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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 06:23 GMT 07:23 UK
Line of hope links Palestinians and Israelis
By Jeremy Grange
Producer, Calls Across the Wall

Parents' Circle meeting
Bereaved parents from both sides meet to foster reconciliation
A special phone service linking Israelis and Palestinians, called Hello Peace, has facilitated nearly a million telephone conversations since it began operating in November 2000.

As we sit talking in his office in a Jerusalem apartment block, graphic designer Rami Elhanan pauses for a moment, deep in thought, recalling the day his life changed forever.

On 4 September 1997, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, a suicide bomber detonated a device in the busy Ben Yehuda Street in central Jerusalem.

Among those killed by the explosion was Rami's 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, who was in town with two friends to buy textbooks for the new school term.

You have the feeling that you want revenge. But revenge on whom? How many people shall I kill? For me Yousef is worth the whole Israeli people. Even if I kill them all I will not feel better
Ali Abu Awad
Parents' Circle member
"You never think that the finger is going to point at you," Rami shrugs, remembering the moment his worst fears were realised.

Many parents in the same circumstances would have retreated into the entrenched positions of hatred and the desire for revenge which have characterised Israeli-Palestinian relations for decades.

But Rami is different. About a year after the tragedy he joined the Parents' Circle, a 500-strong organisation which brings together bereaved families from both sides to create dialogue, understanding, even friendships between Palestinians and Israelis.

'No angels'

Ali Abu Awad, from the West Bank town of Beit Ummar near Hebron, is a member of the Parents' Circle. His brother Yousef was killed by an Israeli soldier.

"You just have this question. Why? Is killing my brother securing Israel? What shall I do with this?" Ali says.

"At that moment you have the feeling that you want revenge. But revenge on whom? How many people shall I kill? For me Yousef is worth the whole Israeli people. Even if I kill them all I will not feel better, I mean he will not come back."

Most Israelis have never met a Palestinian and most Palestinians have never met an Israeli - apart, that is, from soldiers and settlers
Robi Damelin
Parents' Circle
One day Ali was contacted by Yitzhak Frankenthal, the founder of the Parents' Circle. Yitzhak lost his son, who was kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Ali's immediate family ended up joining the Parents' Circle.

"It's so hard, we are not angels. I am a normal person and I have so many hardships every day at the checkpoints and even in talking to people," he says.

"But the difference is that before joining the Parents' Circle I was carrying my brother's story, my personal pain, my nationality as a Palestinian... but today I feel like I am carrying both nations on my back. This is what I want politicians to feel, to feel responsible for the two people who are human beings."

Barriers

At the Parents' Circle office near Tel Aviv another member reminds me of a few of the harsh truths of the situation.

"Most Israelis have never met a Palestinian and most Palestinians have never met an Israeli - apart, that is, from soldiers and settlers," Robi Damelin says.

That barrier to communication - which has now been given physical reality in the form of the West Bank barrier - is the reason why the Parents' Circle set up Hello Peace, a phone line which allows any Israeli or Palestinian to pick up the phone and speak directly to somebody from the other side.

West Barrier passing through an East Jerusalem area

This initiative, which has now been running for five years and is funded by the European Union, began with a wrong number.

In 2000, in the early days of the second intifada, a young Israeli woman called Natalia Wieseltier dialled a Jewish friend in Tel Aviv but found herself talking to a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip.

Instead of hanging up she started a conversation.

"He told me his name was Jihad and that things were not going well. He told me that food is rotting at the checkpoints and that his wife was expecting a baby any day and he had no way of getting to the hospital," she says.

Network

Jihad was surprised to find an Israeli being so open and understanding and Natalia was soon receiving regular calls not only from Jihad but from his friends and family too.

She in turn put them in touch with her friends and soon a network of contacts had developed.

When Natalia approached the Parents' Circle with the idea of turning this into a national phone line linking Israelis and Palestinians they embraced the idea.

Since its inception Hello Peace has logged over a million calls.

They may begin as screaming matches between the two sides but many calls have led to lasting friendships.

One Israeli family, for example, regularly met their Palestinian counterparts at a checkpoint to hand over insulin, a medicine that's hard to come by in the Palestinian territories, for their diabetic son.

Back in Jerusalem, Rami ponders the success of Hello Peace and the millions of minutes of dialogue it has generated.

"Just imagine what would happen if the leaders of these crazy nations of ours spoke with each other for even one minute!" he observes.


Calls Across the Walls was broadcast on Wednesday, 15 August 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4.




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