In the midst of a war zone, like Gaza, it is always easier to number the civilian and military dead than calculate the deep psychological damage to the whole population. It is the suppressed and unsuppressed anger and outrage which is likely to sustain the long-standing enmity between Palestinian and Israeli communities.
In recent years, several organisations have been established in the region whose aim is to break individuals’ cycle of hatred and aggression and find peace within themselves.
Anael Harpaz is director of the Middle East programme at Creativity for Peace, based in northern Galilee. Their organisation’s objective is to reach across cultural and religious boundaries and allow all sides to talk out their anger and desire for vengeance. They are staffed by both Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom have made the same dramatic psychological transformation.
Anael was brought up in 1950s South Africa by her father who was a leader in the Zionist movement, and says simply, “I grew up hating Arabs”. In 1969, she and her family “came home” and Anael eagerly joined the Israeli army, “to save my people”. She later married a pilot in the Israeli Air Force and brought up three children, living an isolated existence, “having no contact with Arabs”.
Anael’s epiphany was triggered in 1986 when her new born baby died. During a course of therapy she was compelled to confront her deeply buried personal anger. One day, as part of the healing process, she found herself being driven through the winding narrow roads to Nablus in the West Bank.
“It was the first time I was witness to the suffering of the so-called ‘enemy’. That day I felt like I had been standing on glass all my life and someone had just taken a hammer and smashed it. My whole belief system was being challenged. No-one ever told me that there was a whole other people also waiting to come home. And it is the same home as mine.”
The foundation of Creativity for Peace, if distilled into a few words, promotes the view that “an enemy is one whose story you have not yet heard”. This is a philosophy shared by equivalent organisations such as Combatants for Peace and Compassionate Listening. They teach the participants how to listen to other’s personal testimony without judgement and then speak freely about their own. So begins the process of releasing destructive personal aggression and regaining their sense of humanity.
Anael began her peace work during the second Intifada in 2000, visiting recently bereaved Arab families in Ramallah. A few months later she had formed a peace camp for girls mainly from Gaza, “they come with hatred, trauma, fear and terror and leave loving each other….magic happens here.” Today 126 girls have been through the intensive programme and many come back to lead more groups. It is the self-perpetuating succession of pupils becoming teachers which gives inspiration for others to join and strengthens the movement for peace.
But these are difficult times to even contemplate notions of a peaceful resolution in the longer-term. In recent days, Anael has understandably been in constant contact with friends in Gaza. Alongside the mounting toll of death and destruction, she is horrified by the absolute wretchedness the people feel.
She spoke to Ezahldeen, a doctor whose three daughters had completed the Creativity for Peace Programme. He went to the hospital in Jabiliya to offer his professional help but left in despair at the total lack of medical equipment and drugs to help the wounded and dying. He told her, “I wish they would kill us already. I don’t run for shelter any more, this is my way of living for eight years, if the rocket hits me I will die.”
The scale and extent of the current bloody conflict in Gaza is no doubt driving the work of the peacemakers backwards. But revelatory journeys to peace and forgiveness, like Anael Harpaz’s, give small but irreducible hope for reconciliation to have a permanent place in the region’s future.