Peadar King: 'United in their grief, the Arabs and Jews who long for peace'
They could have been a couple in love. And perhaps they were. In their own way. Rami Elhahan and Bassam Aramin. Men in their fifties. All the tell-tell signs were there. The eyes. The eyes. The way they met. Their lightness and the gentleness of touches. The slightest of smiles.
Then unexpectedly their arms reach across each other's shoulders and briefly rest there. Then pause. Eyes drop. And both briefly fall silent. A distance emerges. A quiet distance. A solitariness. A shadowed darkness. Then heads raised, they continue.
I watch from a distance and know what is coming. If this is love and I've no doubt it is, it is borne out of a terrible, terrible grief. A shared grief. A shared story.
Rami's I had heard the previous day. He's an ex-combatant. A dedicated fighter for a Zionist Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. A war he now deeply regrets being part of. And one that left him embittered, empty and traumatised, a beaten and battered young man. His late father, a Holocaust survivor, lost most of his family in Europe's concentration camps. Israel his place of safety. His place of refuge.
"I am a Jew. I am an Israeli but first of all I am a human being," he tells his American audience who have come to hear him and Bassam speak. "But before everything else I am a human being."
A pause and he continues. "My 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber." Bassam shifts slightly, uneasily in his seat, his mobile phone pressed between his praying hands.
"I am a Palestinian Arab," he begins and immediately I sense he is pacing himself. Then a breath. "My 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed by an Israeli soldier."
People listening perceptibly lean forward. The silence in the room. The empathy for the two men. A hard and bitter agony it is for them. I notice one listening man weeping. Awe and wonder. Disbelief from those listening that they could do likewise.
There is a sense that their stories have been told before. But if so, the authenticity and taut tension has not diminished. As was the case with the mother I met earlier in the week. Her 16-year-old son was kidnapped and burned to death. A 16-year-old boy is burned to death. Sixteen years of age. Burned. To death. By a 29-year-old man and two underage accomplices. Her home a shrine to his memory.
Inevitably, the questions move from the personal to the political. Who's to blame? One state or two? Banttanisation or Balkanisation? Federation or Confederation? "Give me one state, two states or 10,000 states," Rami had told me earlier in our one-on-one meeting, and we won't stop the hate.
Rami, who other than in a conflicted confrontational context had never met a Palestinian until he was 49 years of age, and Bassam want to talk about love, reconciliation, forgiveness, ease, respect. Things that need to be heard within the partisan echo-chamber of this conflicted land.
Things that can never be legislated for, no matter how many states one evokes. So too do other members of the Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, that organisation that does not want any new members. They too want to talk about love and forgiveness. Peace. An escape from all the killing. All the hatred.
Beyond this room, a cacophony of discordant voices gathers apace in the run-up to the April 9 elections. Hard, piercing, shrill voices. As harsh and unyielding as the 507km of walls that have sprouted and spoiled this holiest of lands.
The walls of Bethlehem. The walls of Ramallah. The walls of Jerusalem. Walls on which that most reviled of Shakespeare's characters, the Jew Shylock, are paraphrased: "We all Bleed". Voices as harsh as a young Jewish settler teacher who told me that they don't think the same as us, they don't feel the same as us. The telling is in the they.
A Canadian-born campaigner for the increasingly marginalised Labor party tells me that we won the war in 67 and we are entitled to the spoils of war. On the walls that divide this city, he says "the walls depress me. The walls show that we have failed as human being".
On the military presence, he says it makes him feel secure: the ubiquitous highly weaponised military presence. At checkpoints. At roadblocks.
Another Canadian, a young man in military uniform no more than 21 or 22, had come to Israel to help protect the Jewish people, he told me. He probably shouldn't have. Soldiers don't talk, or at least ought not to, unless they are quizzing you. One-way traffic. But he was probably bored, standing on his own in the Palestinian city of Hebron, weighed down with God knows what on his back. Another young man caught in the maelstrom of war. Later we saw each other at a distance and waved. Just two human beings, just two passers-by.
Meanwhile, within this hallowed room, erstwhile enemies Rami and Bassam sit side-by-side in this holiest of lands. The land of Abraham, who through Isaac is regarded the biological ancestor of the people of Israel. The land of Ibrahim who through Ishmael is regarded as the biological ancestor of Muslims. The land of Christianity for whom Abraham is their father-in-faith. This bleak and blighted land. A land filled with despair.
"Give me 10,000 states," Rami says "and you won't solve it." Unless and until. Unless and until Jewish leaders listen to Rami and Arab leaders listen to Bassam and then Arab leaders listen to Rami and Jewish leaders listed to Bassam and to all those bereaved parents aching for peace, aching for some respite from all the killing, from all the grief.
As we leave this land, it seems as if it will take 10,000 years for peace to come to this land. Would that it were otherwise.