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Amid war, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists take annual joint memorial online

12:00 May 11 2024 Israel ( יִשְׂרָאֵל0 * دَوْلَة إِسْرَائِيل‎ ) & Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) الأراضي الفلسطينية: Tel Aviv, Beit Jala (بيت جالا), & Online

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A joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023 (Gili Getz) Published by The Times of Israel (TOI)

People attend a memorial ceremony commemorating the victims of the decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2022, as Israel marks the annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. File (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90) Published by The Times of Israel (TOI)

The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day online flyer for 2024. Source: Facebook

The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv in 2018. Credit: Ofer Vaknin. Published by Haaretz

Listen to Haaretz Podcast here
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Controversial Memorial Day commemoration, filmed in advance this year, will be virtual to avoid having all-Israeli crowd, with West Bank Palestinians barred from Israel since Oct. 7

By GIANLUCA PACCHIANI for The Times of Israel (TOI)
11 May 2024, 10:18 am

On the night of Sunday, May 12, while tens of thousands of Israelis attend Memorial Day ceremonies in public spots across the country in remembrance of the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks, others will sit in their homes in front of their computer screens, participating in a virtual alternative event.

The Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony, now in its 19th year, is organized by the left-wing group Combatants for Peace and by the Parents Circle — Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians.

The assembly, which its organizers say is the largest peace event organized jointly by Israelis and Palestinians, has been controversial since its inception in 2006, but has also drawn increasingly larger crowds over the years, both in person and online. Last year, 15,000 attended the ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ganei Yehoshua Park, and 200,000 watched it online from around the world, according to organizers.


While right-wing politicians have called participants “traitors” who “sit with terrorists,” organizers maintain that the ceremony aims to supersede the traditional Memorial Day discourse that “war and death are inevitable and necessary,” and to present an alternative narrative that puts human lives at the forefront.

That message may resonate with many in the region and around the world in the aftermath of October 7 and the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

“It’s an eye-opener for many to know that even though the conflict is ongoing, there is a group of people who see each other as equal human beings. The loss and the grief are equal for everyone,” said Eszter Korányi, the Israeli co-director of the movement. “We want to showcase an example that it’s possible to cooperate and even to meet in this very painful place of loss from the two different sides of the conflict.”

Her words were echoed by her Palestinian co-director, Rana Salman.

“We have been stuck in this same cycle of violence for many years, and every time we lose loved ones from both sides,” Salman said. “This is an opportunity to say out loud on stage to the world that we want this to end and we need to find a solution. Because something so tragic happened, [the conflict] is back on the table and people are discussing it.”

In 2023, after entry permits to Israel were initially withheld, the High Court of Justice ordered Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to allow some 150 Palestinians invited to the joint ceremony to enter the country from the West Bank.

This year, the ceremony can only be attended online. In “normal” previous years, it would be held in person, and relatives of victims of the conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian, would take the stage to give speeches about their lost loved ones and the need for peace, interspersed with musical performances by artists from both communities.

Since Israel has revoked all entry permits to Palestinians after October 7, no resident of the West Bank will be allowed to attend in person this year. Organizers therefore decided to take the event online rather than hold an event for Israelis alone. The format will remain the same, comprising speeches and music.

The 2022 joint ceremony was split between Tel Aviv and the West Bank’s Beit Jala, after being held primarily online for the previous two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s ceremony was pre-recorded on May 8 before an audience of 250 people. It will then be streamed online on Memorial Day Eve (registration here). In some locations, public screenings will be held in volunteers’ homes.

Organizers predict that on the night of the broadcast, hundreds of thousands will view it from around the world, and they are hopeful that the ongoing conflict will attract an even larger attendance than usual.

“If this war was going on somewhere else, nobody would care, honestly,” Korányi remarked.

“But because this conflict is interesting for the whole world, we need to have a voice saying something else. There are so many loud voices saying Israel is right, Palestine is right, Jews are right, Arabs are right. We need to form a coalition to say that we need to choose people, and we need to choose peace and humanity beyond everything else,” said Korányi.

