Robi Damelin, Israel

Spokesperson and Director of International Relations at the Parents Circle Families Forum, ‘2015 Woman of Impact’

Robi is the Spokesperson and the Director of the International Relations for the Parents Circle -Families Forum (PCFF). She joined the organization after her son was killed by a Palestinian Sniper. PCFF is comprised of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families who believe in non-violence and reconciliation as a means to end the occupation. They also believe that there has to be a framework for a reconciliation process to form any future political peace agreement.

She has been interviewed and regularly contributes to media outlets in Israel and abroad. Robi was named as a 2015 Woman of Impact by Women in the World and is also the protagonist featured in the prize-winning documentary called ‘One Day after Peace’. She was invited to brief the Security Council at the United Nations in May, 2022.

Reconciliation must be part of the peace

In this episode, my guests were two women from the Parents Circle who both lost their sons due to political conflict between Israel and Palestine. Robi Damelin is the Spokesperson and Director of International Relations at the Parents Circle Families Forum and Layla Alsheikh is a member of the Parents Circle Family Forum. The Parents Circle is comprised of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families who believe in non-violence and reconciliation. The episode begins with Robi reading a letter she wrote following the bombings in Gaza in August 2022. She closes the letter by saying ‘peace will not come from war’. Robi Damelin and Layla Alsheikh talk about the importance of reconciliation during conflict, seeing the other as human and developing empathy despite the ongoing occupation and warfare in their countries. Their dedication to wanting to save other people from pain and helping people achieve emotional breakthroughs through storytelling is inspiring.


IE: Welcome back to another program of ‘we can find a way’, a podcast about conflict resolution. My name is Idil Elveris. In this podcast, I strive to cover conflict in all areas of life, and it’s resolution through alternative means. I am one of the first mediators of Turkey certified back in 2005 by the ADR group in London. I have taught mediation for a long time, did some victim offender labour and commercial mediation cases before starting this podcast.


I had a summer break in August and I’m now back with two amazing women guests that I have met in a restorative justice conference in Italy in June this year. They are Robi Damelin from Israel and Layla Alsheikh from Palestine. Just to give their background, Robi is the spokesperson and Director of International Relations for the Parents Circle Families Forum. She joined the organization after her son was killed by a Palestinian sniper. This NGO Parent’s Circle is comprised of more than six hundred Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families who believe in non-violence and reconciliation as a means to end the occupation and that there has to be a framework for a reconciliation process as part of any future political peace agreement.


Robi has been interviewed and regularly contributes to famous media outlets in Israel and abroad. She was named as a 2015 woman of impact by women in the world and also featured in the prize- winning documentary ‘One day after peace’. She was invited to brief the Security Council at the United Nations in May this year. Layla Alsheikh is a forty five years old Palestinian mother to five children. She studied accounting and business administration. She lost her son when Israeli soldiers prevented them from taking him to the hospital. She’s also a member of the Parent’s Circle Family Forum.


Our interview took place on the 9th of August 2022. We have agreed on this date weeks in advance. Just like with the other interviews, I sent them some questions beforehand and was ready to start the interview with my questions about the work of their organization when suddenly Robi wanted to first read a letter. The letter was written following the recent bombings in Gaza and the truce that was reached. I was taken aback somewhat with this change to the structure of the interview, but I agreed of course and realized how this ongoing conflict imposed its own agenda in unexpected ways. Let us now move to the letter to be followed by the interview, and we can then summarize the most important issues.


RD: To the mothers of Palestine and Israel, we may not speak the same language. We may not share equal privilege. We may live under occupation without access to equal justice or even freedom of movement. One thing, however, is unequivocally true: we share the same love for our children. These children are the victims in every battle. What kind of adults will those who survive be? Will they be filled with anger and revenge and look for a way to continue to kill one another? And who could blame them? Mothers in Gaza, how must you feel when the bombs start falling and you have no way to run? No shelter to protect your children and yourself? You are at the mercy of fate. We, who have already lost children are better than anyone what happens when you lose a child, life will never be the same for the mothers of the sixty eight children who lost their lives in the last war, who will remember their names apart from you? They did not have celebrity status so that someone would take notice. Those who died during the coming days, will someone actually remember them in a week or so? There is no safe haven for the children of Jabaliya or Han Yunis. They are at the mercy of Lady Luck.


