge for a lost loved one. I too would have released the whole world in order to get David back.
I belong to a group of Palestinians and Israelis called the Parents Circle-Families Forum. We are more than 600 families who have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. Our long-term vision is to create a framework for reconciliation process that would be an integral part of future political agreements.
When it was first disclosed that David’s killer may be walking free I received phone calls from my Palestinian friends, also members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum. They had listened carefully to the names of the prisoners released and when they had heard that David’s killer might be amongst them, they were in great turmoil. They wanted to come to my house, some from the West Bank, to be with me. They said they were proud of my reaction and that they also understood how painful it is.
I think of the pain of the Palestinian mothers in our group. Their pain is the same as mine and the tears are the same color. Some of the men in our group had served jail sentences and today they are tireless campaigners for reconciliation.
I have been influenced by my meetings with ex-prisoners in South Africa and Ireland who have at least as much blood on their hands as some of the prisoners here. But they have turned around and have become central to the reconciliation process in their countries. Perhaps we too should be exploring the path of restorative justice?
In South Africa I met a bereaved white mother who set up an organization to help ex-combatants together with the man who had been responsible for the death of her daughter. This is part of understanding how to overcome the state of being a victim.
I don’t want to be anyone’s victim. I won’t be the victim of the young man who killed my son. I will try to understand why he did what he did. It was very painful for me but at one point I went to see his lawyer to find out who this young man is. The road to reconciliation passes through understanding.
I think of my beloved son David. If he had not been killed by a sniper, he probably would have been at the tent supporting the Shalit family. He would have understood the value of human life. He would have understood that in the conflict in Ireland and in South Africa, prisoners with blood on their hands were freed so that an impetus for negotiations could be created. Some of the greatest peacemakers in those two countries came out of dark cells.
Reconciliation is all-inclusive. Prisoners and all sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society should come to the peacemaking table and take part in forging a peaceful future. We must find a way to reconciliation. Let us allow the Shalit family some dignity, grace and solace. Let us hope that the Palestinian prisoners, who after so many years are now being embraced into their families, will have a non-violent and peaceful future.
Robi Damelin is a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, Bereaved Palestinian and Israeli Families for Reconciliation. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).