October 12, 2003

A War-Weary People Reach Out in Pain and Hope

JERUSALEM The grim vigil lengthened into the night of a sparkling, breezy autumn day: people watching as the latest victims of the Palestinians' intifada, 20 killed and nearly 60 hurt, were taken away from Maxim, the beachside restaurant in Haifa that was the destination of a female suicide bomber on Oct. 4. In an instant, a place to lunch with families and friends, Arabs and Jews intermingling, had become a charnel house. Of the more than 100 suicide bombings of Israeli targets in the past three years, with 430 people killed, the location seemed particularly grotesque, and redolent of how violence for political ends quickly reaches extents that defy humanity's every code.

To go from that place to the home of the suicide bomber in Jenin, 30 miles away up in the stony hills of the West Bank, is, many might say, to travel into the heart of darkness, to dignify the killing by seeking some comprehension of an outrage that deserves no understanding. This, at least, has been the common experience of Western reporters, who have come to expect the angry e-mails of the many who believe the evil done is such that any article about the real or perceived miseries that helped drive the killers to the killing is, in itself, a form of exoneration.

"What this brutal, barbaric human being wanted, you have given her," one reader of The New York Times wrote in a letter to the newspaper's editors about this reporter's account of interviews with the family of Hanadi Jaradat, the 27-year-old apprentice lawyer who carried out the restaurant attack. "She wanted notoriety, and your actions not only aided her in her quest but by featuring her life and family you are an active participant in encouraging more barbaric men to send more young people to slaughter innocent civilians."

He added: "You need to highlight the horror, the waste. The name of the terrorist and her background should never be mentioned so as not to encourage the next youth who wants to achieve what his or her warped mind sees as immortality."

Others, though, offered a different perspective. One man who sent an e-mail to this reporter saw the value of putting the Haifa attack into "context" with an account that chronicled the Jaradat family's experiences during the intifada and Israel's response the father's loss of his job in Haifa when Israel blocked 300,000 Palestinians from working inside Israel; the 23-year-old son shot dead by Israeli troops hunting down Islamic Jihad militants as he drank coffee under a tree outside the family home one morning this past June; the refusal by the Israeli military to allow the father to go to the Ramban hospital in Haifa for treatment of a debilitating liver disease; the bomber's nightmares in the weeks before the end, as described by her mother.

To sojourn in the Holy Land these days is to be pitched into a miasma of mutual political recriminations, of action and reprisal, of a spiral of mutual dehumanization and cruelty, of violence and counterviolence, all to a point that sanity and compassion seem at risk of being lost. Yet traveling around Israel and the West Bank, there is every day the feeling that little of this proceeds from what ordinary people on both sides believe or want. It is as if many of the nine million people directly involved in the conflict, Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, are trapped in a moral and political maze that assures deepening misery for both, as if they are bound to a journey without comprehensible purpose, without expectable end.

To listen to the most powerful politicians on both sides is to get a different view, one that is commonly infused with warnings about fresh reprisals, of terms like "enough is enough," a sort of doomsday lexicon that seems to narrow the future, not open it up. But out where the miseries are felt most keenly, among people trying somehow to build lives that resemble the normality they knew before, the mood is different.

Out there, there is still a wealth of kindness, of unstrained courtesy, of consideration for the other that transcends the historical divide. In this, a visitor may think, as much as in any road map for peace drawn up in distant capitals, there is surely the hope that one day the killing and the indignities will yield to a common life, if in separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

Consider, for example, the scene a few days after the bombing along the route of Israel's new 370-mile security barrier, which failed to prevent the Haifa bomber from passing through an Israeli checkpoint. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government reacted by ordering an indefinite closure of all entry points to Palestinians along the 90 miles of fence so far completed.

Palestinian children were prevented from reaching school, and farmers barred from their greenhouses, orchards and olive groves. Protests sprang up all along the fence. But Israeli soldiers sent down the road that runs beside the fence to disperse the protesters and arrest some of them seemed to an outsider's eye to be almost apologetic, even as they acted against the protesters.

Citizen soldiers, many of them young men and women on reserve duty or call-up they appeared, at least in the presence of reporters, to act with reluctance. Did this mean they opposed the building of a permanent barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, much of it on land that runs well inside the West Bank, alienating Palestinians from lands that fell under Israeli occupation in 1967? The soldiers didn't say. A visitor could only wonder.

And what of Ramallah, the West Bank city that is Yasir Arafat's headquarters? After the Haifa bombing, and the Israeli air attacks on terrorist camps in Syria that followed within 24 hours, a visitor indistinguishable in his car from many Israelis could still drive down Rubak Street in the city center, park a vehicle with Israeli license plates in plain view on the street, and go for dinner in one of Ramallah's favorite meat-on-a-spit restaurants. Far from recrimination, or anything that occasioned fear, Palestinians in the restaurant reached their hands out in friendship and spoke, those who had any English, of their yearning for peace. "Bombing not good, bombing not good," a young man said, offering a cigarette. Haifa or Syria? the visitor asked. "Haifa and Syria," he said.

In the week after the Haifa attack, with right-wing newspapers in Israel calling still for the arrest, deportation or killing of Mr. Arafat, and political voices among militants in the West Bank answering in kind, it was the same almost everywhere. In the streets of Jenin, at night, a Westerner passing by in an armored Land Rover uncomfortably similar to the ones used by some Israeli intelligence units, with its wind-and-weather torn "TV" signs barely visible on the sides, drew cheery waves from unquestioning young men gathered under street lamps, the generation from which Islamic Jihad recruits the suicide bombers. At Mr. Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, Israeli reporters mingled freely with others. In Israeli homes, if not among West Bank settlers, families spoke wistfully of their exhaustion with the violence, with even the many who endorsed the latest Israeli attacks saying they wished fervently that a way could be found to end the cycle, return the Palestinian lands and move forward along the path to peace.

Possibly, it would have been the same at any time in the decades of conflict here. Perhaps, after all, it is the politicians and their formulas that matter, not the common person's voice, at least as expressed to an outsider judged eager to hear expressions of good will.

Still, at a time when all plans for peace seem to be in ruins, when each new day is at risk of being punctuated by new suicide bombings and new reprisals by Israeli helicopters and tanks, the experience on the streets of Israeli cities and the dusty byways of Palestinian towns cannot mean nothing. At society's foundations, among Israelis and Palestinians, the possibilities for peace, however improbably, seem yet to be within grasp.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company