Mothers of Ashkelon, Sderot and the surrounding people have seen, who have only a few seconds to get to the shelters. Who of your children will you push to safety first? And what if one happens to be in a wheelchair? Who would you save? The trauma persists, and some children aged twelve and more are still wetting their beds and having nightmares. Yet, they are still a lot better off than their neighbours who will not be able to travel to a safe haven for the length of the violence. They will have access to social assistance unlike their neighbours. So we assassinate leaders with great skill. We are reminded of Hydra in Greek mythology. Another head will arise to replace the one we cut off. Perhaps it’s time to look for another way. Violence begets violence. All these incredible masterminds in battle, surely they can put their minds to a solution, which would not perpetuate violence and that would not leave behind devastation and no hope for the future. Mothers of Palestine and Israel, whatever the situation, and no matter what news you have faced, one thing is clear, when we who have lost our children stand over their graves, the tears that will fall will be the same colour. And the pain that we experience will be the same. Let us jointly appeal to the powers that be to stop the killing and to use their schemes for a solution. Peace will not come from war.


IE: Thank you. How did you prepare this?


RD: I just wrote it.


IE: Okay. On behalf of the peace circle.


RD: For the parents circle and for myself and hopefully it will get published.


IE: Okay. Very good. Layla would you like to add anything?


LA: It’s similar to what Robi said. Who will remember those children? Who will remember their stories? Or remember how they lost their loved ones. Some of them lost their two parents. Like, there is six the girls, the oldest, she’s twelve years old. So these kind of stories are so hard to listen to because we have the same feelings when we lost our loved ones. But I think for them, it’s much more harder because some of them, even they lost their houses. They didn’t feel secure. They didn’t have shelters. They didn’t have a lot of things. So they, like, live in a big prison. So their life is much more harder than our lives. And for what? Who is responsible about their dreams, their future, even their smiles, how they will react in the future. Will they be fighters and think to take revenge as Robi said? This is what I think since this war was started until yesterday in the middle of the night thinking about them, about their life, about their future, about how they think when all of this will end it, when we should say enough is enough. And this is what the leaders should understand now. Can’t continue like that really, it becomes something make us disappointed.


IE: What do the governments think of this parent circle in Israel or Palestinian Authority. Do you have any contacts? Do you have any reactions?


LA: The Palestinian Authority know about the parent’s circle, they didn’t support us, but at the same times, they didn’t prevent us from doing anything. They just look and see what we are doing. But they prevented us from going to schools, to speak to children, but we can meet them in their houses or in other places.


RD: Actually, we’ve met Abu Masen several times, he has been supportive of the Parents Circle. The schools… the very first letter that we had to go into Palestinian schools, came from Yasir Arafat. And then, of course, there were all these elections in the interim. And so now it’s not possible. But we do, as Layla said, do a lot of work as well on the West Bank but a lot of it is also with women.


IE: How about Israel? Do you have reactions…?


RD: Such a combination of members of parliament and of politicians, it’s hard to say, but we certainly do have some very supportive members of parliament like Mossi Raz from the Merits Party. More leftist parties. It’s a little more difficult to be critical of us because we all lost children or an immediate family member so it’s not quite the same sort of thing.


IE: It’s not just peace activists.


RD: Oh, it’s got a lot worse. It used to be much more I don’t like the word respect, but that’s all I can think of at the moment for people who lost children, but, you know, like what’s happening in the world in general, you know, it’s just another number.


IE: Let’s move down from governments, how are people responding? Do you think the recent events are gonna affect you in any way in terms of people joining or otherwise?


RD: There’s people everywhere Idil. It’s not like people who lose children specifically. I would think that there are many many more Palestinians and Israelis these days who have lost children and immediate family members. And it’s a choice of what you want to do.

And the way that people find us is very different from on both sides.


IE: Hmm. How? Can you tell me more?


RD: Well, firstly, there have been fewer deaths of Israeli soldiers and of Israeli civilians then on the Palestinian sides.


IE: Correct.


RD: There’s not such a connection of people who can be candidates to join us. So a lot of them that join or people that suddenly come to the realization that this could be the only  solution. And they found us, for instance, in a tent that we created during one of the wars as the kind of protests against the war. And so people who lost came to be with other people who knew what the consequence of war is. But on the Palestinian side, it’s different. We have two offices and the Palestinian office is very aware of families that lose children. Normally, I’m talking about in the West Bank now.


