Israel will celebrate its 75th anniversary tomorrow. But before festivities begin, the dead who fell during the wars and attacks are first remembered. With a special memorial meeting in Tel Aviv last night: Israeli relatives gathered there with Palestinians from the West Bank, who have lost relatives to the Israeli occupation.
About 150 Palestinians from the West Bank were allowed by Israel to attend the memorial. The defense minister actually wanted to deny them access for security reasons. But a day before the commemoration, the Supreme Court ruled that this was unfounded.
This is not just to send a message to Israel and the Palestinians, but it is a message to the whole world.
One of the Palestinians who received permission is Layla Al-Sheikh from Bethlehem. She lost her baby to an Israeli raid on her home. For years they wanted nothing more to do with Israelis. But meeting the relatives of the Israeli side has changed her: “For the first time I saw them as people like me. For the first time I saw that we have the same pain. Of course our circumstances are different, but we are all human. And there is nothing worse than losing your child. And only people who have been through the same thing understand that.”
Like Robi Damelin, one of the initiators of the mixed commemoration. She herself lost her son, who was shot dead by a Palestinian. “When I heard the news about my son, I immediately told them not to kill anyone in his name,” she says. Since then she has been committed to meetings of relatives of both sides. “What we are doing here is a miracle. And this is not just to give a message to Israel and the Palestinians, but it is a message to the whole world.”
Initiator Damelin talks to a visitor at the meeting in Tel Aviv:
The commemoration is fraught. Both Israelis and Palestinians will speak and share their stories. There are many emotions and people from both sides seek support from each other. Yusra Abdelazis from Hebron is one of the speakers. Her son was shot dead in front of her by Israeli soldiers.
“It felt good to tell my story,” she says. “This way they can see that we are not terrorists, but that we are also ordinary people who suffer from this situation. And by sharing my story, I feel supported, and better understood.”
When she comes off stage, an Israeli woman walks up to her and gives her a big hug. They do not understand each other, but language does not seem necessary and the Israeli occupation seems to no longer exist.
Yet there is much criticism of the mixed commemoration. The meeting has been controversial on both sides. Many Palestinians do not consider it appropriate to commemorate Palestinians who died during the occupation together with soldiers who are part of that occupation. And many Israelis see the killed Palestinians as terrorists who should not be commemorated together with killed soldiers and civilians.
Members of the latter group also came to the memorial for a protest. Just outside the fences of the fenced off area are about 15 men with megaphones. They make noise and shout that the participants are traitors.
Also during the speech of Yuval Sapir, who talks about his sister who died in a Palestinian suicide attack. He breaks a few times and with applause the audience tries to support him to continue. But the protesters shouting from behind the fences make it uncomfortable.
“I feel sorry for them,” Sapir says of the demonstrators behind the fences. “They’ve been brainwashed and don’t understand that they’re just supporting more violence this way. And it’s a shame they don’t get that. If only I could explain it to them, they listened, but,” he says.
Not worth celebrating
Despite the shouting from the sidelines and all the criticism, the mixed gathering gives many attendees hope for a better future. “I so hope the situation will change,” says Abdelazis. “I want so badly to live in peace and in freedom.”
And the Israelis present also hope for change. Because the fact that the country will be 75 years old tomorrow is not something they all experience as a celebration. “I love my country, but I want to live in a democratic country. A country where my neighbors are also free, and where there is peace. For me and my grandchildren. So no, I am not happy and proud of 75 years of Israel and what happens,” says Damelin.
It doesn’t feel like a party for Sapir either: “For me it’s not worth celebrating. I hope we can celebrate our 76th year next year, but with a better situation for everyone.”
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