Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rami Elhanan: "I am Bassam Aramin" and more

In these pieces below, two bereaved fathers reflect on their losses. Rami Elhanan is the father of Elik Elhanan, an activist with Combatants for Peace, and Smadar Elhanan, a young woman killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem ten years ago. Rami is active with the Bereaved Families Forum which, like Combatants for Peace, is made up of Israelis and Palestinians together working for an end to the bloodshed. In Rami’s essay, just published, he talks about the trip he made last week to Warsaw, a trip that Bassam Aramin, whose daughter Abir was killed last year by Israeli troops, was prevented from making.

Rami’s essay highlights the presence and absence of Palestinian partners, and specifically of one partner, Bassam. Bassam and his family are so present - present in shared bereavement, friendship, and struggle to transform their communities and end the violence. And yet Bassam and his family and Palestinians in general are so absent: absent from the international forums to which they’re invited to speak but are denied the necessary visas that would allow them to attend, and thus absent in their own voices, and absent as victims and survivors and partners for justice and peace. This absence is especially stark in the official speech of the Israeli government, for whom Palestinians are present almost only as terrorists or, at least, as responsible for their own suffering and deaths. Indeed, in keeping with that discourse, the Israeli army suggested that Abir Aramin, who died from a bullet in the back of her skull, was responsible for her own death.

Rami, Bassam and the other members of their groups are guiding lights for work for justice and against the ongoing oppression, violence and suffering. They bestow upon any of us great gifts: their dedication and insight, which suggest immense emotional and psychic labor they must do to live with their heartbreak and take up the public mantle of struggle for peace. And their work with the Bereaved Families Forum (, and Combatants for Peace ( is a reminder of the great power people can generate when coming together to organize for change.

Included in this post are:

1) Rami Elhanan’s essay about his trip to Warsaw last week, published by Search for Common Ground (
2) Bassam Aramin’s op-ed about Abir’s death, from February 2007, published originally in The Forward and reprinted by Search for Common Ground.
3) An email from The Rebuilding Alliance ( with two pieces of good news: the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Country Report for Israel and the Occupied Territories includes a paragraph about Abir’s death; and Abir’s Garden, playground built by Combatants for Peace in memory of Abir, opened last month in Anata, Abir’s hometown.
4) On March 10th, Terry Gross interviewed Bassam Aramin and Zohar Shapira (also of Combatants for Peace) on the radio program “Fresh Air.” Here is the link:

Sarah Anne Minkin


I am Bassam Aramin

Rami Elhanan

JERUSALEM—Last Thursday evening, my family was invited to dinner at the home of Bassam Aramin, in Anata.

Anata is a twenty minute ride from Motza, twenty light years away from Jerusalem.

We ate a mountain of maqloube with almonds and yogurt. Bassam told us about his meeting with the actor Shlomo Wizcinski who is slated to play Bassam in a new play. And my wife gave his wife, Salwa, a gift: a silver pendant with the name of her daughter Abir, may she rest in peace, made by a Jerusalem silversmith.

We laughed. It was fun. It was emotional.

And then, on the television screen, we saw the images of the attack on the Jerusalem Merkaz Harav school.

And again a cold hand seizes your heart, and again the blood freezes in your veins, again that sword twists inside you, knowing again there will be no rest until that blood is avenged. On the side of the screen, a news ticker of stark updates from Gaza: eight dead in one hour.

And beside the television, Salwa is bitter with tears for the mothers of the dead.

It was hard. Truly hard.

"Alright," said Bassam when we parted. "At least we'll see each other in Warsaw on Sunday…"

The two of use were invited by Warsaw television and HBO for the premier of a new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families organization, Parents Circle-Families Forum. I was glad. I knew that together we would be able to pass on a message of hope to people who, for the most part, had not the faintest idea about the conflict. I knew that by virtue of our shared grief people would listen to us—and perhaps even talk about peace.

I was naïve. I completely forgot that the average Palestinian couldn't just get up one morning, like most free men, and travel to wherever he pleases. Despite a barrage of telephone calls, scores of angry emails, pleas and shouting, Bassam stayed at home without a visa.

And thus I find myself Monday evening at the Polish National Theater in Warsaw, alone, in front of a curious Polish audience, two ambassadors, Israeli and Palestinian, and an empty chair—Bassam's chair.

The film begins. Deathly silence. Heartbreaking stories of unbearable human anguish, without political demands, without attempts to quantify suffering. Stories of bereavement and futile attempts to give even a little meaning to the incredible, needless loss each family experienced. An unsure outreaching of a hand to the other side, a hug, reconciliation, and the shade of a smile, a bud of hope. Men and women, faces lined with suffering, in extreme close-up, telling and telling. A sigh can be heard from the audience in the dark hall, and perhaps tears falling—the atmosphere is heavy and onerous.

