World Vision United Kingdom publication: Israeli perspective on the wall Interview: Rami Elhanan

Turning Pain into Hope

The finger turned and faced me
My name is Rami Elhanan. I am a 54-year-old graphic designer by trade. My family roots in Jerusalem date back seven generations. I have four kids and my wife, Nurit, is a lecturer in the school of education at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. My father is an Auschwitz survivor who came to Palestine from Hungary in 1946. He fought in the 1948 war and was severely wounded. My mother, born in the Old City of Jerusalem, was the nurse who attended to him.

On the fourth of September 1997, I lost my fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, (The name from the Bible – Song of Solomon – meaning: the grape of vine) in a suicide attack on Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem. It was a Thursday afternoon and the beginning of a very long and dark night.

At first, I heard the news of a suicide bombing near where my daughter and her friends were shopping on Ben-Yehuda St. Then, I found myself running in the streets, from hospital to hospital looking for her. And later on, in the morgue, this horrible finger turned and faced me right between the eyes. It was a sight and time I will never ever be able to forget, and it changed my life completely.

The pressure one goes through when you know your near and dear one is in danger, is just not explainable. When you are the parent, it is amplified by a million times and it gets etched in your mind and heart for ever. When you are investing within the stock market, you can make use of software like Millionaire Blueprint and safe guard your money. But when your child is out there, you can only pray such a day never comes and you will never have to rush like the way I did.
Euphoric peace
As a soldier in the Israeli armored corps I fought in three wars. I was twenty during the War of Attrition in 1969 and was stationed in the Sinai desert by the Suez Canal. A few years later in 1973 I fought in the Yom Kippur War as a reservist. We started this war with a company of 11 tanks and ended with three tanks. It was a very difficult experience as I lost many friends there. In 1982 when I was older with two little children I was recalled again and fought in Lebanon. Lebanon was the first war that I realized that something terrible was wrong. The feeling in the Yom Kippur War was that I was defending my family, my homeland, and my very existence. In 1982, the feeling began to grow that we are doing something else.

After the Yom Kippur war I was an angry and bitter young man. I was angry with the politicians for not doing the right thing as far as Israel’s security was concerned. The war was a big surprise and we were not ready to deal with the Arab attack. (I didn’t even have a gun of my own the first two weeks of the war…) I was very angry that so many people died in vain. I came out of this war with a determination to be detached from any kind of involvement. I built a bubble around my self. I didn’t want to be part of anything. The Lebanon war emphasized this. In a way I became a state of my own, in exile inside my own country, looking after my family and minding my own business.

As the 1980’s came along and I was practicing my trade as a graphic designer and I was very cynical. Because I was so detached I allowed myself to work with almost anyone. I could on one-hand work on a poster for the committee of the University of Bir Zeit showing Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians. On the other hand, I could design campaigns for the right-wing nationalist Israeli movement, Hatkhia, or for the Settler Council of Judea and Samaria calling to raise up the Israeli flag. I felt like an anarchist. And I have justified myself by saying that I am fulfilling a basic democratic need, to let people express themselves, exercising their democratic right. On 1993 the Oslo process started and there was signs for a new hope. Eventually there was the signing of the agreement in the White House. After that, my partner and I said nice good-bye to all our right wing clients. We hoped things would be different from now on.

At the beginning, the Oslo Process created a big euphoria between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians threw candies at Israeli troops leaving Palestinian cities and Israelis came to Palestinian villages to buy furniture. There were a few months in which most people believed that the unbelievable happened. Something nobody ever dreamed that was possible. All this was true until April 1994 when the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers by Dr. Baruch Golgstein took place in Hebron. The revenge came after 40 days and a new wave of violence irrupted.

