'The loss and the grief are equal for everyone'

Amid war, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists take annual joint memorial online

Controversial Memorial Day commemoration, filmed in advance this year, will be virtual to avoid having all-Israeli crowd, with West Bank Palestinians barred from Israel since Oct. 7

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz)
A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz)

On the night of Sunday, May 12, while tens of thousands of Israelis attend Memorial Day ceremonies in public spots across the country in remembrance of the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks, others will sit in their homes in front of their computer screens, participating in a virtual alternative event.

The Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony, now in its 19th year, is organized by the left-wing group Combatants for Peace and by the Parents Circle — Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians.

The assembly, which its organizers say is the largest peace event organized jointly by Israelis and Palestinians, has been controversial since its inception in 2006, but has also drawn increasingly larger crowds over the years, both in person and online. Last year, 15,000 attended the ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ganei Yehoshua Park, and 200,000 watched it online from around the world, according to organizers.

While right-wing politicians have called participants “traitors” who “sit with terrorists,” organizers maintain that the ceremony aims to supersede the traditional Memorial Day discourse that “war and death are inevitable and necessary,” and to present an alternative narrative that puts human lives at the forefront.

That message may resonate with many in the region and around the world in the aftermath of October 7 and the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

“It’s an eye-opener for many to know that even though the conflict is ongoing, there is a group of people who see each other as equal human beings. The loss and the grief are equal for everyone,” said Eszter Korányi, the Israeli co-director of the movement. “We want to showcase an example that it’s possible to cooperate and even to meet in this very painful place of loss from the two different sides of the conflict.”

Her words were echoed by her Palestinian co-director, Rana Salman.

“We have been stuck in this same cycle of violence for many years, and every time we lose loved ones from both sides,” Salman said. “This is an opportunity to say out loud on stage to the world that we want this to end and we need to find a solution. Because something so tragic happened, [the conflict] is back on the table and people are discussing it.”

File: People attend a memorial ceremony commemorating the victims of the decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2022, as Israel marks the annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In 2023, after entry permits to Israel were initially withheld, the High Court of Justice ordered Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to allow some 150 Palestinians invited to the joint ceremony to enter the country from the West Bank.

This year, the ceremony can only be attended online. In “normal” previous years, it would be held in person, and relatives of victims of the conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian, would take the stage to give speeches about their lost loved ones and the need for peace, interspersed with musical performances by artists from both communities.

Since Israel has revoked all entry permits to Palestinians after October 7, no resident of the West Bank will be allowed to attend in person this year. Organizers therefore decided to take the event online rather than hold an event for Israelis alone. The format will remain the same, comprising speeches and music.

Eszter Korányi, Israeli co-director of the Combatants for Peace NGO (courtesy)

The 2022 joint ceremony was split between Tel Aviv and the West Bank’s Beit Jala, after being held primarily online for the previous two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s ceremony was pre-recorded on May 8 before an audience of 250 people. It will then be streamed online on Memorial Day Eve (registration here). In some locations, public screenings will be held in volunteers’ homes.

Organizers predict that on the night of the broadcast, hundreds of thousands will view it from around the world, and they are hopeful that the ongoing conflict will attract an even larger attendance than usual.

“If this war was going on somewhere else, nobody would care, honestly,” Korányi remarked.

“But because this conflict is interesting for the whole world, we need to have a voice saying something else. There are so many loud voices saying Israel is right, Palestine is right, Jews are right, Arabs are right. We need to form a coalition to say that we need to choose people, and we need to choose peace and humanity beyond everything else,” said Korányi.

No escape from reality

The Hamas atrocities of October 7 and the war in Gaza will take front and center at the ceremony this year. The war broke out on October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists carried out a devastating attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 252 hostages, while committing acts of wholesale brutality.

File: Israeli bereaved family member Tal Kfir speaks during a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony broadcast in Tel Aviv on April 27, 2020. (Rami Ben Ari/Combatants for Peace)

Israel’s subsequent offensive, aiming to destroy Hamas and free the hostages, has killed over 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. This figure cannot be independently verified and does not differentiate between civilians and Palestinian combatants. Israel says it has killed over 15,000 Hamas fighters since the war began and around 1,000 inside Israeli territory on October 7. In addition, 271 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began, in Gaza and amid operations on the border.

Among the Israeli speakers are Yonatan Zeigan, son of Canadian-Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver, who was murdered on October 7 in her kibbutz in near the Gaza border, and Michal Halev, mother of Laor Abramov, a DJ from New Jersey who was murdered at the Supernova music festival. The Palestinian speakers will include Ahmed Helou, who lost 60 members of his extended family in Gaza in the ongoing war.

Amid the despair of the war, Combatants for Peace leaders say they have witnessed an uptick in their ranks, as many search for a sliver of hope in a seemingly endless and intractable conflict.

On the Israeli side, the left-wing group had attracted new members even before October 7, during the months of rallies against the judicial overhaul, when its activists took to the streets to protest the government and its policies in the West Bank, and rubbed elbows with other demonstrators.

“Many had heard about us, but when they stood next to us in the demonstrations, they wanted to hear more,” said Korányi.

File: Bereaved mother Leila al-Sheikh speaks about her son Qusai, who died in 2002 at the age of 6 months from an Israeli tear gas canister, during the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants for Peace)

After October 7, interest in the group’s activities reportedly increased even further. In January, the group held a newcomers’ seminar, with over 50 applications for a program that normally attracts 20, Korányi said. Dozens also joined the nonprofit’s social media groups, she added.

“There are so few organizations that bring some kind of hope that is possible to overcome all the hatred, and we are one of them,” she said.

Rana Salman, Palestinian co-director of the peace organization Combatants for Peace, Germany, 2019 (courtesy)

On the Palestinian side, the group has also recruited new members, although, to its detractors, its activities represent unwanted normalization with Israel.

Salman, the Bethlehem-based Palestinian co-director of Combatants for Peace, said that a program for young people aged 18-26 that normally attracts 20 participants — and that in recent years had seen participation plummet because of calls against “normalization” — saw 92 applications for the latest cohort.

“That is a sign of hope for us,” said Salman. “Many young people don’t want to side with extremists, but are also not with those who don’t care at all. They want to do something, but they don’t know what. And then, they find this opportunity.

“Many [Palestinian] people, including in my own family, have never met an Israeli other than a soldier or a settler, and it’s usually a negative experience,” said Salman. “But now young people can get an opportunity to meet peers from the same age group, with the same interests, They listen to the same music. They all follow TikTok and social media. They discover that they are actually quite similar.”

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