On 22 January 1995, two suicide attacks took place at a bus stop near the Beit Lid military base in central Israel. Roni Hirshenson, whose son Amir, was serving at Beit Lid, heard about the attacks on the radio. Knowing Amir was on guard duty at the base, Roni assumed he would not have been at the junction when the carnage happened. “My son is safe,” Roni told himself, feeling awful for the families whose loved-ones were unaccounted for.
But later that day, Roni received a call from his younger son, Elad.
“He said, ‘Dad come home, some army people came,’” Roni recalls. “At that moment, I became bereaved.”
On hearing the first explosion Amir had gone to help the injured – and was killed in the second attack.
When, later, Amir’s photo turned up on a poster that aimed to delegitimise the Rabin government and stop the Oslo peace process, Roni was furious. He felt that his son had died not simply because of the Palestinian bomber, but because there is no peace, “because I, my friends, my predecessors, weren’t successful at ending this conflict.”
Roni’s sorrowful introspection led him to co-found The Parents Circle-Families Forum. The PCFF is a grassroots organisation of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis that promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge.
One of PCFF’s most significant initiatives is staging an alternative ceremony to mark Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims. The 12th such ceremony, held jointly with Combatants for Peace, takes place this year on Sunday April 30, the eve of Yom Hazikaron. Israelis and Palestinians together mourn loved ones killed in the conflict, acknowledge the pain and the aspirations of those living on the ‘other side’, and commit to working for peace to prevent future violence and casualties.
Since the initial event in 2006, the number of participants has increased each year, as more people embrace its message of hope over despair.
One of the scheduled speakers at this year’s ceremony is Marianne Saade whose 12-year-old sister was accidentally shot dead by Israeli troops while the family was travelling in their car. Marianne, 15 at the time, was also injured in the incident and admitted to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. She and her parents were touched by the care and dedication of the medical staff— so touched that today Marianne works at the hospital as a youth psychologist.
In a tragic postscript, five years after Amir Hirshenson’s death, the best friend of Roni’s younger son, Elad, became the first soldier to be killed during the Second Intifada. Three weeks later, Elad took his own life.
“He left a note saying he couldn’t bear the pain of losing both his brother and his friend who was like a brother,” Roni says. “So, directly and indirectly, I have paid the price of there being no peace.
The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony is not an alternative Memorial Day, it is Memorial Day for me.”
When Leonard Cohen toured Israel in September 2009, he donated the profits from his concert to PCFF. Cohen said of the organisation: “This is not about forgiving and forgetting, this is not about laying down one’s arms. This is not even about peace although God willing it could be a beginning. This is about a response to human grief, a radical, unique and holy, holy response to human suffering. In the name of God, I bow my head in respect to the nobility of this enterprise.”
See here for video of the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony 2016 [5:37].
This year the ceremony will take place at 9pm on Sunday, 30 April, in Tel Aviv and be broadcast live in Beith Jala and other places across the world. See here for Live Broadcast of The Memorial Ceremony (commencing at 4am Canberra time on Monday morning) and to donate.