As war rages on between Israel and Hamas, it is inevitably the people on the ground who suffer. Ironically, for all the political differences, the citizens of countries and regions at war with each other often have more in common with each other than not – as with many such historical border conflicts.
While it is impossible to neatly summarise what civilians in a war zone really want in an article, it is safe to say that many such residents of this region just want peace… and the ability to go about their lives normally.
The Weekly learnt that from interviewing two extraordinary people who were working together to build trust and encourage peace between Israel and Palestine, in 2021.
They were Rami Aman, who lived in Gaza, and Roni Keidar who lived not far away in Israel. In spite of their age difference, their different cultures and the enormous wall that separated them, they were the closest of friends.
Two years on, when war broke out again, we reached out to learn whether Ronni and Rami were safe. And the good news is that they are.
Some things have changed though. Daunted by the constant struggle to keep his peace efforts going, Rami finally left Gaza for Egypt and was living in Cairo when war broke out on 7 October. So Rami is not in the firing line this time, but Roni, however, is. She was in her home, right alongside the Israel/Gaza border when her village was attacked by Hamas and 20 of her neighbours were killed, including two members of her extended family. Roni and her husband escaped with their lives but a close friend and fellow member of the peace group, Women Wage Peace, is believed to be among the hostages currently being held by Hamas in Gaza.
What remains unchanged is the enduring commitment towards peace in people there. Read on for Ronni and Rami’s brave and inspiring story.
The dream of peace in Gaza
There are many unusual things about the friendship between Rami Aman and Roni Keidar. He’s around 40, she’s almost 80. He’s Palestinian, she’s Israeli. But perhaps the most unusual is that he lives in Gaza, and she lives just kilometres away, on the Israeli side of the border. There’s a wall between them, so contact is mostly limited to phone and Zoom calls, but they have formed a rare, almost impossible friendship, despite both living in the line of fire.
Rami lives in a high-rise building in downtown Gaza city. He was born in Kuwait, one of seven brothers and sisters, to a father from Gaza and a mother from Algeria. When Rami was 11, his parents packed up their young family and moved back to Gaza.
“As Palestinians, we were proud to return to our homeland,” says Rami. He joined the YMCA to keep up with his sports, making friends among Gaza’s tiny Christian population. “My father prays five times a day, he has made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca three times, but he never said to me, ‘Don’t have Christian friends’. He welcomes everyone.” Today most of Rami’s siblings live away from Gaza. One sister, Rana, is studying in Australia.
Rami’s life was changed forever in 2009 by ‘Cast Lead’, an Israeli military operation against Hamas (which controls the Gaza strip) in which some 1500 Palestinians lost their lives. Working as a journalist, Rami saw dozens of dead bodies in a single day – the first time he was exposed to death on such a scale. But instead of producing a thirst for vengeance, this conflict convinced him of the need to create “leaders for peace” among young people in Gaza.
“I realised we have to create a new kind of generation, and work with them from now, so that in the years to come they will become decision makers, the leaders who can make the change in their communities.”
Rami established an NGO called the Gaza Youth Committee, but his vision depended on finding like-minded people on the other side of the border.
“It began as a dream, when I wanted to promote a new voice from Gaza calling for peace,” he tells The Weekly. “I knew that many people in Gaza were hoping there could be peace, but they were afraid to say it because they didn’t have leaders to give them that kind of voice. I was thinking that of course there must be a lot of Israelis thinking like me. And through this work, I found them. Well, my dream was real!”
At the frontline of the Israel Palestine conflict
Roni Keidar, mother of five, grandmother to 17, is one of those Israelis. Born in London, she came to Israel at age 20, and met and married Ovadia, an Egyptian Jew who was farming in the Sinai desert. When Israel returned the land to Egypt in 1982, he and Roni moved here, near the Gaza border.
While Roni and her family lived on the Israeli side of the border, there were Jewish settlers inside the Gaza strip until 2005, when the worsening situation led to a full-scale Israeli withdrawal. Hamas took power by force two years later, and Roni found herself living on the front line.
Israel built a barrier along the border, cutting off the narrow Gaza strip and its two million residents. Israelis are banned from entering Gaza, and Palestinians from Gaza can only enter Israel with a difficult-to-obtain permit.
Part of the Gaza barrier bisects a hill not far from Roni’s home. Roni’s neighbour, Tsameret Zamir, has decorated it with a peace mosaic created from her own homemade ceramic tiles. Visitors add tiles too, expressing what she calls their wish for “hope, love and happiness among all people”.
Roni is active in a number of peace groups on the Israeli side of the border. She volunteers to help Palestinians from Gaza navigate the thicket of bureaucracy they face if they need access to Israel for travel or medical treatment. And she works with Humans without Borders, helping to transport Gazans who receive permits for medical treatment but who have no way of reaching Israeli hospitals. Taxis are expensive and many Israeli drivers are frightened to take people from Gaza.
Roni also invites peace groups, tourists and her fellow Israelis into her home, where she speaks to them personally and powerfully about the need to end the conflict. Often she pulls out her phone and calls one of her friends in Gaza. She puts them on speaker and simply lets them talk with the Israelis. Communication is an enormously powerful tool for people who have, in effect, been cut off from each other for two decades.
