Anger and grief, from Ramallah to San Francisco

Palestinian corner stores are like mini-embassies in many cities, dispensing goodwill along with groceries. But in the wake of Sharon's assault, expatriates are mainly peddling fury.

By Janelle Brown
Published April 3, 2002 1:46AM (EST)

Nabil Kishek has a 4-foot-high, 1,000-pound rubber-band ball by the front door of the Pride Superette corner store he operates in San Francisco's Mission District. For years, he has been collecting rubber bands in the name of peace in Palestine (and, he hopes, a mention in the Guiness Book of World records). A 51-year-old Palestinian who emigrated to the United States 30 years ago, Kishek likes to use the ball as a conversation-starter with his patrons, to keep open a daily dialogue about his native land. He's not usually one to withhold his opinion about politics in Israel. But on Monday, he was so worked up about the Israeli siege of Ramallah, where Ariel Sharon's forces, reacting to Palestinian terror attacks that have killed dozens of Israeli civilians, have "isolated" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, arrested or detained dozens of Palestinian men and boys and killed alleged militants, that he was reluctant to open his mouth for fear of what he might say. He stares ruefully at my tape recorder as his face turns red and CNN blares dismal news from behind the counter.

Once he finally agrees to an interview, it's like a dam has burst. "I've never seen anything like this before; not even in 1948, it wasn't like this!" he bellows, as his 8-year-old son Hana peers up at him with wide eyes. "My family in Ramallah can't even move; they don't have electricity, food, nothing. I want to say to the Bush administration: Help them! And the bigger Arab states -- Egypt, Jordan -- should also cut communication with the Israelis!"

He leans down to yell this directly into the tape recorder before looking up and smiling winsomely. "Is that opinionated enough for you?"

In San Francisco and other large cities, the many Palestinians who run corner grocery stores are unofficial ambassadors of their often misunderstood people, spreading goodwill with carbonated sodas and bags of cheese puffs. Despite the violence that was occasionally turned against Arab and Muslim store owners in the days after Sept. 11 -- a Palestinian corner store was vandalized and burgalized in Oldsmar, Fla.; here in San Francisco a Jordanian man closed his store and moved home after his windows were smashed by anti-Arab vandals -- these Palestinians continue to voice strong opinions about the Middle East. On Monday, even as they heatedly held forth on the evils of Sharon and the situation in Ramallah, they continued to dispense salty snacks and exchange cheery greetings with their regular customers.

But tempers are high in the Palestinian expatriate community today. Tempers have, of course, been high since the founding of the state of Israel, since 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel's war of independence. But Sharon's attack on Ramallah -- the unofficial capital of the West Bank, and the center of Palestinian intellectual and cultural life, with middle-class and even affluent neighborhoods far from the more familiar refugee squalor -- has brought the fury and anguish to a whole new level. Helplessly keeping track of their homeland via CNN and occasional frantic phone calls, Palestinian expatriates like Kishek are now describing the chaos in Ramallah as the worst that their families have experienced in half a century.

"This is more than Germany did to Israelis during World War II," explodes Kishek. "And now the Israelis are doing this to the Palestinian people?" Many will find that rhetoric overheated, but Kishek is not the only Palestinian to make this comparison today.

Wail Kassis, a 31-year-old Palestinian refugee, currently works at a supermarket on Cole Street. Ten years ago, around the time of the Gulf War, he was jailed without trial for a year -- he says it was for his "political opinions," and denies he had anything to do with violence. After his release his family received political asylum in the United States, but his cousins are still living in a small town near Bir Zeit University, the leading university in the West Bank. He speaks to them every day -- until Sunday, when their phone lines were cut by the Israeli government.

"My cousins told me the government cut the water now in the city. There's a lot of tanks in the city, arrests of civilians," he says, as he stands in the doorway of his store. "Soldiers came to their door and said they were looking for suspects. I don't know who a suspect is; it seems like everybody is a suspect at this time. They put all the doctors and nurses in one room and locked them in! There are injured people in the streets for the second day, and no ambulances can go there!"

