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Religion and Society

The Mideast's epitaphs of death and the duty to remember

Filippo Landi

On al-Sheikh Jarrah hill in Jerusalem, a few hundred metres from my home there is a memorial epitaph in black stone. Engraved in Hebrew it bears the names of 78 people killed on 13 April 1948 in an ambush carried out by Palestinian forces. They are the names of professors and students from Mount Scopus' Hebrew University and those of doctors and nurses from the nearby Hadassah Hospital. The all perished at al-Sheikh Jarrah when the convoy of ten trucks in which they were travelling to get to Mount Scopus was stopped.


A few days ago in front of that stone, Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist, a Jew and a friend of mine, showed me the name of a woman, a friend of his family who was killed on that day. But he also said: "This massacre took place a few days after that of Deir Yassin". That event was not engraved on the black stone but in his memory and life as a free man.


Deir Yassin was a small village near Jerusalem. Its Arab residents had scrupulously respected a non-aggression pact with the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force. On 9 April 1949 other Jewish groups, the Irgun and the so-called Stern Gang, entered the village and slaughtered 245 Palestinian civilians. It was this massacre that set off the mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs.


Meron Rapoport is one of the Jews who remember, one of those who can weep for the loved ones he lost but who can also remember the mass killings visited upon innocent Palestinians.


Sadly the Middle East is full of memorial stones commemorating past butcheries, but they leave us the hard task to find connections between them.


All this came flooding back to me when I read Fr Damiano Puccini's article in Oasis' February newsletter in which he revisited the 20 January 1976 massacre in Damour, a Christian town in Lebanon where at least 330 Christians, including women and children, where slain by Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim militias.


History however calls upon us to remember the tragedy that unfolded in those days in its full complexity. Just two days earlier, on 18 January 1976, Phalangist militias stormed the village of Karantina, destroying it, slaughtering a thousand Muslim civilians. The Christians of Damour thus paid with their lives the price of blind reprisal, which went on since some Phalangist militiamen found justification for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as revenge for Damour's fallen.


I think it is our duty as Christians, whether lay people or clergymen, to have the courage to remember history under any latitude in order to promote reconciliation and build it on more solid foundations. In fact did we not have a great teacher like John Paul II who had the courage to ask forgiveness for the offences done by men of the Church throughout history?


We must also be humble enough to learn from those we least expect. I wish to remember what happened in the streets of Beirut in 1982 when Italy's Bersaglieri force arrived following the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.


Colonel Franco Angioni, who was in command of our soldiers at the time, asked Shia Muslim and Phalangist Christian leaders to order their men not to go around armed in the area under Italian control. The leaders of the various factions refused.


A few days later Angioni had a group of Phalangist militiamen arrested and disarmed. News about what happened spread immediately, especially in Shia and Sunni areas. "Italian soldiers have arrested Phalangists, Christians," Muslims said. "They did it even though they too are Christian; these soldiers tell the truth; they don't want to disarm us to favour our adversaries."


After this episode, filled with tension and disbelief, Shia militiamen and Phalangists stopped showing their weapons in those parts of Beirut under Italian control. That early action kept the peace for some time until the civil war flared up again in early 1984, but it was not a useless exercise for its effects are still felt today. For decades in fact Italians have enjoyed the respect of Shiites, including Hizbollah, because of that small seed, planted by a love for peace and for men and women regardless of who they are.