I am a Zionist
I am a Zionist in the sense that I deeply believe that the Jewish people, like any other people in the world, deserve their right to self-determination, in their ancient homeland. Now, that brings very big and problematic questions. What does it mean to be Jewish? What are the real Jewish values? What makes one a Jew? What does it mean having a Jewish State?
Being Jewish is part of me. I’m a Jew as my eyes are green. It’s a destiny and an identity which I cannot escape. It’s because of the my own history, my forefathers, my roots, and because of the fact that I fill deep emotional connection to this people that was murdered and persecuted and victimized throughout history. Never the less, I believe that this huge and successful revolution of the Jewish people in the form of its national liberation organization, the Zionist movement, was accompanied with some great mistakes. The idea of “a land without people for people without a land” was terribly wrong and totally blind. Even so, I think you can not correct one evil or a wrong by creating other evil and more wrong. Today after all the blood that was spilled and the heavy price that was paid by the two sides, all the mistakes, all the brutality by the two sides the only way out of this endless cycle of violence, is the “Two states” solution…

From fear came anger
The average Israeli welcomes the wall. The average Israeli is very angry, disappointed and insulted. The average Israeli thought that shaking hands on the balcony of the White House was enough and that they didn’t have to give up anything. The average Israeli thought that the rejection of the Israeli hand of peace by the Palestinians was insulting, unpredictable and unwise. They really couldn’t understand why the Palestinians couldn’t accept the ‘very generous offer’ that was offered to them by Barak in Camp David.

Most Israelis thought we were having some kind of a love story with the Palestinians and that we were going to kiss and hug and get married in the end. They did not realize that we were actually having a divorce process and that we were fighting over the kids and furnitures. Most of the Israelis are ignorant about the facts. They accept the myths that are provided to them without any questions. When Ehud Barak came back from Camp David saying, “There is no one to talk to” (and so, there is nothing to talk about, and we don’t have to give up anything) most of the Israelis agreed. Most of Israelis never saw the other side. They never understood the other side…not the anger, not the pain…not the story…not the narrative… nothing. When the other side started to bite back, after 37 long years of humiliating without any democratic right, Israelis were overwhelmed and shocked. When the first suicide bombers went off, Israelis could not understand how someone could kill himself and little kids. There was no explanation. From this fear came the anger. From the anger came a very strong public demand for a wall to hide behind.

The wall was first presented a few months after the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000. The army was not able to overcome the uprising and the waves of suicide bombers. As many Palestinians as we killed, they came in and killed more and more of us. People became very angry and frustrated. You couldn’t send your son to school by bus. You couldn’t walk on the streets as the ”murderous Palestinian terror” was getting into every Israelis mind and the pressure was unbelievable from all kinds of Israelis and from all sides of society. In fact, the only ones who were against this wall were the right wing and the settlers. They never wanted this wall in the first place and the fact is they don’t want this wall even today because the wall means division of the land and defining of the final borders.

After the very bloody year of 2002, the pressure was so severe that the government gave in and started building the wall. And they built it as a compromise between the settlers and what was seemed to be the need for security – what they thought was defensible. Most Israelis do not even know where the fence is going. They simply want a wall to hide behind and they really don’t care where the wall stands. An average Israeli says it is not a permanent wall. It is just there to protect us. “Walls can be moved, lives cannot be retrieved.”

Israel created this wall as they do everything, in a big way, as a very decisive and pioneering act, without many thoughts about the ramification of it all. The country’s full energy has been put into this wall and it has been built in a very short time in order to stop the Palestinian suicide bombers
You will not find many Israelis that are against it. Most Israelis say the Palestinians have brought it on themselves. It is rationalized because of the viciousness and cruelty of the suicide bombing and because of the need for self-defense. Suddenly this wall became the ultimate security answer for every Israeli representing views from right wing to left wing.

But for myself, personally, I don’t believe in walls. I do not think walls create good neighbors as the poet Frost once wrote. Walls create hate especially if you build it in the middle of your neighbor’s living room instead of your own backyard. If the wall had been built on the 1967 border, I still wouldn’t have believed in it, but that would have been more acceptable and understandable by people and countries all around the world. When the wall is being built inside the house of your neighbor, more and more hate and anger is created. The wall divides Palestinians from their lands, from their schools, from their doctors, from everything. The anger and rage it creates will make them hit back and there is no wall on earth that can stop the one determined suicide bomber who will go under it or behind it or above it. If they find a crack they will go into it and people who will lose their lives in vicious suicide bombing will not be comforted by the existence of the wall. They will either be victims themselves or have one of their loved ones as victims. The more we will get fortified the more they will look for this inevitable crack. If they are not able to find it they will attack anywhere they can – even on a Jewish kindergartens in Belgium or a landing airplane somewhere…