“It has a great impact,” Rami says, “because most Israelis think that the people in Gaza are the bad people and vice versa. Here in Gaza, people think Israelis are either settlers or snipers. But if we continue our discussions together, I think we can be the majority in the future.”
Friendship across the Israel/Palestine border
Roni met Rami in 2018 through one of his projects, where Palestinians released peace doves into the sky above Israel. Roni wanted to communicate with a woman working on the project, but her English wasn’t good. Rami came over to help translate. “My English is not great either,” Rami laughs, “but I am always happy to practise!”
Since then, Roni and Rami have introduced children in Gaza to dance groups, drama groups and musicians in Israel, and together they have made music over WhatsApp and Skype.
Rami and Roni text or speak regularly, moving easily between work and laughter. They end their phone calls with, “Love you.” In a region dominated by the cry for vengeance, that certainly is another voice.
Messages from Gaza
When Roni fell and hit her knee earlier this year, triggering a series of medical complications, her friends in Gaza sent messages daily. “I felt they were with me completely and that I had to pull through for them too,” Roni says. “They always say, ‘You are our mother in Israel.’”
The friends on opposing sides were also in touch during the 11-day conflict in May 2021. They maintained contact through the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the Hamas rocket fire into Israel. “My WhatsApp was constantly pinging as we checked on each other.” Roni says.
She was distressed by a series of messages from a young Gazan peace activist called Ahmed. “First, he wrote to tell me he was okay, but they were moving out of their house because the airstrikes were bad and the children were scared.” In Gaza, there are almost no bomb shelters for civilians.
The next day, Ahmed seemed as frightened as his children – uncertain if he would survive the night. “I’m here now. But I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow,” Ahmed wrote.
“And if I’m not, please tell people there was a man called Ahmed and he believed in another way. Please spread the word that we were in this together. And we want a better future for all of us.”
Ahmed did survive, but the exchange was imprinted on Roni’s memory. Although they’ve been in touch for years, she has never met Ahmed in person. She has met Rami once, for a few hours in 2019, when he received a permit to enter Israel.
“I kissed her on the head like a mother and she introduced me to her husband,” Rami recalls.
The permit allowed Rami to join an Israeli-Palestinian delegation to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is considered an embodiment of compassion. “Meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama was like a dream,” Rami says. “The Dalia Lama said that you must talk with everyone, learn something from everyone. I said, ‘Skype with your enemy,’ and he said yes!”
Imprisoned by Hamas
Rami has paid a high price for his activism. In April 2020, the Gaza Youth Committee held a Zoom conference with more than 200 participants. Rami and Roni both spoke but the event was reported to Hamas and Rami was imprisoned.
“They accused me of collaboration, trying to make deals with Israel. They accused me of being from the rival political group, Fatah. They accused me of working for the Israeli spy service, Mossad. But
I was very clear. I said none of that was true and told them they could check my phone. I told them, “You will see that I only try to do good for Palestinians and there is nothing questionable at all. I am not an agent for anyone!”
Rami’s time in jail was traumatic. He was interrogated repeatedly, and he was held during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when simply being in an overcrowded prison was dangerous. But the support of his friends gave Rami strength.
“What gave me courage,” Rami says, “was knowing that I wasn’t alone.”
After more than six months in custody, Rami was released without charge. On the other side of the border, Roni was relieved, but expected it would spell the end of communication between them. “I didn’t contact him because I didn’t want to endanger him. And then he called me!” she smiles.
The death of a friend in Israel
The conflict has also touched Roni’s friends and family. When Gaza militants fire rockets into the area, an Israeli warning siren sounds and people have just 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. In 2005, Dana Galkowicz was running to a shelter when she was hit by an incoming mortar. She and Roni’s daughter Inbal were best friends.
In a recent documentary, her father, Natan, walks along the path Dana took to the shelter near her home.
“It’s a matter of one to two seconds,” he says. “If she hadn’t got out of the car, or if she’d run a little bit more, just half a second and she’d have reached safety.”
Dana was killed three weeks before her wedding, and her death profoundly affected Roni’s daughter, who questioned her mother’s activism. Dana’s father was also changed forever by the loss. He channelled his grief into promoting peace.
“I talk to important people, presidents, politicians, celebrities and also to ordinary people,” he tells the Nigerian-American filmmaker, Ose Oyamendan, in Other Voices, which was filmed in Gaza and Israel over more than 10 years. “I talk to anyone who will listen to tell them we have no option but to learn to live in peace – and we better learn to do it now, rather than in 10 years with more dead on both sides.”
The recurring Gaza conflicts are part of a new form of warfare. There’s no longer fighting between young men on a battlefield. Instead, civilians are on the frontline. The flare-up in Gaza in May 2021 followed this pattern, killing more some 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, including children on both sides.
Afterwards, Rami and Roni resumed their work. Roni began raising funds for Rami’s latest campaign to provide backpacks for schoolchildren in Gaza. They came filled with books, pens and a water bottle for the start of the school year. And they came filled with hope.
“We’re not just distributing bags,” says Rami. “We talk about their hopes and dreams and tell them to cast their nets wide.”