Families of Israeli-Palestinian victims place 900 mock coffins

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

TEL AVIV, Israel -- More than 900 mock coffins lying Tuesday in Rabin Square -- representing Palestinians and Israelis killed in 13 months of fighting -- were a powerful symbol of an unusual group: Israeli and Palestinian peace advocates with children killed in the conflict.

The Parents' Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian families whose children were killed by the other side over the years -- whether in the last year of fighting, the violence-plagued peace process that preceded it, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising or even before.

"Behind every coffin, there is a person, a human being," said Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son Arik -- then a 19-year-old soldier -- was killed by Palestinians in 1994 while hitchhiking in the West Bank. "When I see the white coffins, I remember my son. That is very difficult for me."

Frankenthal said he decided to form the group soon after his son was killed. Today its members include about 190 Israeli families and about 30 Palestinian ones.

The group's Palestinian members could not come to the three-day exhibition this week. They were barred by Israeli travel restrictions that have limited them to the West Bank and Gaza for most of the 13 months of fighting, which has claimed 730 lives on the Palestinian side and 191 on the Israeli side.

Peace struggles

On both sides, people have responded to the violence by toughening their positions. The hawkish Ariel Sharon was elected Israel's prime minister in February by an unprecedented majority, and Palestinian polls show solid majorities back attacks on Israelis and growing support for Islamic militants.

The Parents Circle hopes to inspire others to buck the trend with projects -- a billboard campaign is in the works -- that might soften hardened hearts.

The timing of the exhibition itself proved symbolic -- it was originally set for Sept. 11, the day of the terror attacks in New York and Washington. It was moved to this week -- when Israelis are marking six years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a pioneer in peacemaking gunned down by a Jewish ultranationalist opposed to his land-for-peace policies. The square with the coffins bears his name.

An elderly man and a young woman approached Frankenthal and Roni Hirshenzon, whose son Amir was among 21 Israelis killed by a suicide bomber in 1995.

The elderly man complained that "Palestinian" coffins were part of the display -- and his question struck home: Does the display include the coffins of terrorists?

Hirshenzon replied that the count indeed did -- because they were also casualties of the conflict. "This is what happens if there is no peace," he said, as the man shook his head in disgust and walked away.

In Beit Lahia, a Palestinian town of cinderblock homes and garbage-strewn streets in northern Gaza, Ramadan Azani awaits an end to the war.

Azani's son Ahmed, then 20, was shot during a stone-throwing clash with Israeli soldiers during the first Palestinian uprising, and he is saddened to see that the conflict continues. He sticks with the group and defends himself to neighbors who have criticized his meetings with the Israelis.

"I tell them peace is our only option," he said.

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