No escape from reality
The Hamas atrocities of October 7 and the war in Gaza will take front and center at the ceremony this year. The war broke out on October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists carried out a devastating attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 252 hostages, while committing acts of wholesale brutality.

Israel’s subsequent offensive, aiming to destroy Hamas and free the hostages, has killed over 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. This figure cannot be independently verified and does not differentiate between civilians and Palestinian combatants. Israel says it has killed over 15,000 Hamas fighters since the war began and around 1,000 inside Israeli territory on October 7. In addition, 271 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began, in Gaza and amid operations on the border.

Among the Israeli speakers are Yonatan Zeigan, son of Canadian-Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver, who was murdered on October 7 in her kibbutz in near the Gaza border, and Michal Halev, mother of Laor Abramov, a DJ from New Jersey who was murdered at the Supernova music festival. The Palestinian speakers will include Ahmed Helou, who lost 60 members of his extended family in Gaza in the ongoing war.

Amid the despair of the war, Combatants for Peace leaders say they have witnessed an uptick in their ranks, as many search for a sliver of hope in a seemingly endless and intractable conflict.

On the Israeli side, the left-wing group had attracted new members even before October 7, during the months of rallies against the judicial overhaul, when its activists took to the streets to protest the government and its policies in the West Bank, and rubbed elbows with other demonstrators.

“Many had heard about us, but when they stood next to us in the demonstrations, they wanted to hear more,” said Korányi.

After October 7, interest in the group’s activities reportedly increased even further. In January, the group held a newcomers’ seminar, with over 50 applications for a program that normally attracts 20, Korányi said. Dozens also joined the nonprofit’s social media groups, she added.

“There are so few organizations that bring some kind of hope that is possible to overcome all the hatred, and we are one of them,” she said.

On the Palestinian side, the group has also recruited new members, although, to its detractors, its activities represent unwanted normalization with Israel.

Salman, the Bethlehem-based Palestinian co-director of Combatants for Peace, said that a program for young people aged 18-26 that normally attracts 20 participants — and that in recent years had seen participation plummet because of calls against “normalization” — saw 92 applications for the latest cohort.

“That is a sign of hope for us,” said Salman. “Many young people don’t want to side with extremists, but are also not with those who don’t care at all. They want to do something, but they don’t know what. And then, they find this opportunity.

“Many [Palestinian] people, including in my own family, have never met an Israeli other than a soldier or a settler, and it’s usually a negative experience,” said Salman. “But now young people can get an opportunity to meet peers from the same age group, with the same interests, They listen to the same music. They all follow TikTok and social media. They discover that they are actually quite similar.”
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Court Orders Israeli–Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum Back in to Schools

Jerusalem District Court judge Avraham Rubin criticized the education ministry for banning the Parents Circle – Families Forum from operating in Israeli schools, despite not conducting a 'proper factual examination of the allegations' made against it by right-wing organizations

by Shira Kadari-Ovadia for Haaretz
Apr 23, 2024

The Jerusalem District Court ordered the Israeli government on Monday to allow a group representing Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to operate in Israeli schools.

The decision was made following a petition filed by the Parents Circle – Families Forum against the Education Ministry's decision to remove the organization from the list of approved external programs in schools.

District Court Judge Avraham Rubin criticized the ministry's handling of the issue, saying that it did not base its decision to ban the organization on a factual examination of the content of the forum's events.

Typically, the Parents Circle – Families Forum arranges meetings between students and Palestinians and Israelis who have lost a loved one. It also operates an annual summer camp, as well as a joint memorial ceremony for victims of the conflict.

Judge Rubin noted that he ordered the immediate reinstatement of the program in order for schools to be able to offer it to their students in the current school year. He noted that the state failed to present him with any new evidence that could justify the continued banning of the program, and that the state did not even present a plan to conduct an examination into the content conveyed in the group's meetings with students.

"I was not presented with a claim that the respondents [the Education Ministry] intend to take the course of an expedited and proper factual examination of the allegations against the petitioner," Rubin wrote in his decision, and ruled that the state must pay the organization 20,000 shekels in legal fees.

The Families Forum's petition, which it submitted together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, was filed in September following the Education Ministry's decision to remove the group from the list of approved external programs in schools.