As the screening ends, the Israeli ambassador fidgets in his seat, his body language communicating impatience and blatant aggression. "Count to ten!" shouts an Israeli from the audience, but it's already too late.

He stands and takes the single microphone, and everyone, including the Palestinian ambassador, sits admonished like disobedient children, listening to the words of His Lordship. And he explains, his Honor, that he had had misgivings and hesitancies about appearing at the evening's event after what happened in Jerusalem on Thursday, but out of respect for the bereaved families he had decided to come. And he went on to say that Israel would be resolute in its fight against terror, without compromise. And that there is no comparing the pain of someone who was hurt by terror with that of someone who was hurt as a result of others acting in self-defense…that Israeli children don't go blow themselves up in the market in Gaza, and…

And then someone from the audience yells at him that Israel sends tanks and fighter planes to Gaza, that the Israeli occupation is also a form of terrorism. Immediately the same ugly argument restarts, with His Excellency affirming that everyone has a right to their opinion—meanwhile his press agent has no idea where to bury himself from embarrassment, in front of his astonished Polish hosts. We too, myself and my son, cast our eyes downwards in shame at this strange behavior, this bombastic performance of our representative in Warsaw.

That same morning, across from the remains of the Warsaw ghetto wall, I had asked myself how I, as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a human, could express my feelings about Bassam's loss. Then, I was not able to come to any conclusion. And now, in a split-second decision, I said to those assembled at the screening, "I—am Bassam Aramin! I represent here the missing character of this brave and noble combatant for peace."

I told them that the fact that Palestinians are missing from nearly every international forum that speaks about the conflict is a source of embarrassment. I said that this absent bereaved father, this ex-prisoner who chose the path of reconciliation and peace, is a powerful voice against the glaring injustice that continues to assert that there is no one to talk with, that there is nothing to talk about, and that we should give up talking.

At that point, the ambassador assembled his bodyguards and left in a suitably royal huff. The head Rabbi acknowledged that "there is no pain like your pain," and the panel nodded in agreement out of Polish politeness.

We went together to be photographed, and afterwards to drink and then to eat, and while present physically, my soul and in my heart were in Anata. I could not for an instant stop thinking about Bassam and Salwa Aramin. I though to myself that only Bassam, with his nobility and his endless smiles, could have made the ambassador embarrassed and lower his glare in shame; only he could have helped him understand that the attacks in Gaza preceded the ones in Jerusalem, that Sderot preceded Gaza, that the Occupation preceded Jenin, and ad infinitum—an endless cycle of senseless violence…

But Bassam was not there with me. I left Warsaw with a bowed head, wounded, shamed and hurting.

And that is all there is. It is up to us to move forward… or not.


* Rami Elhanan is the father of Smadar Elhanan, who was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in September, 1997. He lectures daily for the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families organization Parents Circle-Families Forum. This article, translated from Hebrew by Miriam Asnes, is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at


A plea for peace from a bereaved Palestinian father

by Bassam Aramin

14 February 2007

ANATA, West Bank – I fought with my daughter on the day she was shot.

On her way out the door to school, Abir announced, in that way children have of doing, that she would be playing with a friend that afternoon rather than coming straight home to study for an exam scheduled for the next day. She was 10 years old, smart, dedicated to her schoolwork and still a little girl.

She wanted to play. I told her to not even think about it.

If I could tell her anything now, it would be: Go. Do whatever you want. Play.

Because now, she never will. She will never laugh again, never hear her friends calling her name, never feel the love of her family wrapped around her at night like a warm blanket.

Abir, the third of my six children, was shot in the head as she left school January 16, caught in an altercation between Israel Border Guard troops and older kids who may or may not have been throwing rocks. She died two days later.

I know what the Israeli army has said about the incident, and I know what Abir's older sister Arin saw with her own two eyes: Abir was running away from the troops when she suddenly stopped and fell, and blood splattered onto the ground. An independent autopsy confirms the most likely cause of death: a rubber bullet, through the back of Abir's head. I have that bullet in my house, because poor Arin, watching her sister get shot, picked up the bullet and brought it home. I was not surprised when the Israeli army tried to blame Abir for her own death. First we were told that she was among the rock throwers; then we were told that "something" blew up in her hands - though her hands remained miraculously in tact - before she could toss it at the Border Guard jeep.

I was not surprised, but the anguish that such fabrications cause my wife and me is hard to express. Our baby was killed - must her name and innocence be desecrated, as well?

It would be easy, so easy, to hate. To seek revenge, find my own rifle, and kill three or four soldiers, in my daughter's name. That's the way Israelis and Palestinians have run things for a long time. Every dead child - and everyone is someone's child - is another reason to keep killing.

