By Larry Snider
April 1, 2001
I was privileged to be part of the March 2001 MidEast Citizen Diplomacy (now “The Compassionate Listening Project”) delegation to Israel/Palestine, led by director Leah Green. MECD leads people, (in this case about 15 Americans, one Canadian, one Hollander and an Ursaline Nun presently living in Old City Jerusalem) to Israel and the West Bank, where they learn to compassionately listen to the stories of politicians, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists and ordinary extraordinary people from all sides of the conflict.
We heard the story of Darwish Mousa Darwish, leader of Issawiyah, a Palestinian Village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We listened to the tragic story of the Atta Jaber family-about the demolition of their home, the shooting of their nephew and the continuing conflict with the Jewish settlers who live on a hill overlooking the ancestral home of Atta’s father along the bypass road outside of Hebron. We learned of the most difficult change of heart of Yuval Steinitz as he moved from being a Peace Now activist and philosophy professor to a Likkud Party Knesset Member as a result of his belief in the catastrophic consequences to Israeli security engendered by the Oslo Peace Agreement.
We listened to stories of great courage under fire, including those told by the family of Hussein Issa, the late founder of the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem. The Palestinian school, which is perched precariously in a shooting gallery between presumed Tanzim snipers and a new settlement guarded by an Israeli Defense Force tank, teaches peace and reconciliation even though it has been repeatedly hit by recipient gunfire. Hind, the widow of Mr. Issa and current director of the school, carries on the special work of her late husband with the support of her daughter Ghada, the assistant director, as well as other friends and family members. We also heard from Peter Lerner, a captain in the Israeli Civil Administration who described the hardship of providing security to both Israelis and Palestinians trapped in the volatile and dangerous realities that encompass the West Bank.
Moving around in our bus to Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and through the Galilee we were confronted by roadblocks, closures, barricades and Israeli and Palestinian soldiers standing guard to keep people out and others locked in. We also joined many who found back doors to enter and exit the villages that were living under “breathable” closures. Other communities were made effectively impenetrable on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or continuing basis, with some areas virtually sealed since the beginning of the Intifada last September Words cannot describe the level of difficulty felt by people unable to travel to their job and feed their families even as their towns and their children face the continuing prospect of shelling from the IDF. Israelis have grown a new coat of fear and hostility as a result of the continuing bombings in public areas and the increasing insecurity as more become victims of the ongoing guerilla war. And yet there are many on both sides who hold out hope and pray and work tirelessly for peace.
Asel, (pronounced Aseel), Asleh was a 17-year-old Arab Israeli Seeds of Peace graduate who lived in Arrabeh Village near the Sea of Galilee until last October when his life ended. Seeds of Peace is a camp in Maine which brings together Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian teenagers so they can learn to understand each other and return home as young leaders and messengers of peace.
We arrived at the home of the Asleh family to meet Asel’s father Hassan and listen to the story of his son’s life and death. The home was surrounded by a small grove of olive trees, some over a thousand years old with three-foot thick trunks. Asel was one of 13 Arab Israeli citizens killed in the early days of this current Intifada under mysterious circumstances. These deaths created a national and international uproar that led to a formal Israeli government inquiry by a three-judge panel.
“He was a brilliant student. In 1997 he passed three exams and was chosen to be a member of Seeds of Peace,” said Mr. Asleh. “At first it was very hard for him because the Israelis looked at him as a Palestinian and the Palestinians looked at him like an Israeli.” Asel attended the Seeds of Peace camp three years in a row and during the third year the camp called and asked if he could extend his stay because the situation in Israel/Palestine was so serious and they needed his intelligence and his positive personality to help them work with younger campers.
Asel’s 21-year-old sister, Nardin (currently a medical student), described her life growing up with her younger brother. “I helped him get ready for camp in ’97. He came back a different person, to confront the problem, and he was only fourteen…. I remember him talking for hours with Bobby, a Seeds of Peace staff member. She was like a spiritual mother to him. My 15-year-old brother started reading philosophy books and he became not my little brother, but my friend….After everyone would be screaming, Asel would stand up and everyone would listen even if they didn’t like what he was saying. This is what made him a bridge between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Nardin went on to talk about Asel’s care and support for Israeli and Palestinian friends on the telephone and particularly by email. “He always used the Rumi quote,” she said, “‘Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.'”
Hassan told the story of his son’s death: “The 29th of September was the visit of Sharon to Al Aksa. Israeli Arab citizens declared a strike. On the first of October Israeli forces killed four. On the second of October strike, something like 4:30, his friend came to him and they were together. I was on the main road. I heard shouting in Arrabeh. I asked; ‘What’s going on?’ They said ‘a demonstration.’ I saw maybe 500 people on the main road just shouting and saying slogans. Up on the hill a few guys in blue were shooting gas against the demonstrators. Then six or seven guys from the [Israeli] Security Forces came and started shooting live ammunition. Asel was sitting about 40 meters from the demonstrators under a tree just looking. Three guys started moving towards the demonstrators. He started running away. They caught him and beat him and shot him. A few men took him to the hospital. The police blocked the road from the west side of Sachnin. They forced us to stop at the blockade and not continue. He phoned the Magen David and an ambulance came for Asel and the other guy. They told us to turn back. The driver talked to the police and after ten minutes they permitted us to continue. I waited inside the hospital.
…After fifteen minutes they moved Asel to the emergency room and after ten minutes told us it was very serious: no contact between the brain and the body. The doctor came in and said Asel died. I went into his room. He was sleeping. I kissed him….
Since the death of Asel, there’s one question we ask: ‘Why? Why did they kill Asel and the others?’ And there’s no answer.”
Nardin added that Asel was wearing his green Seeds of Peace T-shirt at the time of his death.
After more discussion and some tears Hassan ended by saying,
“I feel angry. But there is no choice. Peace must be here. We must give our best time and best money and best children maybe, to reach this. I feel Asel and his friends are not the last victims here. We will try to stop the problems here in Israel. We need help from the outside. Don’t be sorry, just do something!”
The tears of parents who have suffered the loss of a child to the violence bear no nationality. It is a mark of the human spirit that in spite of this inestimable loss people like Hassan Aslih and Yehuda Wachsman, (creator of the Foundation for Tolerance as a memorial to his son Nachson who was kidnapped and killed by Hamas), and many others push the boundaries of their humanity in an effort to speak a language beyond words, calling the human heart to seek peace.
Larry Snider is the coordinator of New Hope For Peace, A Jewish/Palestinian Dialogue and Educational Forum. He is a member of Kehilat HaNahar, the Little Shul by the River, in New Hope, PA. He resides in Lambertville, NJ. (An abridged version of this article was published in the Intelligencer Record, April 22, 2001.)