How Two Mothers – One Israeli, One Palestinian – Found Peace After Finding Forgiveness

Written by Nicholas Mizera

Photography courtesy of Reli Avrahami

Mothers Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad once found themselves on opposing sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It took shared tragedy to bring the two unlikely individuals together, but today they work side by side, united as friends, to spread a message of peace.

Damelin, an Israeli, remembers that her son, David, initially resisted joining the military when he was called to serve. He was raised in a home with liberal values, and was a philosophy teacher and activist leader at Tel Aviv University. “He learned a lot of my rebellious character, I suppose,” says Damelin. Eventually David decided to accept the posting, telling his mother that, as an officer in the reserves, he would lead his soldiers to respect the people of the Occupied Territories.

Writing through an interpreter, Awad, a Palestinian, recalls that her son Mahmoud was kind, funny, and excelled at school and chess. He protected and supported his mother, and especially his younger siblings. “He used to treat them as [if] he is their parent,” she writes. He was so handsome that the girls of their village fought over him, adds Awad with what is certainly no small amount of motherly pride.

In March 2002, David was felled by a Palestinian sniper’s bullet while guarding a military checkpoint. Mahmoud was killed by an Israeli sniper six years later.

Both mothers, crushed by their respective heartbreaks, took divergent paths to healing as a way to reconcile an unspeakable tragedy that shook them to their core. Damelin was determined from the start not to allow her son’s death to lead to further bloodshed in his name. She travelled to other countries and sought out priests, rabbis, and imams. She spoke to survivors of similar tragedies, including an Afrikaans mother who found the grace to forgive those who had ordered her daughter’s killing. “’Forgiving is giving up your just right to revenge,’” Damelin recalls the bereaved mother telling her. “That was very meaningful for me, because it was also to understand why the person did it.” Damelin’s quest to find meaning behind David’s death – to find peace and the strength to forgive – led her to write to David’s killer in prison. Damelin received a reply to her letter two years later. It wasn’t kind, but it offered her closure.

Faced with the news of her own son’s death, Awad first felt the desire for revenge. And she, too, wanted answers. “I wanted to see the one who killed my son and ask him, ‘Why did you burn my heart, and [take] away my happiness and my life?’” she remembers. Awad would find some semblance of solace when she joined the Parents Circle Families Forum, an initiative that brings together more than 600 families on either side of the conflict in an effort to promote reconciliation as an alternative to revenge.

Damelin insists that conflicts like the one between Israel and Palestine, or the Apartheid she witnessed growing up in South Africa, all share one thing in common. “Fear creates hatred and violence,” she says. In her experience, this fear is borne of the systematic dehumanization of the supposed enemy, creating a rift between two sides paralyzed by fear of the other. That fear, however, often melts away the instant they meet their supposed enemy face to face, hear their story and find something in common, just as she and Awad did when they met for the first time at Parents Circle.

Their first meeting, which was caught on video, shows the two seated face-to-face. Awad appears uncomfortable. Then a flicker of connection – Damelin shows Awad a photo of her David. Awad’s expression softens. She engages. By the end, Awad is smiling along with Damelin. “Robi and I are mothers,” writes Awad of the conversation they had. “This is what we share. We lost our sons – a great pain we both carry”

Damelin recalls this moment as Awad’s “breakthrough” – the shared realization that they each carried the same pain. “The minute that became clear to [Awad], it became much easier for her,” recounts Damelin. “It didn’t mean she became Martin Luther King overnight and we’re all feeling love. But it [was] a beginning.”

Since then, the two struck a deep and lasting friendship. They’ve visited each other’s homes and donated blood together, a deeply symbolic act as part of another initiative they started to unite Israelis and Palestinians.

They also learned much more about each other’s lives in these simple moments they shared. Damelin remembers bringing Awad to a beach – her first time to the sea. There, Damelin prompted her friend to exchange her heavy, black garb for a T-shirt. “She was jumping around in the sea like a little girl,” Damelin says of Awad. “And I realized how privileged my life had been, and what her life is like living in those conditions.”

Damelin understands the importance of acknowledging the living conditions of Palestinians like Awad where, “freedom of movement, a basic human rights do not exist”.

Like others in Parents Circle, through what Damelin has learned from her friend, and vice versa, they have established a strong and shared narrative with a number of commonalities that help them understand what the other has gone through.

Experiences and exchanges like these allow individuals to see each other’s history and experience life through another’s eyes, helping sow the seeds of empathy needed in order to heal and forgive what many cannot. Awad and Damelin have simply discovered that it takes both sides to be willing to forgive in order to see the humanity in the other.

“It’s great to help each other [on] the path of healing,” writes Awad. “Forgive so you can live.”