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For a Heartrending Story, or Just a Good Chat, Call the Peace Line

January 13, 2004
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When fellow soldiers reached David Damelin’s body, they found the Israeli army’s code of ethics in his pocket.

The 29-year-old from Kibbutz Meitzar was a reserve lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces who was manning a roadblock near the Jewish West Bank town of Ofra when a Palestinian sniper killed him and nine others in March 2002.

A Tel Aviv University graduate student and peace activist, Damelin staunchly opposed Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and he was deeply concerned about how soldiers behaved.

But he reported for reserve duty because he did not want to “set a bad example” for the undergraduates he was teaching, says his mother, Robi Damelin.

After her son’s death, Ms. Damelin, 60, an ex-South African, quit her public-relations job and joined 500 other Israelis and Palestinians who had lost family members to violence. In October 2002, the Forum for Bereaved Families and the Parents Circle, which promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, launched Hello Shalom-Hello Salaam, a telephone hot line for coexistence.

The idea grew out of a wrong number. An Israeli, Natalia Wieseltier, meant to call a friend’s mobile phone, but instead dialed a Palestinian man named Jihad, which means holy war in Arabic.

His phone recorded her number and he called back, leading to more phone conversations and meetings. Ultimately, Wieseltier approached the peace groups with the idea of instituting the Israeli-Palestinian line.

Callers to the free service can listen to a selection of voice messages and decide whom they want to contact.

So far, 600,000 Israeli and Palestinian callers have hooked up to the free service, Damelin says, and some talks have sparked face-to-face meetings.

She says “slightly more” Palestinians have called than Israelis, but the difference is not significant.

“Obviously, not every conversation is gentle and loving. The only rule is that you listen,” she says. “Israeli leaders keep saying there is no one to talk to, and we wanted to show that’s not true.”

Damelin and a Palestinian counterpart visited New York this week to launch an extension of the peace line, called “Hello, Peace,” in the United States.

They hope the U.S. line will help defray the costs of running the Israel-based service and will promote Israeli- Palestinian coexistence.

Callers to 1-900-ATPEACE pay a $1-per-minute, tax-deductible fee to contact an Israeli or Palestinian for what Damelin calls “first-hand information” about their lives.

Rather than rely on media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “we want people to get real stories of joy and suffering,” she says.

So far, the peace groups have secured official endorsements from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical union.

No leaders in the Arab or Muslim community have signed on, organizers say.

Epstein pledged to call an Israeli when he uses the service.

“I’m not against talking to Palestinians, but I also think it’s important for Jews to talk to Jews,” he told JTA. “My first priority is to touch people in my own community.”

The stories of some Hello, Peace advocates might inspire empathy and support.

Ghazi Munir Hussein Brigieth, 42, from the West Bank village of Beit Omar outside Hebron, says his brother, Yousef Abu Awwad, 32, was stopped by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint outside the village in November 2000.

When he asked why he was being stopped, Awwad was shot in the head at close range, Brigieth says.

Brigieth, an electrician, joined the Israeli-Palestinian group “to prevent death . . . for other families, it doesn’t matter whether Israeli or Palestinian,” he says.

“What we are doing is against our human nature,” he says. “When you lose someone close to you, you think of revenge — but this is our revenge, not with guns but with our mouths.”

Damelin says that “no matter what kind of agreements are signed,” real rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians will be possible only if a truth and reconciliation committee is formed, much like in post-apartheid South Africa.

“Both of us must say, we have made a terrible mistake against each other — enough! Let us open a new page for the next generation,” Brigieth says.

Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America, an interdenominational group that promotes Israeli-Palestinian peace, lauded the hot line.

“These things can be transformative,” he says. “We have so many walls built between Jews and Palestinians that anything that breaks them down is invaluable.”

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