Empathy: Crucial to the achievement of lasting peace - Part Two

23 Sep 2014

Dispatch from Jerusalem, a tale of torment and tolerance:

“You cannot speak peace without understanding others”
 

JERUSALEM, Israel — Ben Kfir lost his daughter, Yael, in a Hamas militant attack in September 2003. “It was Tuesday 9th of September 2003. I was by myself in my home,” Ben tells us, his voice calm, quiet, sombre.
 

“I went out to listen to the headlines of the news. Just after hearing the headlines I went to do the dishes and the TV continued to broadcast. Suddenly they stopped the programme and someone announced there was a terror attack just in front of the gates of Tzrifin camp… And I went back to the living room to see what was going on. I’ve seen a picture of a white road without any traffic and on the far side of the road there was a bus station. I could see four buildings. I looked and said to myself, I know this place: that is the Tzrifin camp. I have been there many times and I could see where her office was. And from my own experience I knew such a blast at the bus station, all the windows in the camp would be demolished. There was no possibility that those people in the building would not know there was a terror attack on the bus station.”
 

Ben waited to hear from Yael. “Whenever there was a terror attack, doesn’t matter where in Israel, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, as soon as she heard about it, she used to come home and ask me the silliest question that came into her head. Something like ‘Pa, what are you cooking for the weekend?’ Not in order to get an answer but so I could hear her voice and understand that everything is okay with her.”
 

“But she didn’t call me.
 

After half an hour I could not resist it and I called her mobile phone.
 

There was no answer.
 

I called her office but it was engaged.
 

I called her commander’s office.
 

It was engaged.”
 

“Time passed and it became darker and darker, first evening and then night. And I began to understand that Yael will never call again.”
 

Ben wanted to retaliate: “[It is] easy to take revenge. I have two pistols in my house, I am a very good sniper. Not far from my house there was a building site with Palestinian workers. And so I began to plot revenge.” Ben continued, raising his voice: “But I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how many Palestinians I shall murder, five, fifty, or even five thousand: nothing will bring Yael back to me. The only thing I will gain by murdering five innocent Palestinians is that their families will want to take revenge on Israelis. And with my own stupidity, with my own hands, I would put myself in a chain of blood. That I will take revenge of them, they will take revenge of us, the Israeli army will go to the Gaza Strip and kill God knows how many innocent people and Hamas will send some missiles over my house. It took me seventeen days to come to the conclusion that taking revenge was not the answer.”
 

“The colour of the blood is the same on both sides and there is no difference between the taste of the tears of the Palestinian mother who cries for the death of her son and my tears.”
 

Ben belongs to an organisation called ‘Parents Circle - Families Forum’. Its main goal, Ben says, is “to prevent more grieving on both sides.” For that to work, he tells us: “Israelis and Palestinians need to talk to each other. It doesn’t matter if they agree. Because while you are talking to someone you come to know him. You are less afraid of him. All our projects are in order to give opportunities to… Palestinians and Israelis, to meet, to talk, to get to know each other in order to reduce the walls of fear. It seems that those projects are very easy to [make]… We have thousands of lectures [in schools] per year. For most Israelis students at the age of 17 or 18 just before joining the army, it is the first time they have the opportunity to see a Palestinian in their classroom and not through the media, to ask him any question. Suddenly they understand, this Palestinian is a human being. We have summer camps in which we bring Israeli boys and girls and Palestinian boys and girls for several days to play with each other, to speak to each other. The first day each group swims in the other side of the swimming pool, they are afraid of each other… [By] the last day of the summer camp, when we send them to their rooms to collect their belongings, before they go home, they run into the woods to finish speaking!”
 

“Ehud Barak [former Israeli Prime Minister] said: ‘We don’t have a partner on the other side. There is no one to speak to.’ So we started up this project. We published a telephone number in Israeli and Palestinian newspapers and we wrote ‘if you want to speak to someone from the other side, please call this number’. During a period of two years that we operated this project, we, the Parents Circle, paid the telephone company for 1.8 million telephone calls from both sides [out of a population of nine million people, he says]. What does it mean? For me it means only one thing: people are eager to speak; they don’t have the opportunity to do it.”
 

Speaking to another person means you can start to understand them. Only when Israelis and Palestinians learn to do so, empathise with each other and identify with their suffering will there ever be peace. Otherwise more people will die and more people will suffer and more families will be torn apart. When people speak, when people understand, peace is possible. As I left Hebron, I asked my friend who came with me what he now thought of the conflict: “The more I learn the more I get depressed. If you ask I have no opinion.” What I found most frustrating in each of the conversations I engaged in during my time in the region was the lack of dialogue between the two sides — for many Palestinians their only contact with Israelis is with soldiers and the police and for many Israelis, their only contact with Palestinians is through the skewed eyes of the media. Both sides need to communicate — as the peace activist Ali Abu Awwad said to our class: “You cannot speak peace without understanding others”. Ben concluded: “This conflict will never finish until we talk. Don’t be pro-Israelis or pro-Palestinians, be pro-peace. That is the most important message.” It is and it always will be.
 

By Tom Fenton

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