IE: Right. Right.


RD: We are able to go and visit them. And very often, we go as a group to visit h Israeli and Palestinian families if they are willing to receive us. So that’s how they join.

And of course, the people who don’t approve of this at all and many bereaved parents in Israel and Palestine for that matter who don’t agree with what we’re doing. Actually, the most natural reaction to something like this would be revenge. That’s a very human quality. So people who have gone through the transformation of understanding that violence doesn’t work, might want to join. And there are people who approve and people who don’t, and I write something like I wrote today. If it gets published, I could get some very ugly talk backs. So, you know, I keep saying that the Palestinian women in the group are all natural born leaders. It’s the same for the Israelis in many ways. Because if you think about it, you’re swimming against the stream of all the natural opinions of everybody, and you’re doing stuff not an accepted norm. And in fact, what we are doing is not an accepted norm, perhaps all over the world, during conflict. You know, after the conflict’s over, that’s usually the time that there is for reconciliation. But in our case, we’re probably the only, I would imagine the only organization that I know that is working for reconciliation during conflict.

You are swimming against the stream of opinion and people say peace isn’t even on the table. Why are you talking about reconciliation without understanding that for places that solved the conflict, there had been talk of creating a framework for reconciliation versus many years before the actual political agreement.


IE: Layla?


LA: We are the people who under the occupation and especially after this war, I think that people start to realize it’s not just an Israeli fault. Maybe there’s something they should do to stop all these things. It’s the time to say enough is enough. It’s our time to move on and to try to save the other lives. We didn’t want just to say and listen and to see all these terrible stories and all these terrible videos and scenes. We shouldn’t like sit and waiting for leaders to achieve. Even if they have peace agreement, as Robi said, the most important thing is not to sign that paper to say peace is already there. The most important thing is to have reconciliation. Because we’ve been in Ireland before two weeks, and they have agreement. But we saw that they still had that anger and that hatred. So, this is not what we want to do. We want this hatred and this anger to over and to deal with each other as a human without even waiting for that paper to say “okay, today, we have peace”. It’s not just about that. We want to have a normal life. We want to have like, not to be afraid from each other even if we have a peace agreement, I could visit, like, Robi in her house and she could come and visit me without being afraid from each other, from our neighbours, or from our relatives, and think someone would came and do something against the other. Yes. So this is the most important thing.


And I know there is people who still against what we are doing, and they think that we are crazy, and we will never achieve anything. And some people think that we are betrayed by our people and our country. And some people who respect us, but they still not convinced. So you can find many many ideas of people. And I think some people, like they believe what we are doing, but they still afraid to announce that because the efforts may be from their community, from other things. So, this is what we are trying to do in our organization, or we try to talk to people like us, even the people who didn’t lost their loved ones once because we are the people who are suffering. We are the people who have this problem in their daily life. So we didn’t want to wait the leaders to do something like, now they have this war. They didn’t come to Robi and ask her: “what’s your opinion? We wanna attack Gaza, do you agree or not?” And even when they have peace agreement, they will never came and ask me or ask Robi: What’s your opinion? They start to talk about also agreement. I remember I was young and one day I woke up and they started talking about peace. So what this means? So because you all just heard about war and killing each other, and suddenly they start to talk about peace. Now because of that, this is what we are trying to do on the ground. Start to talk to people, start to have this reconciliation between each other. This is much more important, I think.


IE: I think what you say reminds me of Bosnia, the absence of war is not peace, there as well. There’s no fighting. But there is no reconciliation either. So what you’re saying from Ireland resonates there as well. I guess I can only congratulate you for what you’re doing because what you do there is inconceivable in Turkey. I don’t know any group that consists of both sides mothers or families like you in Turkey. I wouldn’t think that anybody would dare to start an organization like that either. Because even the word peace has been criminalized in this country. So I think Robi said women are all natural leaders for a Palestinian women as well. Please tell me more.


