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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 October 2007, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Middle East families united by grief
In the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, many people on both sides seem unable to acknowledge the legitimacy of an opposing point of view - but there are exceptions. Jeremy Grange met two of them in the West Bank village of Aram.

Bassam Aramin, Palestinian peace activist
Bassam Aramin made friends with an Israeli prison guard
Bassam Aramin does not look like a militant who spent seven years in an Israeli jail for his involvement in the first intifada (Palestinian uprising).

He is a polite, softly-spoken man in his late thirties who walks with a limp, the legacy of a childhood bout of polio.

And he is a founding member of the organisation Combatants for Peace, a 200-strong group which brings together former militants and Israeli soldiers who all believe that dialogue rather than conflict is the key to the future.

Bassam greets me warmly but I get the impression that his composure masks a deep internal struggle. And I soon understand why.

"She wasn't a fighter," he tells me as we sit in his office in the West Bank village of Aram.

"She didn't belong to Fatah or to Hamas or to the Al Aqsa faction. She was just a 10-year-old child. She participated in two summer camps for Palestinian and Israeli children.

"She learnt some words of Hebrew so that she could speak to her Israeli friends. She was very clever. And they shot her in the head."

He is talking about his daughter Abir who suffered a fatal head injury as she walked to school in January.

An investigation by the Israeli border police concluded that it was not possible to say how she had been killed.

Bassam, however, is quite certain that he knows the cause - a rubber bullet fired by a border police patrol from a distance of only 15 metres.

Bassam and his friend have reached out across barriers and have set their political leaders a powerful example to live up to
"At that distance," he says, "it has the same effect as real ammunition. They broke her head."

The tragedy of his daughter's death has been the supreme test of Bassam's commitment to peace.

His transition from militant to peacemaker began during the seven years he spent in an Israeli jail, between 1986 and 1993.

One evening the Palestinian prisoners were shown a film about the Jewish Holocaust.

As the scenes unfolded of Jews in concentration camps being stripped of their possessions and going to their deaths, Bassam found himself in tears.

Unlikely friendship

For the first time he felt sympathy towards a people he had always thought of as his enemy.

Map of Israel and the West Bank

In jail, Bassam also formed an unlikely friendship that was to have a lasting affect.

A prison guard from the settlement of Kiryat Arba, who held an unshakeable belief in Israel's right to occupy the West Bank, remarked to Bassam that he seemed too refined and gentle to be a terrorist.

Bassam shot back that it was the settlers who were terrorists, not him.

From that shaky start, prisoner and guard began to talk to each other about themselves, their communities and their beliefs.

After seven months of these conversations, the guard understood - even acknowledged - the claim for a separate Palestinian state, and Bassam renounced violence, convinced that dialogue would be a more productive path.

Eventually they were able to look at each other not as prisoner and guard, Palestinian and Israeli, but as friends.

Bassam now has many Israeli friends.

Rejecting the path of revenge

Parents' Circle meeting
At Parents' Circle, bereaved parents from both sides come together
Perhaps the closest is Rami Elhanan, a graphic designer from Jerusalem. The thread which will forever bind the two men together is the experience of losing a daughter to violence.

In 1997, Rami's 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in a busy shopping street.

Through this tragedy Rami joined Parents' Circle, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members in the conflict, and in the 10 years since Smadar's murder he has worked to promote contact and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis.

I meet Rami at Beit Shmuel, a centre for Jews of the Liberal Reformed tradition in Jerusalem. As we sit in the evening light in the courtyard, he tells me about his friendship with Bassam.

When Bassam's daughter was wounded, he called Rami who rushed to the hospital where Abir was undergoing emergency surgery to sit with Bassam and his wife Salwa.

Abir died two days later.

During Abir's last hours, Bassam confided to Rami that he felt that this was a test of his commitment to peace. And when I meet Bassam myself, it is clear that that commitment has not weakened.

"From the first moment," he tells me. "I declared that this crime must strengthen our efforts to fight for peace. Abir's blood calls me not to avenge her killing."

Of course his determination for peace does not diminish his need for justice. He has launched an appeal to have the investigation into his daughter's death re-opened and, he hopes, overturn the first verdict.

As I leave Bassam's office, I wonder at the way that he and Rami have refused to be drawn down the path of revenge.

They have reached out across barriers to embrace each other and in doing so have set their political leaders a powerful example to live up to.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 October, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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