Sharon's eviction of all journalists from Ramallah has added more fuel to the Palestinian fears that the worst is still to come. "What are they going to do there? We don't know, but they must not want the TVs to see the massacre taking place there," says Kishek. But the Palestinian expatriates direct plenty of ire at the American media for its coverage of the conflict. When five Israelis die, they say, it's a big story; but comparable numbers of Palestinians killed can wind up in the back pages of the paper, if the event is covered at all.

The Bush administration's ongoing support of Israel is even more painful to many. On Monday, as their law-abiding families back home were holed up in apartments, afraid for their lives and cut off from the world beyond their front door, Bush was continuing to back Sharon's offensive.

For taxpaying American citizens of Palestinian heritage, this was the ultimate insult. Kishek pulls out a pamphlet from behind the counter and stabs his finger at some statistics. "I'm a citizen here. America gives Israel $10 million a day! [U.S. aid to Israel totals roughly $3 billion a year.] So we're paying tax money so they can kill our Palestinian people there? That's not right. It's unjust!"

Most difficult for the expatriates is their feeling of being misunderstood by Americans, and their inability to have an impact on United States policies. "I look at the news, and it reminds me of when I was in jail in Israel, and I feel so sad, just terrible that we can't do anything from this country," says Kassis. "All I can do is talk to the media or have a peaceful protest in the street; but after Sept. 11 it's hard for an Arab person to go in the streets and make his voice heard in the U.S."

For most of these expatriates, Sharon is a reviled figure; in their view the violence in the Middle East is mainly the fault of the Israelis and their brutal occupation. When asked about the problem of suicide bombing, and the culpability of the Palestinians in this current mess, most expatriates shrug their shoulders. "Israel has tanks, planes, every new technology to defend themselves. The Palestinians have nothing but very light arms," says Kassis. "Israel put the Palestinians in the corner; this is their only hope out."

But not everyone assigns all the blame to the Israelis. Nimat Alla Sayegh, a Palestinian-born Christian refugee who has been in the United States for two years, runs the T&J corner store in San Francisco's Bernal Heights. On Sunday, he called his brother in Ramallah to wish him a happy Easter, and found that his relatives hadn't left their home in 10 days. "My brother was scared. His children could only sit inside looking out the window," says Sayegh. "There is no electricity, the food is gone, the water gone. There's no medication. Everything is closed. My sister told me her husband doesn't even have cigarettes!"

Sayegh is more willing to blame both sides for the current debacle, though he is more forgiving of Arafat than of Sharon. "Both sides are too crazy, but Arafat doesn't have anything to do with the violence. Not now, not before," he says. "I don't like the war, I don't like the killing; I don't like Arabs going to Israel and making explosions, either. It's not the right way."

This, at least, everyone agrees upon. Despite the anger about the current horror in Ramallah, the expatriates still believe there is a chance for peace -- though they doubt it will happen while Sharon is in power, since peace must involve serious concessions by Israel, and Sharon has seemed unwilling to make any. "The Arabs are very willing to give Israel peace and security and normalization if and only if the Israeli people tell Sharon and the Israel government that they need peace with the Arab people, and that they have to give the West Bank," says Kassis. Or, as Kishek says, "We have to get the Palestinians and the Israelis together. But without Sharon!"

Kishek stands by his rubber-band ball, exhausted by his diatribe, and by the year's unhappy events. But he still has faith, he says, that Israel will negotiate peace with the Palestinians and give them their homeland. "God will help the true people, we will find out who is going to be wrong and who is going to be right," he says. "How many times were they going to kill Arafat? But God let him stay. You know what I mean? He fell out of a helicopter, didn't die: He's a survivor. So God knows the truth, then. The Palestinians have the right to be in Palestine!"

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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