LA: For a Palestinian woman, even during a father, the first one or second one, they should take care of themselves, they should take care of their children, they should take care of their even husbands sometimes, and they should be socially active in her community, and she should protect her children from being part of this cycle of violence. We have a big role in her community. And she, like, could control all these things. So if the mother could do all these things, she is a leader in nature, I think. And even some girls, but they take care of their brothers and sisters. My oldest sister is ten years older than me, and she, like, take care of all of us even when we have my mother because we were seven children. She, like, put responsibility on her, and she’s doing the other thing. So I learned from my oldest sister, so she was like a leader for me. So I think all women in the whole world have this, but maybe especially in Palestine because we are under occupation and because we struggle every day. Maybe this will give us, like, a double.. the responsibility is much more. So this is what creates this leadership in our mind. Some women, I think they have it but they still didn’t discover it or you have, like, a chance to even understand yourself sometimes. As they said, sometimes, like, when you want to make a diamond, you should, like, cut it and try to put it in a hard situation to make it in a beautiful way. So I think this is the same. The struggles make us much more like leaders.


IE: What would you recommend to parents in Turkey for instance? Who have lost their loved ones from both sides.


LA: You have the same struggles now even with the Syrian in your country And I know there’s a lot of Turkish people they didn’t wanna host the Syrian in their country. And I feel “Oh my god, why they didn’t have, like, something similar, like, what we are doing? Or maybe could someone help them?” This is your mission now to try to create this kind of things because we always said this will never end until we talk.

I think this is one of the most important thing are one of the most important projects that we have in our organization, both parallel narrative projects and this project about to bring fifteen people equal from both sides. And this project is about give them a chance to sit and talk and speak about everything. Because I think this is the only chance that both sides have, like, us as a Palestinian we didn’t met any Israelis as a citizen. We just met settlers or even soldiers. So this is the only chance for us to meet mothers or to meet normal people like us and start to talk about a lot of things. So I remember the first day in this project we were just mothers so the Israeli woman, on the left side, and the Palestinian woman, on the right side, and both of us, like, read from each other, didn’t know what to talk about.


They did not know other reaction. What’s going on? At the end of that day, that was so amazing that we were dancing together laughing, talking, like, we know each other from a long time. So as a human, we just need one chance or even one minute to change our thinking or our mind and start to look to the other as a human like us. And this is the key I think. To open your mind and open your heart again, to understand, to accept what they are talking about even if you are not convinced, but you will respect what they are talking about because they will be honest. And this is the most important thing even if I didn’t like what they said, what I like that they will be honest, and this is what I want to hear.


This is one of the most important project we speak about the history of the two nations. We went to demolished village, which was existed before 1948, a Palestinian one. Because most of the Israeli didn’t know anything about this kind of villages. They didn’t know a history about a Palestinian. And even for us as Palestinian, we didn’t know a lot of Israeli history. We went to Yad Vashem Museum, to know more about the Holocaust because most of the Palestinian deny that they think that the Israeli fake it because they want to justify what they are doing. So it’s kind of learning, understanding, and give a chance to talk about everything, not just political, not just about history, it’s about everything. Maybe you should have the same experience in your country. This will help you.


IE: Thank you. How were you able to fight your own demons using your pain, frustration, anger. For change and for reconciliation, how could you get there? How long did it take you?


LA: Look, I will tell you a short story about my father in Jordan. Once I visited them before I went to Italy for a conference. Then, he started to say to me, you shouldn’t be with them. They still are enemies and a lot of things that he is talking about. And then I said to him, I’m gonna ask you two questions. You know that my son died. Did you know the story? And he said “no”. I said, I sat in Bethlehem for eleven years, couldn’t come back to see you because I didn’t have my Palestinian ID during this time. Did you know what happened to my life during this eleven years? And he said, “no”. I said to him: “how could you judge me? How could you ask me what to do or not to do. This is my life. And I’m the only one who should decide what should I do or not to do. I want to protect my children. I want to protect myself. I want to protect other families. You didn’t know how much that hurt me. You didn’t know how much I was suffering during these years. So please don’t judge me”. For my father, to talk about the Israelis, it’s like a red line. No one was arguing with my father. So I didn’t just cross that line. I jumped that line. He was shocked. And I was shocked because I wasn’t to argue with my father my whole life. So how could I argue with him about something like that, that power, that courage that comes from, I then realized that when you believe in something, when you talk from your heart. We are not expert in this field, but we are talking about our lives, about beloved ones. We speak from our heart from our pain. And this is what make our message so strong. And if you like, didn’t convince with what we are doing, you will respect it. And this is what my father said: “okay, this is the first time I saw you, like, try to talk so strongly about something and you believe in. If you think this is good for you. So it’s okay even if I still not convinced, but what you are doing. But if you think this is the right way for you, its ok”. Because when you remember what’s happened to you, you didn’t want even to see other people from your side or from the other side suffering and lost your son or daughter or someone love you. You love him. Nothing worse than losing a child. Nothing. I loved my father so much and I lost him before two years. That was so hard for me, but it’s not like losing