I know. I used to be part of the cycle. I once spent seven years in an Israeli jail for helping to plan an armed attack against Israeli soldiers. At the time, I was disappointed that none of the soldiers was hurt.

But as I served out my sentence, I talked with many of my guards. I learned about the Jewish people's history. I learned about the Holocaust.

And eventually I came to understand: On both sides, we have been made instruments of war. On both sides, there is pain, and grieving and endless loss.

And the only way to make it stop is to stop it ourselves.

Many people came to support and comfort us as Abir lay dying, her small face chalk white, her eyes forever closed. Among those who never left my side were a number of men I have recently come to love as brothers, men who know my past, and who share it. Men who, like me, were trained to hate and to kill, but who now also believe that we must find a way to live with our former enemies.

Israeli men. Every one of them, a former combat soldier.

These men and I are members of Combatants for Peace. Each of us, 300 Palestinians and Israelis, was once on the front lines of the conflict. We shot, bombed, tortured and killed. We believed it was the only way to serve our people.

Now we know this not to be true. We know that to serve our people, we must fight not each other but the hatred between us. We must find a way to share this land each people holds in the depths of its soul, to build two states side by side. Only then will the mourning end.

I will not rest until the soldier responsible for my daughter's death is put on trial and made to face what he has done. I will see to it that the world does not forget my daughter, my lovely Abir.

But I will not seek vengeance. No, I will continue the work I have undertaken with my Israeli brothers. I will fight with all I have within me to see that Abir's name, Abir's blood, becomes the bridge that finally closes the gap between us, the bridge that allows Israelis and Palestinians to finally, inshallah, live in peace.

If I could tell my daughter anything, I would make her that promise. And I would tell her that I love her very, very much.


* Bassam Aramin lives in Anata, just outside of Jerusalem. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Forward, 9 February 2007,


Dear Friend of the Rebuilding Alliance,

This morning, attorney Shamai Leibowitz wrote, "Our efforts to get Abir Aramin's death reported in the State Department's 2007 Country Report for Israel and the Occupied Territories were successful. The report, released yesterday, includes the following paragraph. While not being critical (they never are), the mentioning of the witnesses and the pathologist report implies that there is a cover-up by the authorities."

On January 19, 10-year-old Abir Aramin died from a wound to the back of the head inflicted as she was leaving school during clashes between Israeli Border Police and Palestinians. The Jerusalem District Prosecutor closed the investigation July 31 for lack of evidence. On September 25, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din appealed, alleging that according to 14 witnesses and independent Israeli pathologist Dr. Chen Kugel, she was shot with a rubber-coated bullet while running away. At year's end the Prosecutor's Office had not taken further action.

The Aramin family's visit in January to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. State Department in Washington proved to be key to inclusion of their case in the U.S. State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices. We are now in the process of translating the Yesh Din appeal into English and creating a web-based timeline of what happened as a resource for you to present to your elected representatives. We plan to have this available in May, when Bassam Aramin and Combatants for Peace return to the U.S. for a speaking tour and to receive the Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey (they were nominated by September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows).

Why pay attention to this case? The Aramin Family and the whole of Combatants for Peace believe it is vitally important to bring this case to justice, to set precedent so soldiers will stop shooting children, and to demonstrate that justice will prevail over violence. According to B'Tselem, not one of the 884 cases of Palestinian children killed by Israeli soldiers has ever been prosecuted.

Here's how you can help::

1. First, please take a moment now to send the Aramin family words of encouragement and hope. When the Israeli State Attorney rejected their appeal on the day after Combatants for Peace held the memorial ceremony for Abir at her school (and the opening of playground part of the Abir's Garden project in her memory), the family felt like she was "being killed all over again." E-mail them a picture of beauty, note of condolence, a photo of yourself if you want, or even a short video. Their e-mail address is FortheAraminFamily @

2. Please make a donation, large or small, to help pay for film-interviews with the eyewitnesses, the independent pathologist, and the legal team. We'll use the interviews to create a web-based chronology that shows what really happened to Abir. In this time of such danger, grief, and loss, our good work is all but overshadowed by it all. May you draw solace and strength from Zohar Shapira's words, on February 9th, at the opening of the playground named for Abir. Zohar is Combatants for Peace coordinator for the Abir's Garden Project. He wrote that in addition to the 120 adults (mostly former fighters) who attended, there were "dozens of children that were all the time playing and laughing around. The joy [the playground] brought those children was much over my expectations." Now we hear it is crowded with children and parents past dark, the first playground in Anata.

Donna Baranski-Walker
Executive Director of the Rebuilding Alliance

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