Voices from Palestine and Israel: Parents Circle and SIPD on conflict, trauma, and healing

Sydney Pope and Gaby Ivanova

In January, Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue (SIPD) had the incredible honor of hearing the stories of Arab Aramin and Yigal Elhanan, members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum. The organization is a joint Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding network of over 600 bereaved families and individuals from both sides of the conflict who have chosen reconciliation with the other side to pursue a just, sustainable peace. 

Hearing the power of their stories strengthened our perspective of what can be achieved when dialogue is at the forefront of reconciliation. There was a clear message that instead of supporting one side or the other, the most powerful step we can take as a college and a global community is to demand justice and uplift narratives that often go unnoticed in our polarized societies. 

We are choosing to write this piece through the lens of their stories and to let their words speak for themselves. 

Yigal, 28, an Israeli born in West Jerusalem, may have grown up in the same municipality as Arab, 27, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, but he emphasized that their lives couldn’t have been more different. Yigal explained that until he was 5, Palestinians were to him “a people without an identity and history.” This changed when his sister Smadar, 14, was walking from school with three other girls. Three Palestinians detonated a suicide bomb, and Smadar was killed instantly from the shrapnel. 

Her loss felt like a “missing essential organ,” leaving him with no direction. Meanwhile, his parents engaged with the Parents Circle. Yigal couldn’t fathom why they were sharing his family’s most intimate experience with, as he put it, “no offense, but complete strangers.” 

At 14, he discovered that between 1996 and 1999, 120 Palestinians and 100 Israelis lost their lives to the conflict. “That number shook me to my core,” he remembered, “because it meant that Smadar’s death was not as singular and unique and specific as I thought.” Countless families, on both sides, were torn apart by similar trauma. 

Led by his shock and deepened curiosity, he was willing to listen to others and open his heart and mind. He met the “other side” through the Parents Circle and learned their stories and about their loss. “Palestinians were no longer faceless,” he said. “They were no longer story-less.” 

By this time, Yigal had formed his viewpoint about the injustices within Israel, but he soon faced a dilemma when he had to enlist, by law, in the Israel Defense Force. He realized that to change anything, he had to be part of Israeli society. “This is how you gain your voice to speak publicly against what you think is wrong because otherwise, what do you know?” He believed that it was the only way to explain his view to his peers that reconciliation is possible. 

One day during his service, he got on a bus and made eye contact with a Palestinian boy. “He looked at me the only way he possibly can,” Yigal said — “as his oppressor, as his occupier, as a soldier standing at the checkpoint who held his mother for a few hours.” This encounter impelled him to leave the army and join several anti-occupation, pro-justice groups. 

Arab’s story started January 16, 2007. On that day, an Israeli soldier shot and killed his sister Abir, 10 years old, in front of her school. “It was for no reason, or maybe the reason was she was Palestinian,” he said. 

He said of his sister Abir: “She was my second mother… She was telling me always how to act good with people, but unfortunately, my second mother — she’s not there anymore.” 

Arab’s grief drove him toward revenge, and he began throwing stones at the checkpoints. During that time, his father’s Israeli friends would come to his house to support the family. Like Yigal, he resisted these efforts from his parents, calling his father, in particular, a traitor, to which his father responded: “‘You’re right. One Israeli soldier shot and killed your sister, but there were more than 100 Israeli people that [were] next to me in the hospital for three days.’ He was telling me all the time that I have to make peace with myself,” Arab said. “Then, I can make peace with others.” 

This, to us, felt like the crux of both their narratives — making peace with ourselves first before engaging in the process of peacemaking and reconciliation more broadly. 

But what ultimately stirred Arab to action was a visit to the Buchenwald death camp in Germany. “I thought, ‘I’m going to learn something good to know how to kill all the Israelis,’ he remembered. But when I got there … after two seconds, I start[ed] to cry for the people who lost their lives for nothing … Two years ago, I wanted to kill all of them, and now I’m crying for them. What’s going on with me?’” He remembered what his father had said all those years ago. 

Our final question was what we could do as a club, as advocates, or as individuals hoping to learn more. Arab’s response was a powerful close to the dialogue. 

“If you’re going to support Israel or support Palestine, you’re not going to help us,” he said. “Please, support justice. For two nations. That’s the only way how you can help us, and I’m going to finish it with Martin Luther King, [who] said, ‘Tomorrow, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but we will remember the silence of our friends.’ And I’m asking you guys, please don’t keep silent.” 

We felt that this message of peacebuilding through dialogue is why SIPD was created to begin with. Arab’s and Yigal’s resolve to work towards justice, irrespective of which side of the checkpoint someone is from, was not developed all at once. One dialogue did not change their perspectives entirely. But in opening up about their pasts, they were able to not only continue the dialogue but also find friendship in one another. We believe that even though this process is trying and ongoing, it is the only way to build sustainable trust and work towards reconciliation. 

After a year wrought with ongoing crises and conflict, what Arab and Yigal shared was a strong cause for hope. Their words carried a tangible power and a window into the potential of human connection, despite every existing force that could dismantle it.

Sydney Pope ’22.5 is an Arabic studies and psychology major from Santa Fe, N.M. Gaby Ivanova ’23 is a prospective history and political science major from Sofia, Bulgaria.