The 650 Israelis and Palestinians of the Bereaved Families Forum are struggling to build bridges between their two communities though they have more reason than most to distrust ‘the other side’.

All of them have suffered the death of a close relative – a child, a parent, a brother or sister – in the recurrent violence that has beset the region for the last 70 years. But they are determined not to advocate retaliation. Instead they are committed to creating understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, building the trust which they believe is an essential precursor to peace. In the process, many of them have forged close friendships across the religious and physical barriers to peace.

‘What can cause someone to be so angry that he is willing to blow himself up with a 14-year-old girl?’

‘When my daughter was killed, my first reaction was rage,’ says Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graphic designer whose daughter, Smadar, was blown up by a suicide bomber in central Jerusalem. ‘Anger is very powerful: it sweeps you away. But then I started asking myself questions. I knew that killing someone would not bring her back, and I knew that causing pain to someone else would not ease my pain. ‘So as a rational person you start to look for answers. Why did it happen? How could such a horrible thing take place? What can cause someone to be so angry that he is willing to blow himself up with a 14-year-old girl?’

Rami’s search for answers led him to the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who believe that peace will not come to the region through political posturing but only through ordinary people getting to know and trust one another. His first Forum meeting struck him like a thunderbolt, Rami says. ‘I still remember it as if it was yesterday. I watched the people getting off the buses – bereaved Palestinian families coming towards me, shaking my hand, hugging me, crying with me. It was a complete shock, and it changed my life completely. I was 47 years old and it was the first time I had ever seen Palestinians not as workers in the street, not as terrorists, but as human beings.’

There is a carefully maintained separation between Israeli and Palestinian societies, Rami says. Israeli society hides itself not just behind physical walls, but also behind walls in the mind. Every Israeli child goes through a brainwashing process which is designed to conceal the Palestinians from him. Palestinian and Israeli children alike undergo a socialising process, intended to enable them to sacrifice themselves when the time comes, he argues. This is done by demonising and dehumanising the other side. ‘This is why that first meeting was so emotional and so shocking to me. I saw people carrying the same burden that I carry. I saw people who suffer exactly as I suffer. I saw an old Arab lady coming down from the bus in her long, black, traditional dress. She had a picture of a six-year-old child on her chest, just like the one my wife carries of Smadar. This experience changed my life.’

Rami’s response has been to chip away at the barrier of ignorance and misunderstanding between the two divided societies. Together with his Palestinian colleague, Bassam Aramin, who lives in Anata on the West Bank, only 20 minutes away but beyond the ‘separation barrier’, he lectures to groups of teenagers in both Palestinian and Israeli schools, explaining the futility of violence, how hatred breeds more hatred.

‘Just seeing us together is an earthquake for most of these kids,’ Rami explains. ‘It’s the first time they’ve ever seen an Israeli and a Palestinian together, calling each other brothers, not fighting, not trying to compare whose pain is bigger.

‘At the end of the class if one kid is nodding his head in agreement, we’ve made a little crack in the wall. If we’ve saved one drop of blood, it’s a miracle. If the Forum arranges a thousand lectures a year, we’re reaching maybe 40,000 individuals. Then those kids go home and they tell their parents: it’s like a ripple effect.’

Rami and Bassam are united not just by their tireless campaign for inter-communal understanding, but by a gruesome symmetry of suffering. Bassam’s daughter Abir was born in the year of Smadar’s death. Ten years later, Abir too was killed, shot in the head outside her school with a rubber bullet fired by one of Israel’s border police.

Rami recalls: ‘When Abir was shot, it was like losing my own daughter again. I was in complete despair, overcome by frustration and anger. I asked Bassam, “What are we going to do now?” and he said to me, “Well, God is testing us.”’

‘I didn’t think about revenge,’ Bassam explains. ‘If you consider violence you are a victim again. I decided not to be a victim.

‘If I killed an Israeli or 100 Israelis it would never bring Abir back. It would just create more victims, and then more killers. We have to break the circle of violence.

‘We decided to lay down our weapons. We discovered a more effective weapon is to talk to each other and to work together. We started to trust each other; then we became friends; then we became brothers.

‘You have to use your pain in a different way. One Israeli soldier killed my daughter. But afterwards more than 100 ex-soldiers came and made a garden in the school yard in her memory. It sent a very strong message to the local community.’

Bassam insists that peace will eventually come to Israel and Palestine. ‘There’s no alternative,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe it’s our destiny to continue killing each other for ever. It’s a matter of time.

‘A two-state solution? One state, two states, five states, ten states. It doesn’t matter. But it will happen.

‘If Rami and I can sit down and talk, everyone can do it.’

Rami and Bassam’s story of shared tragedy – and their campaign to prevent similar tragedies from afflicting other families – has been taken up and turned into a novel by Irish-American writer Colum McCann. ‘Apeirogon’ was published in February 2020, exciting widespread comment around the world and focusing public attention on the possibility of replacing hatred with dialogue.