Two speakers from Parents Circle, a grassroots organization working to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, spoke at Geneseo on April 7.
The speakers, Omar al-Alool, an Israeli from Tel Aviv, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from Hebron, spoke about their individual experiences living on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. They shared Parents Circle's message of reconciliation between two sides that have been conditioned to hate each other for decades.
Founded in 1995, Parents Circle brings together Palestinians and Israelis who have lost immediate family members during the seemingly intractable 60-year conflict in which, al-Alool said, "Every side is losing."
Al-Alool said Parents Circle gives Palestinians and Israelis the chance to meet someone from the other side "with the same pain and the same story … that wants the same things as they do: to work, to study, to move freely … We all share the same identity – our humanity," he said.
Unfortunately, accounts suggest, such a recognition of shared humanity is often absent in a region beset by conflict. According to al-Alool, an Israeli can live just 20 minutes from a Palestinian and never meet him.
"There is divide that is not crossed," al-Alool said. Instead, Israelis and Palestinians often view each other according to what they see on TV – images of the wreckage of suicide bombings and missile strikes.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict too often becomes "a competition for suffering," said Awwad. "Everyone wants to prove that he is the victim." Parents Circle, he noted, helps to show Palestinians and Israelis that both sides have suffered from decades of violence and unease.
al-Alool said that the Parents Circle organization is not political, but rather tries to "find a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians … on the grassroots level." Its goal is to help people "want a solution," said Awwad. "Reconciliation is a tool for change, not the final destination."
Parents Circle sends its members in pairs – one Palestinian and one Israeli – to regional schools to share its message of peace with a generation that, it hopes, could grow up to see its parents' enemies as friends.
The organizations' goals are not without obstacles. Parents Circle is only allowed to visit Israeli schools, not Palestinian schools, as the Palestinian government considers the organization's message normalization. In addition, school audiences are occasionally hostile to Parents Circle speakers, whose message of peace conflicts with mainstream discourse.
"Sometimes they tell me they don't want to hear me," Awwad said.
For Awwad, born a refugee, life has not been easy. After participating in the first intifada, he spent four years in prison where, in lieu of a university education, he studied English and Hebrew. In 2000, Israeli soldiers killed Awwad's brother, but Awwad said then he still was not vengeful.
"I have never imagined myself killing anybody," he said. "Not because I gave up my right to resist, but because how many people should I kill to make it better?"
For Al-Alool, who lost his father, a soldier, during the 1967 Six Day War, the choice between peace and revenge has not always been easy.
"You can't continue being a normal kid after that," Al-Alool said. "I was a lonely, angry, young man," he said. "I thought revenge was the best path to get back at the Arabs who killed my dad."
Al-Alool joined the Israeli military at 18 years old and served six years, during which time he became increasingly "critical of the official [Israeli] version of the conflict." Indeed, he said that today he is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli, but rather pro-peace.
Both speakers encouraged the audience to become involved in a solution to Palestinian-Israeli conflict by writing to the American government. "Make our conflict your conflict," Awwad said.
"We don't have enough peace extremists," Awwad said. "Very often the people who want peace do nothing."