(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
President Shimon Peres expressed regret on Thursday that innocent Palestinians were being subjected to any form of maltreatment by Israel, but he added that over the past three weeks, six potential suicide bombers had been apprehended as they tried to enter Israel with explosives.
Peres spoke in a meeting at Beit Hanassi with the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum; its members wanted to affirm its support for the Middle East peace conference planned for Annapolis, Maryland.
The forum is composed of some 500 families who engage in educational outreach in the region and beyond.
"Only parents from both sides who have suffered the loss of a child can persuade people of the importance of peace," said Boaz Kitain, the forum's Israel chairman.
His son Tom, 20, was killed in 1997 when two helicopters ferrying troops to Lebanon collided over She'ar Yashuv in the Galilee, killing all 73 soldiers aboard in what is known as the "Helicopter Disaster." Tom, a resident of Neveh Shalom, a mixed Jewish-Arab community near Jerusalem, was a peace activist, said Kitain, and often faced conflicts between pursuing his ideals and defending his country as a soldier in the IDF.
The forum had conducted more than a thousand meetings in Israel and abroad, said Kitain, and had met with hundreds of Palestinians who were genuinely interested in peace.
One of the benefits of participation was learning about "the other" and doing away with stereotypes, he said.
Khalil Ibrahim, who comes from a village near Nablus, said there was no pain greater than that of a bereaved parent, and that Palestinian and Jewish mothers experienced the same pain when they lost a child.
Journalist Aharon Barnea, who heads the forum's external relations department, lost his son Noam to a roadside bomb near Beaufort Castle in the south Lebanon security zone in 1999. The 21-year-old bomb disposal expert in the Combat Engineers Corps died on what was supposed to have been his last mission in Lebanon.
Aharon Barnea returned from Brussels on Wednesday where he and his Palestinian counterpart, Aziz Abusarra, participated in a ceremony in which the forum was awarded the Silver Rose by the European Parliament in recognition of its efforts toward peace.
Attorney Shirin Isawiya, from Jerusalem's Isawiya neighborhood, lost a cousin, then her grandmother and then her 16-year-old brother Padi, who was shot by IDF troops while walking to his grandfather's home in 1994.
"We felt that the sky had fallen in on us," she said. "Life was never quite the same again."
Before experiencing this tragedy, her family had often heard radio and television reports about both Palestinians and Israelis killed in the conflict and had thought of how sad it was that so many lives had been needlessly lost, Isawiya said.
They wanted to do something, but didn't know what, she said. It was only after they met people from the forum that they were able to become involved in efforts for peace.
In recent years, she said, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the army had come to her parents' home and broken down the door, upsetting her parents who are poor health. They searched the house and took one of her brothers to prison, ignoring the pleas of her mother, who told the soldier that they were a peace-loving family, and would have opened the door if the soldiers had only knocked.
Dr. Omar El Alul, a forum member, is a resident of Hebron and a senior figure in the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry.
Alul, who lost his brother Amar and his father, Aver, in 1972, called for an end to occupation and violence, adding that the suffering the Palestinians were currently experiencing contradicted declarations made by both Israeli and Palestinian politicians as well as the objectives of the planned US-sponsored conference.
Peres said he could understand the feelings of families from both sides. "When a child is killed, nationality and religion make no difference. The pain is there regardless," he said. And, he continued, there were not as many points of difference between the two parties as there were in the past. "You are emissaries of peace and I am your envoy," he told the forum members.
Peres outlined his vision of the proposal for an industrial zone peace village that is supported by the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leadership and said the Japanese were giving $100 million and the Germans $30m. toward the project.
The Ankara Group of Turkish business people also wanted to make a major investment, he said, and he would discuss this with them during a visit to Turkey in mid-November.