Grieving Israeli, Palestinian families observe joint memorial, seen by 200,000

At controversial ceremony screened online, with small in-person gatherings in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem, participants from both sides of the conflict call for peace

Bereaved Israeli Tamar Pikes, whose brother and father both died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, speaks at the Joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony near Bethlehem on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants For Peace)
Bereaved Israeli Tamar Pikes, whose brother and father both died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, speaks at the Joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony near Bethlehem on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants For Peace)

In a quiet courtyard near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families and their supporters gathered on Tuesday night, Israel’s Memorial Day, to call for reconciliation and an end to the conflict.

“We are entangled, drowning in a cycle of violence and pain and fear. Some of us cannot see that there is a way out of the bloody cycle. I believe it is possible: through mutual recognition, through understanding, through equal rights,” said Tamar Pikes, who lost both her father and her brother in Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors.

Organizers said that the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony was watched by over 200,000 people, breaking last year’s virtual attendance record. Due to coronavirus restrictions, some 200 gathered in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, while another 60 gathered near Bethlehem. The ceremony is controversially held on Israel’s Memorial Day.

The event was emceed by left-wing poet and actor Yossi Tzabari in Tel Aviv, while Palestinian artist Ra’ida Adon moderated the West Bank event near Bethlehem.

Bereaved Israeli and Palestinians and their supporters gather near Bethlehem on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 to observe the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants For Peace)

Bereaved mother Leila al-Sheikh’s son Qusai died in 2002, when tear gas from an Israeli canister filled her home. She attempted to rush the six-month-old to a hospital for urgent care, but was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint.

“[The Israeli soldiers] prevented us from passing under the pretext that there were to be no exceptions for humanitarian cases,” al-Sheikh lamented. “I could feel Qusai’s breaths beginning to quicken.”

By the time they were allowed to leave — some four hours later, al-Sheikh said — it was too late. By the time Qusai reached a hospital in Hebron, he was dead.

“That coldness ignited a raging fire that consumed everything inside me. I hated and refused to see any Israeli for 16 years,” al-Sheikh said.

But al-Sheikh later changed her mind when she met bereaved Israelis from across the Green Line. “I felt the sincerity of those striving for a better future, not only for their own children, but for everyone,” she told the crowd, describing the encounter as “an illumination.”

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)

The left-wing activist group Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle — Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, have organized the yearly ceremony on Israeli Memorial Day since 2006. Some 10,000 supporters gathered in Tel Aviv in 2019, the last time the ceremony was held in person.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, last year’s ceremony was held almost entirely online. But with many in Israel now vaccinated, small groups were able to gather in Tel Aviv and Ramallah to observe the ceremony in person.

The ceremony has been deeply controversial since its inception, particularly among the Israeli public, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers to those who attacked them.

Supporters say it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to the deaths of their loved ones by turning away from violence.

In 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Tel Aviv event and ordered a halt to permits for dozens of West Bank Palestinians who were planning on attending, citing security precautions. The High Court of Justice overturned the decision, arguing that it was not legitimate to bar the attendees’ entry for security reasons.

This year, billboard company CTV refused to run flyers advertising the ceremony.

“They gave us a price, we agreed, and we were ready to publish the ads — but then they decided to withdraw for commercial reasons,” said Tuli Flint, a former combat soldier and Combatants for Peace activist.

The company told the ceremony’s organizers to remove some of the advertisement’s slogans, such as “end the [Israeli] occupation” and “enough fighting.”

“We asked the organization to remove some of these more provocative statements, which engender opposition on Memorial Day,” CTV chief executive Ilon Rossman told Haaretz.

Participants watch the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony near Bethelehem on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants For Peace)

Rossman further said that CTV feared losing money due to its association with the ceremony. After a legal battle, CTV agreed to print the advertisements on billboards without any changes.

“I’m just saying that there’s a controversy, and so, as such, we thought it would not be good to advertise, for commercial reasons,” the executive said in the aftermath. “We as a commercial body believed there could be financial damage to the company.”

In Tel Aviv, film director Gili Meisler recounted how his brother Giora, a young Israeli soldier, was killed in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Giora’s death, Meisler said, led him to join extreme right-wing youth movements in an attempt to seek revenge on Arabs.

“The strong feeling that accompanied me was that hatred and revenge and the absolute confidence in my righteousness were what preserved my connection to Giora. I believed that giving up revenge was like a new loss and a betrayal,” Meisler said.

In an implicit nod to the ceremony’s critics on the Israeli side, Meisler rejected claims that he was betraying his brother’s legacy by participating the joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony.

“We seek the good of the state as we understand it, and the good of the state is to say clearly: Enough of enmity, and welcome to dialogue and hope,” Meisler said.

The ceremony is controversial on the Palestinian side as well, said Combatants for Peace Executive Director Rana Salman.

“There are some people who view this as normalization with Israelis. Others see this as mostly an Israeli day, not a Palestinian day,” Salman said. “There are some people who support violence, and we obviously support a nonviolent path.”

Combatants For Peace activists Tuli Flint, Osama Abu Ayash and Rana Salman speak at the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony (Credit: Ghassan Bannoura/Combatants For Peace)

To avoid confrontations in both Israeli and Palestinian areas, the precise location of the ceremony was kept private and it was not opened to the general public.

“We don’t want to see a group of people come, for example, and disrupt it,” Salman said.

But some local Palestinians did attend the memorial ceremony regardless. According to Flint, greater Palestinian awareness of the event began last year, when the ceremony went online due to coronavirus.

“I’ve seen the pain of families, Jews, and Arabs. I hope these ceremonies can be a kind of bridge which can take us to a safer place,” said Hamza, a Bethlehem resident.

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