The essence of this wall is political. It is to show the Palestinians that the uprising cost them a lot. Even if down the line there is talk of a Palestinian state it will not be a viable Palestinian state given the wall’s trajectory. All the land that is being confiscated now will create a Palestinian state that will never be able to stand on its two feet. As a Jew, the most alarming thing for me is that my people are getting back into the ghetto. They are creating their own ghetto. It will not protect us. It will make us give up any hope. It will make us give up any dialogue or negotiation. It will make us give up any connection with our neighbors. It will make us feel full of power when we are really powerless. The price of this wall is too high. It will put the very existence of the state of Israel in jeopardy!

As the son of a holocaust survivor, I believe the world had a responsibility for what happened 60 years ago when my grandparents were sent to the gas chambers. The world also has a responsibility today as well, and the world’s behavior is a shame! Today, while these two crazy peoples are massacring each other without any mercy, the free and civilized world led by the US is not only stand aside but rather supporting one side unconditionally at the expense of both sides, prolonging the suffering of both sides. More pressure needs to be put on both sides and especially on the stronger side to return back to the negotiating table and sit down and talk instead of killing each other.

Turning pain into hope
Two men, Roni Hirshenzon and Yitzhak Frankenthal, founded the Parents’ Circle in 1995, which is now known as Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace. Roni lost his oldest son, Amir, in the Beit-Lid suicide bombing near Netanya. Yitzhak lost his son, Arik, when he was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1995. In those days, it was an atmosphere of almost rebellion in the streets of Israel. The Israeli right wing demonstrations against the Oslo process were getting more aggressive and daring. They used anger and revenge of bereaved families as a tool in their struggle. Yitzhak and Roni decided that bereavement is a power that they can use to prevent more bereavement. From that day on, slowly but surely, the number of member families has grown to about 300 Israeli bereaved families and about 200 Palestinian bereaved families today.

As far as I’m concerned, the basic and most important thing about The Forum of Bereaved Families for Peace is that it is a joint venture of the two sides. It is a venture of people who paid the highest price possible yet are still able to put aside the anger and the natural will to retaliate by talking. They see this path as the only means of getting anywhere and breaking the endless and meaningless cycle of violence. And this is really the message, if we who lost our loved ones and paid the highest price possible… if we can talk to one another then anyone can. We are proud that this is not a political organization. We won’t tell the politicians where to draw the lines or how to phrase the articles of the peace treaty because this gives us enormous power to talk to anyone despite the very deep political divide in Israel.

When I first met Yitzhak, and saw the “kipa” on his had, I immediately stigmatized him to be “an Arab eater for breakfast…” Later on he persuaded me and I went to a meeting of the Parent’s Circle. I met there some Israelis, which were (for me as an Israeli patriot), living legends. I met people like Yaacov Guterman, a Holocaust Survivor who lost his beloved son Raz in the Lebanon war – a pioneer who raised the flag of peace as a bereaved father in the early 80th, I saw people like Roni Hirshenzon who lost his two sons in this bloody war. And then I saw an old Arab lady with a long black dress and on her chest was a picture of a six years old kid. Later on I met more Palestinian bereaved families – People like Dr. Adel Misk whose father was murdered by a settler and Khaled Abu-Awad who lost two of his brothers and became my own brother…
I am not a religious person; I really can not explain this profound change in me. But meeting these people, listening to their message of forgiveness and healing, have touched me deep inside. From that moment on, I devote my life to convey this very simple message: We are not doomed! It is not our destiny to keep on dying here in this Holy Land forever! From that moment on I have a reason to get out of bed every morning! I am going from person to person and to whoever will listen. To convey this very simple truth: We must break down this wall of hatred and fear that divides our two nations. We must turn our pain into hope. Because if we can persuade only one person, we might be able to save one drop of blood. And that’s a lot!  in English in English in Hebrew