IE: loosing your child….Robi?


RD: It’s not that I went through some kind of transformation after when my son was killed. I grew up in South Africa. I was born there. And so I had been in the anti-apartheid movement most of my life and understood injustice. Actually, my first reaction was when the army came to tell me was “you can’t kill anybody in the name of my child”. So it was all there. I just didn’t know what was the framework that I could start to make a difference.

And if we go back to what Layla was saying early on, I think that having a casus belli you know, having something to do after you lose a child, it doesn’t have to be about the conflict, and it doesn’t have to be about stopping something. What it has to be is a passion for something. You may love animals. Okay? I see in Turkey there are lots of cats.


IE: And dogs on the street.


RD: And I’m a major animal lover. But can you imagine that somebody who has this terrible loss gets up in the morning and wants to start helping a shelter with cats. I don’t know. It’s like this is the reason to get out of bed in the morning. For me, the reason to get out of bed is to protect my grandchildren and my son. Because this is what I found, which gave meaning to the death of my own child. But this is a very personal thing.


IE: Yeah.


RD: And you can’t force people to go on a path of reconciliation. It’s something that comes from either being exposed to being able to tell you a story to create this emotional breakthrough because even the hardest of hearts in Palestine or the hardest of hearts in Israel if they would hear a story like Layla’s or mine, it’s unlikely that they will not be moved. I’m not saying they would suddenly become major peace workers, but there would be something that you would plant in the heart of somebody, and that’s the emotional breakthrough which comes from storytelling. Because one of the saddest things as I promise you that I don’t know in Turkey how much you know about the other and how many of the other you ever talked to. And so it’s like, you know, you have a different kind of wall. We have the physical walls, but you have the emotional walls as well. And so, I mean, I’m not here to tell you what should happen, but I am happy to tell you from experience that when you find a cause that you’re passionate about, it will ease this feeling. It will give you a reason to get up or out of bed in the morning.


IE: I think we have covered all the questions please feel free to express anything you would like to add.


RD: For me, one of the most dangerous things is taking sides. Being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Because what happens when that happens is that you import our conflict into your country and create hatred between Jews and Muslims. That doesn’t mean that you can’t say what is happening on the ground in Israel and Palestine. That’s very important. And that you can’t tell the story of what you heard from Laila and I. That is very important. But if you cannot be part of the peace process, or of the solution, then please stay away from us. You can’t help me and not Layla.


LA: Why we want to make reconciliation because when you are filled with hatred and anger, that will control you and control your life in the opposite way. It will never let you understand the situation. It will never even lead you to the right track that you really think about or you really want to. And I think this is one of the most important thing happened to me during my journey. I tried to forgive those people who were responsible about the death of my son, not for them. Because of me. Because I wanna feel free. I didn’t wanna be controlled by anger, by hatred because that even caused a health problem to me. After I forget those people, I start really to feel free. I’m another person. I can understand the other side. I can understand even my children. And deal with them as I really want to. So this is one of the most important thing to think about reconciliation. Much more important to have peace agreement.


IE: Okay. Thank you both very much. My guests were Robi Damelin and Layla Alsheikh. They talked about the importance of reconciliation and seeing the other as human and developing empathy despite the ongoing occupation and warfare in their countries. They stressed that just because a peace agreement is signed, people do not start having a normal relationship with the people that they fought with. They emphasize by underlining the importance of reconciliation, they wanted to save other people from experiencing similar pain. It was very inspirational. So I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please follow the podcast, like, or share it. I would like to close by thanking musician İmre Hadi and artist Zeren Göktan who allow me to use their music and picture in the podcast. Thank you and see you next month. We can find a way Idil Elveris presented.