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Israeli, Palestinian 'Parents Circle' Appeals for Peace - 2003-12-13

As several official and unofficial peace plans compete for attention in the Middle East, one particularly noteworthy group - The Parents' Circle - is adding its voice to those pushing for some sort of solution. They are bereaved parents, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict and are working together to try to end it. Organizers say the group has more than 500 families from both sides taking part in dialogue sessions and campaigning for peace.

The Parents' Circle provides a forum for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a child in this conflict to meet and to talk.

At meetings like this one in Tel Aviv, Israeli and Palestinian parents seek understanding, and hope to have an impact.

It's an experiment in hope and tolerance, parents united in grief and working for peace. The Parents' Circle was established in 1994 by Israeli Yitzhak Frankental after his son Arik - a 19-year-old soldier - was kidnapped and killed by Palestinian militants. "I realize that I failed as a father, I brought five kids into the world and one couldn't continue to stay alive only because there is no peace between us and the Palestinians," said Yitzhak Frankental.

Since his son's killing, Mr. Frankental has devoted his life to the Parents' Circle and the pursuit of peace, working out of this small office in Tel Aviv. He travels throughout Gaza and the West Bank to meet Palestinian families who have lost children so that he can open a dialogue with them.

"After I lost my son it's [a] completely different life," he said. "I mean, once, it was very important to me to live in a nice house but today I don't care about it, what for I need the money, to have a life?"

Before the Palestinian uprising began three years ago, Mr. Frankental organized large-scale meetings. Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents traveled to each other's cities to attend. That is no longer considered safe. But hundreds attended the last big meeting in Gaza in 1999, which was filmed for Israeli television.

At the meeting, Palestinian father Mahmoud al-Dirani spoke to the group in Hebrew, telling Israeli parents about the pain of having to identify his son's body. The boy, Jamal, had been shot in the throat by Israeli soldiers and had lost an eye.

Breaking into tears, Mr. al-Dirani says it was his son's missing eye that hurt him the most. Then he pulls out his wallet to show the two pictures he carries - one of his son Jamal, and one of Yitzhak Frankental's son, Arik.

Mr. al-Dirani says, "We exchanged pictures - he carries my son and I carry his. I show his son's photo to everyone I meet. You can just see what a wonderful person he was."

Yitzhak Frankental is an orthodox Jew and his work for peace has cost him dearly. He said a prayer of mourning every day for the first year after his son died - a prayer that must be said in a congregation of at least 10 men.

But after his activism became known, sometimes the other members of his synagogue walked out, preventing him from praying for his son's soul.

Mr. Frankental says he was was hurt, but he says he can bear.

"It's cost me nothing personally," he said. "What costs me a lot, cost my son a lot, is his life. Most difficult for me is to stand in front of his grave."

Another member of the Parents' Circle knows how he feels.

"It's a pain no one else can understand," You walk around with a hole in your heart all the time," said Robbie Damelin.

Mrs. Damelin is an Israeli from South Africa. Her son David was an Israeli soldier, who was shot by a Palestinian sniper 18 months ago. Since then, Mrs. Damelin has given up her job, and devoted herself to the Parents' Circle.

Damelin :"There's a sense of safety in being together, and that's the tremendous support that you get from everybody."

Makler: From the other people with holes in their hearts?

Damelin: "Yes, that's exactly it, and from the Palestinians."

Despite the moral authority of bereaved parents preaching forgiveness, critics accuse the Israeli parents of being naďve and dangerously underestimating an enemy that sends their children to be suicide bombers. But Robbie Damelin disagrees.

"That's rubbish," said Robbie Damelin. "All mothers are the same. As soon as the cameras are gone, they are crying. And the same goes for an [Israeli] mother in the [occupied] territories who loses a child and says she's proud to have given her child for a greater Israel. I promise you that [when] all of us go to bed at night none of us sleep properly. We all have the same pain."

In the Middle East, where the spilling of blood is often used to justify the spilling of more, these parents are seeking an alternate path in the hope that the murderous cycle of violence that took their children can be broken.