By Jim Gauger

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – There were a handful of people sitting in the Bellarmine Hall classroom at St. Joseph’s University on a rainy April day.

Outside, students, some dressed for the bad weather and others distressingly not, were hurrying to appointed rounds through the heavy rain. Busy, busy, busy.

Inside Room 14, sitting on two chairs in front of the small group, were Ali Abu Awaad and Yuval Rahamim, both dressed in jeans and casual wear. They were in no hurry. They were there to bring a message of peace and hope about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. {{more}}

“Come closer to the front,” said Rahamim to the collection of students, professors and others.

Awaad, born in 1972 in Hebron, Palestine, and Rahamim, born in 1959 in Tel Aviv, Israel, were on a 17-day tour of the United States sponsored by Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), a grassroots organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members in the conflict.

The non-profit PCFF, founded in 1995, operates from two offices, an Israeli office in a suburb of Tel Aviv and a Palestinian office in A-Ram, north of Jerusalem. It is supported by a network of friend organizations in the United States, Britain, Germany and Israel.

Catholic Relief Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Faith Justice Institute at St. Joseph’s and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations co-sponsored the April 5 session with Awaad and Rahamim.

The PCFF is not a political movement but an organization that promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge said Rahamim. There are more than 500 members, half Israeli and half Palestinian.

Today the Arab world faces huge discontent among the people of their own countries. The focus of this forum, however, centered on how the Israelis and the Palestinians treat one another – and that is badly. The two speakers returned to the theme of “reconciliation” often during their presentations.

“We’ve all lost loved ones in the conflict,” Rahamim said. “We want to transform the pain into reconciliation. We share our personal stories so that we can humanize the other side. We talk to a lot of high school students. We want them to see the other side as human beings.

“We manage to open their minds and hearts so that they can begin to explore and find a way and give up their cynicism. We want to make them look at the possibilities (for peace).”

Build a dialogue around non-violence, said Rahamim and Awaad. It will empower the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and peace will come one day.

“We want to engage you in a solution,” Awaad said. He said that “the media (on both sides) has become more political than the politicians. They can be your friends or your enemy.

“People,” he said, “are stuck in the past. They can’t see the future.” He made a vivid point about the frustrations of young Palestinians. “You see kids throwing stones against a tank,” he said. “It’s insane behavior. It’s a voice saying, ‘We are here.'”

Awaad, 38, said he came from a political family that was active in the struggle for an independent democratic Palestinian state. His mother, his brother and he were arrested during the first “Intifada” (1987-93). Awaad was in an Israeli prison for four years and was released after the Oslo accords of 1993.

The killing of Awaad’s brother, Yousef Abu Awaad, 31, by Israeli soldiers was the turning point in Ali’s life. It happened in 2000 at a checkpoint near the village of Beith Ummar. His brother was married with two children.

Ali Awaad was shot in the knee by an Israeli settler around the same time.

Revenge would have been the normal reaction, but Awaad saw a better solution. “I had lost my brother, but I didn’t lose my mind,” Awaad said. “Revenge for me didn’t exist.”

He wanted to see the cycle of violence stop. Awaad, who lives in Hebron with his wife and two children, and his brothers joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum in 2001.

Rahamim, 52, belonged to a farming family that lived in a small village in the Sharon area in the 1960s. In the spring of 1967, Rahamim’s father, Abraham, was called to his reserve military unit due to tension on the Israeli borders. The “Six-Day War” broke out on June 6 during which Israel occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the Jordanian West Bank of the Jordan River and the Syrian Golan Heights. It was a swift victory for Israel but a terrible personal loss for Yuval Rahamim. Abraham Rahamim was killed on the second day of the war.

“My father died when I was eight; my family never really recovered,” Rahamim said. “I grew up angry, with a hatred for those who killed my father.” As a teenager, Rahamim joined the army, becoming an officer in the Israel Defense Forces for six years. After he left the army, he married and had three children. His view of the Arab-Israel conflict began to change as his family grew and his children reached the age of military service. There had to be another way, he thought.

In 2009 Rahamim joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum after hearing Ali Abu Awaad, the organization’s project manager, speak at a conference. He now sees reconciliation as the tool that will bring security for Israel and for a Palestinian state.

“My father was not a soldier, he was a farmer,” Rahamim said. “He was not aware of the consequences of war. What I am doing is pretty much following his will. Everybody is losing in this conflict. What we need to do is build a bridge (through dialogue) and support peace.”

During a question-and-answer period Rahamim said: “We are at the point of despair. Time is running out … Everyone has a role. I have to do this work for the future of my children, my country, my grandchildren … We are engaging people. Maybe all of you will engage others and there will be movement.”

Awaad and Rahamim took a few other questions as the session ended. The small group gathered around the two men, shook their hands and thanked them for their efforts to bring sanity to the world of misunderstanding and chaos that consumes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.