Intifadah's anguish becomes part of life

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 9/28/2003

HEBRON, West Bank -- The Ibrahim al Khalil glassworks has lost 40 percent of its business since Palestinians and Israelis began their latest war, even though the Natche family, which owns the century-old firm, has sharply cut prices for its deep-blue, free-form vases and pitchers.

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian businesses and families have suffered similar losses since the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising, broke out three years ago tomorrow. Many on both sides, like the Natches, say they have gotten used to it. What was shocking and brutal three years ago has become an accepted part of life. People have adjusted.

Major changes occurred on the ground in the third year of the struggle -- Israel's construction of a large-scale security barrier, the extremist group Hamas's dramatic rise in popularity, Yasser Arafat's return to a central role, and Washington's swift end to its briefly revived involvement.

In the main, Palestinians and Israelis say, these changes have encouraged the get-used-to-it environment that now prevails, for each development moved the situation farther from resolution and contributed to a general collapse of hope.

''This year is better than last year,'' says Salah al-Natche, a 22-year-old glassblower and manager who looks twice his age. ''The last five months were better than the five months before that. . . . Life is not more secure; it is less secure. But people get accustomed to the situation.''

Palestinian wholesalers with contacts in Israel have learned how to get the Natches' goods through the network of checkpoints and fences erected by Israelis trying to keep out suicide bombers. Visits by foreign tourists to Israeli hotels in August were down 35 percent from the month before the violence started, but were up 74 percent from last year. People on both sides have started to spend a little more freely.

The Palestinian uprising that began Sept. 29, 2000, is radically different in character from the first intifadah, which lasted from 1987 until 1993 -- so much so, many Palestinians and most Israelis say, that it is incorrect to call it an intifadah, a spontaneous, grass-roots movement. The current struggle was a top-down initiative from the Palestinian leadership, which made a deliberate decision to use military means in place of the stone throwing that characterized the previous struggle.

The numbers of dead, 795 Israelis and 2,367 Palestinians as of Friday, according to the nonpartisan human-rights organization B'Tselem, are much higher. The 1-to-3 ratio of Israeli to Palestinian deaths -- referred to on both sides as the balance of blood -- has narrowed from the 1-to-6 ration of the first intifadah, helping to produce a massive consensus in Israel for the internationally controversial barrier under construction.

The bustle has not returned to the streets of Jerusalem or Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv's largest suburb, and it is not likely to as long as the threat of terrorist bombings hangs over the cities. Commerce among Palestinians and between them and the Israelis remains deeply constricted by limitations on Palestinian freedom of movement imposed by Israel in an effort to obstruct the bombers.

''The feelings we had in the beginning have faded,'' said Danny Goldstein, 39, who runs a candy shop with his father in the center of Ramat Gan. ''When the terror attacks started, we used to close down to listen to the news. Now we just listen in -- 10 dead, 12 dead -- and keep going.''

His father, Leon, 65, who brought his family to Israel from Cordoba, Argentina, in 1976, added: ''I have got used to it. . . . Tolerance, the capacity to hang in there, is practically unlimited. I saw worse than this walking with my children . . . in Argentina.''

Shaul Kimhi, a professor of political psychology and a fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, said the Israelis and Palestinians who say they have adjusted are not just putting on a brave face; such adjustments would be made in any society under such stress.

''People don't get used to it in the sense that they feel `Oh, it's not so bad,' '' Kimhi said. ''They say `Yes, it is bad, we are afraid, people are getting hurt, but we have to get on with our lives.' It is a coping strategy, a normal one.''

The barrier -- more than $1 billion for trenches, fences, walls, and sensors -- ''is Israel's answer to all of the Palestinians' protests and aspirations,'' said Jamal Juma', a leading campaigner against the project. ''It is a wall in the heart'' and, if completed, it will make establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible, Juma' said, laying a foundation for struggle and hatred to continue.

Further complicating factors are the rise of Hamas, which is implacably opposed to Israel's existence, and the return of Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, to center stage when both Israel and the United States refuse to deal with him because of his support of the violence. These two developments are intertwined: Hamas's popularity is based at least in part on its freedom from the corruption of Arafat's regime and its delivery of quality social services.

If the uprising ''had started one year later, it would have been against Arafat,'' said Yussef al-Kashkish, 39, a physical education teacher and poultry merchant in Halhul, near Hebron. ''That would have been better. There would not have been so much bloodshed.''

Just a few weeks ago, Arafat's popularity was at a low. Many Palestinians were complaining openly that his decision to lead them into armed struggle had brought economic ruin and no political gains. And he had just forced the resignation of reformist Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, antagonizing the many European and American leaders sympathetic to Palestinian statehood.

Then, Israel's security Cabinet voted to ''remove'' the longtime Palestinian leader. Some top officials said killing him was a possibility. At home and abroad, many who had been fed up with Arafat rallied to his defense.

Now Palestinian politics are stalemated, with would-be reformers and Arafat loyalists locked in fierce internal battles over the formation of a new government under prime minister-designate Ahmed Qurei.

On the Israeli side, friction among leaders is high and the country appears on the verge of major strikes because of budget cuts from the costs of the struggle.

''There is chaos in politics,'' said Natche, the glass blower. ''The two sides feel the same way.''

Many Israeli and Palestinian children say they cannot recall a time when there was no violence.

''I feel like it is part of our lives,'' Karen Shemesh, 12, a poised, thoughtful Israeli seventh-grader, said outside her school in Ramat Gan. ''There were a couple of times it was silent, but it always starts up again. It is very sad, very difficult to grow up like this.''

Tom Lev, a fifth-grader, said he does not remember a time without bombings. ''This is the way it is going to be,'' he said, ''until we hit them really hard and they learn not to mess with us.''

Razi Shahin, 9, a red-headed Hebronite with a ready smile, sat near the ruins of a cousin's house that was demolished by the Israeli military when a Hamas militant fired at soldiers from inside. He criticized the uprising in terms that illustrated how much the violence was part of his reality.

''This intifadah is not good,'' he said. ''The house is destroyed, the roads are closed, we cannot go to Jerusalem, or to the sea.''

He scorned schoolmates who throw stones at the Israelis because ''that won't kill them,'' and said he was not interested in being a suicide bomber: ''I want to shoot them and escape, and stay alive and play with the kids.''

Many on both sides say that with such attitudes planted in the youths of both sides, the only hope is for new leadership.

''Nothing will change until Arafat or Sharon goes,'' Kashkish, the physical-education teacher, said of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Yaron Yeruchin, 37, an aircraft engineer who lives in Petah Tikvah, on Israel's coastal plain, said: ''There must be a change in concept,'' because force has failed for both sides. ''We need [Yitzhak] Rabin,'' he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister assassinated by an Israeli who opposed the Oslo peace process. ''Until then the security situation will be business as usual. They kill us, we kill them.'' ''

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.