An All-Consuming Passion: Politics Defines the Lives of Israelis and Palestinians Alike

Article excerpt

Second of two parts

In a region where angry Palestinians repeat the hoariest of anti-Jewish canards and extremist Israeli settlers display startling contempt for Palestinians ("Gas the Arabs" reads one sign in a settlers' outpost in Hebron), emblematic experiences start becoming the norm.

In the span of 11 days, it was possible to get a glimpse of just a few of them.

* Graffiti sprayed on the separation barrier (critics call it "the wall") in the West Bank is replete with both anger--"Apartheid wall of shame" is a common refrain--and symbols of international solidarity, including, to no one's surprise, the timeworn likeness of Che Guevara.

Palestinians and even some Israelis say it would be naive to think the route of the 420-mile barrier will not define new Israeli borders in any peace negotiations--but an Israeli official defended the barrier as a needed, defensible and above all, temporary, response.

"The fence is not a border," he insisted, denying oft-heard Palestinian charges the security barrier is part of an Israeli "land-grab" and saying the barrier will be removed when Israel experiences an appropriate level of security.

* The same official shook his head with regret at the misfortune of a Palestinian family on the West Bank who found that Israeli troops had uprooted and destroyed their grove of olive trees--an especially humiliating act in this part of the world--during a recent all-day standoff to kill a suspected terrorist. The successful military operation also leveled a three-story residence.

The official urged understanding, saying redress for the civilians whose homes and gardens were damaged or destroyed is possible within the Israeli legal system--though critics say it is rare that Palestinians receive compensation.

As Palestinian passers-by glared at the remnants of the fallen building--an exposed kitchen sink still clung to the side of an adjoining building, as if the kitchen had been cut in haft during the attack--redress seemed far from the mind of the affected family. Two exasperated brothers kept repeating: "We had nothing to do with this. We're not involved in politics!"

* Hopes for a life free of political tensions further echoed when meeting a family friend, a young American-born Israeli scholar who sounded wary about the current state of Israeli politics. He expressed a visceral dislike for the barrier ("The first time I saw it, I was shocked"); a sincere and humane curiosity about the lives of Palestinians; a belief that peace is only possible when Palestinians accept the reality of a Jewish presence; and stark and elegiac memories of one of his students killed by a Palestinian suicide bombing.

"You think of the person you knew," he said, "the waste of a human life that had so much potential, that was cut short. And for what?"

* Amid very different surroundings--a handsome, light-filled meeting room of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry and the cramped, nighttime offices of the Palestinian Authority, a place of intrigue, fluorescent lights and guns--an Israeli official and a Palestinian official, respectively, sounded like echoes of each other.

Said the Israeli about the Palestinians: "From the Palestinian side, it's all very confusing. They are not speaking with one voice."

Said the Palestinian of the Israelis: "It's very hard for anyone to follow what the Israelis are trying to do." He asks rhetorically, as if speaking to an Israeli counterpart: "What is your strategy? What do you want?"

Such remarks, delivered with various levels of exasperation and weariness, exhaustion and impatience, evoke a dead-end quality in how Israelis and Palestinians alike speak about peace right now.

Construction, impatience

The collision of two trends, the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements and increasing impatience by Palestinians for change and democratization, have created a critical moment, said one negotiator with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization. …