Israel Trip: A Snapshot of the Conflict

Article excerpt

NCEW's week-long trip to Israel came in October 2001, just a little more than a year after the most recent Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began. Throughout that year, Israelis and the Palestinians staged attacks and counterattacks: targeted killings of Palestinians whom Israel considered terrorists; suicide bombings by Palestinians in places crowded with Jews.

When the NCEW group was in Jerusalem, Palestinians killed Rehavam Ze'evi, the Israeli minister of tourism. After that, the stakes rose ever higher. From October until this spring, the killing went on from both sides. Israel constantly demanded that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrest the killers. When Arafat failed to meet the demands to Israel's satisfaction, the Israeli government called him "irrelevant" and broke off contact with him.

During our trip, we saw essentially a snapshot of the conflict. But that one frame depicts accurately what had gone on before and what came after mid-October. How do we know that's true? We look back at the first intifada. All that happened then is happening again.

A week of ups and downs

At the checkpoint for going from Israel into the Palestinian Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers collected our passports and pored over them. When we were finally cleared to leave, one soldier led us into the night. He checked us through a place that looked like a phantom tollbooth with an Israeli flag flapping above it.

On our own then, we seemed to be standing at the gates of Hell. To get from here to there, to keep a late-night rendezvous with Yasser Arafat, we had to cross a stretch of pavement with concrete walls on the sides and few lights.

As we walked, we heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire in the distance. A large car roared up from the far side. A taxi driver offered to ferry us across. But we walked to meet our Palestinian hosts at their gate.

The walk took about 10 minutes, a long and eerie half mile through a dark no-man's land. It summed up the plight in Israel, as we had been seeing it.

We were 17 travelers, led by Dave Hage of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, then chair of NCEW's International Affairs Committee and dauntless juggler of ever-changing schedules, and Brian O'Hanlon of New York, NCEW travel consultant and former AP staffer. We left in mid-October, barely a month after the attacks of September 11, for a week in a place where terrorist attacks mark daily life.

Despite that or, as Masthead editor Kay Semion of the Daytona Beach News-Journal said, maybe because of it, we launched with enthusiasm.

Our work began on a high note at Tel Aviv University with a Monday morning briefing from experts on the peace process, Israel politics, and terrorism, and included meetings with once and future Israeli government officials, except Benjamin Netanyahu. The former prime minister, who is running hard to be the next one, canceled us to get ready for his close-up with CNN.

We met with Palestinian Authority officials, Israeli and Palestinian residents, local activists, and journalists. We walked through Jerusalem from the Western Wall to the Via Dolorosa, and visited the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sea of Galilee to get a sense of place and perspective.

A cloud edged in the first morning with news of the "targeted killing" of Abed Hamad, a local leader of Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization.

He was shot Sunday while saying his dawn prayers on the roof of his apartment building. It was "active self-defense'" Israel said, blaming the man for sending the suicide bomber that killed 21 young Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub in June.

Palestinian men carrying the body at the funeral were quoted as promising "a very strong and violent" response.

The Monday-morning academics said "attitudes are very bad on both sides" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yossi Beilin, who was a Labor Party minister and Camp David negotiator, said later, "It is not a one-side fault. …