She sits before the white balcony curtain, in a black galabia. "The really strange thing about my life today is that I have no secrets," says Robi Damelin, 65, an activist in Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace (also known as the Parents Circle-Families Forum, or PCFF). "I used to be a very private person. And though I had a public relations firm in Tel Aviv and a lot of journalist friends, none of them were ever invited to my home. Today everything is open, free. After David was killed I went to a psychologist. She said to me: 'You know, Robi, now you are free.' I didn't understand her then. She said to me: 'What else can happen to you? From now on, you'll do things and there won't be any fear or ego getting in the way.' She was right. Since David was killed my whole life has changed, it's taken another direction. All my priorities and sense of proportion changed. I don't think people can understand what it really means to lose a child."
Seven years ago, a Palestinian man took up a position on a hill overlooking the British Police Junction, north of the West Bank settlement of Ofra, and for more than 20 minutes used an old rifle to pick off soldiers and civilians at the Wadi Haramiya checkpoint. He fired 25 bullets and killed three civilians and seven Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including Damelin's son, David. The sniper escaped unharmed. The incident, and the excellent shooting skills it seemed to indicate, provoked wild speculations about the identity of the gunman. Some said he must have been a skilled marksman from the Palestinian Authority's Force 17, or even a sharpshooter from the Irish Republican Army. Two and a half years later, in October 2004, Ta'er Hamad, 24 and a member of Fatah, was apprehended by an IDF unit operating in the village of Silwad. During his interrogation he disclosed that in 1998 he had found an old rifle and 300 bullets, and would take it out to the wadis to practice shooting. He also said that on the day of the attack, he had only stopped shooting because the rifle had come apart in his hands.
The capture of the shooter and the discovery of his identity left Damelin restless. "When he was caught I didn't feel any satisfaction," she says. "There's no logic in revenge and I never sought revenge. For me, his capture was the real test of my perception of myself, a test to see if I really mean what I say when I talk about reconciliation, about peace. I thought, 'How can I go around the world talking about reconciliation and peace, if I myself am not ready to start on this path?' For four months I agonized, I searched deep inside myself, I tried to understand whether I really meant it, and in the end I decided to write a letter to the sniper's family." Palestinian friends from the Families Forum delivered the letter to the family, which read as follows:
"This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin, I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. I know he did not kill David because he was David, if he had known him he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old, he was a student at Tel Aviv University doing his masters in the philosophy of education. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians. He treated all around him with dignity. David was part of the movement of the officers who did not want to serve in the occupied territories, but nevertheless for many reasons he went to serve when he was called up for reserve duty.
"What makes our children do what they do, they do not understand the pain they are causing your son by now having to be in jail for many years and mine who I will never be able to hold or see again or see him married, or have a grandchild from. I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death and the pain of his brother and girlfriend, and all who knew and loved him," Damelin wrote.
Military Court Judge Yehuda Lieberman convicted Hamad and sentenced him to 11 life sentences.
"I understand that your son is considered a hero by many within the Palestinian people. He is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent, viable Palestinian state," Damelin wrote in the letter to Hamad's family, "but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another is not the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a nonviolent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace... Our lives as two nations are so intertwined, each of us will have to give up on our dreams for the future of the children who are our responsibility... I do not know what your reaction will be, it is a risk for me, but I believe that you will understand, as it comes from the most honest place within me. I hope that you will show the letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet."
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Please also visit Robi's page at the Forgiveness Project