Explaining the decision to exclude it from the list, the external programs manager Lilah Aplaton said the Forum's goals "are in contradiction to the values of the Education Ministry," and that "any comparison between the bereavement of the families of IDF casualties of war and victims of terror attacks with the bereavement of victims of IDF defensive operations is unacceptable, and has a detrimental impact on the memory of the fallen soldiers and the feelings of their families."

The Families Forum submitted a request to the Education Ministry's external programs committee asking to be reinstated, but it was rejected on the grounds that since October 7, "sensitivity towards IDF soldiers who sacrificed themselves as part of the war has only increased," and that "understanding has increased among the population regarding the essential role of the IDF in protecting the citizens and the state of Israel against terrorist acts."

During a hearing held on the petition last week, the state's representative admitted that he did not know what examinations were done into claims by right-wing organizations against the Families Forum – claims that served as the basis for the Education Ministry's decision to ban the program from schools.

In the letter sent to the ministry by the right-wing organization Betzalmo, it is claimed that the Families Forum represents families of terrorists. To the judge's question as to which inspections were done to verify this claim, the state representative replied: "I don't know."

He later argued that it was "impossible" to conduct proper examination of the content conveyed in the group's meetings in schools since "it's clear that when [something] explosive [is said] in the classroom, [it] will be hidden when there is an inspector."

Co-Director of the Families Forum, Yuval Rahamim, welcomed the court's decision, saying that "the disappointment of the program being denied to the students in [the previous schoolyear], will now be appropriately remedied." He also expressed gratitude for the support the group received "from school principals, teachers, students and parents throughout the year."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which represented the Families Forum, said in a statement that "Education Minister Yoav Kisch's populism was blocked in court today," and the verdict shows that the ministry "failed to do even the minimum before making a decision concerning the education of our children."
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'The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony Shows What the Day After the Gaza War Could Look Like'

Haaretz Podcast
May 12, 2024 4:53 pm IDT

As Israel prepares to celebrate Memorial Day, or Yom Hazikaron, on Monday and Independence Day, or Yom Haatzmaut, the following day, the abrupt transition from commemoration to celebration will look different in the shadow of October 7 and the war in Gaza.

Abbey Onn lost two members of her family in Hamas' murderous attack, while three were taken hostage (two of them, 12-year-old Erez and 16-year-old Sahar, were released in November). She tells Haaretz Podcast host Allison Kaplan Sommer that she's helping to organize an alternative memorial ceremony powered by a group of families of hostages as a way "to say that we're building a new reality together, that we need to strengthen one another."

While Onn doesn't discount the efforts of the army which is "fighting on our behalf," rather "than commemorating or talking about heroism, which we absolutely believe has happened," the event is an "effort to try to heal and rebuild."

"We can't move forward until these people come back," she says. "[My family] needs to know that there is a strong movement of civilians who are willing to acknowledge that things are not as they were."

Also on the podcast, Carly Rosenthal, from the pro-peace, anti-occupation NGO Combatants for Peace, talks about the organization's 19-year-old tradition of offering an alternative memorial ceremony to the government-sponsored event, which allows "Israelis and Palestinians to mourn together, to grieve for their loved ones that they've lost throughout the conflict."

This year, she says, the theme centers on children during war. "Too many children, too many people, have been killed and are suffering. And the ceremony is an opportunity to honor them and to remember them, and to also say that we don't want this for them. We want a better future for them."

Asked if it has been a challenge to gather the same numbers of participants this year (last year's ceremony drew some 15,000 people in person), Rosenthal says the group's year-round cooperation and activism fostered a sense of mutual support amid the war. "It's definitely been a challenge," as "people are suffering on a personal level and a collective level," she says, "but… we organize and work together throughout the year around many activities that promote peace and non-violence and an end to the occupation. We see the value of supporting each other and the importance the ceremony brings to us and to many people here and around the world."


Features
Site of Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony, alternating with Tel Aviv in years when held in person. Will be held online 5/12/2024
Site of Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony, alternating with Beit Jara in years when held in person. Will be held online 5/12/2024
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