A tale of two miseries

It was my first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. But, coming after the killing of Sheikh Yassin, it was a kind of sped-up course in fear and loathing.

Published March 27, 2004 1:57AM (EST)

I have just spent two days with decent and intelligent people, Palestinians and Israelis, who because of the stupidity of their leaders and the shameful folly of my government are living a life I would not wish on a dog.

5:40 p.m. at the Calandia checkpoint. A grimy, garbage-strewn no man's land. This is where you have to pass through if you want to go from Jerusalem to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, or back. I have just been to Ramallah, two days after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Everybody's scared, but nothing has happened yet. As an American I can make this trip, although no Americans do -- the Palestinian territories do not figure prominently in most guidebooks. Israelis can't. And Palestinians have to.

The middle of the road is scorched black where soldiers and enraged demonstrators clashed yesterday. As we approach the checkpoint a little group of kids, 10 or 12 years old, are shouting and gesticulating and taunting and throwing rocks at some Israeli troops 50 yards away, on higher ground, silhouetted in the fading sun behind rolls of barbed wire. One of the Israeli soldiers suddenly moves forward aggressively and the kids fall back.

Walid Batrawi, the Palestinian journalist who has been my guide to Ramallah and set up interviews, sizes up the situation for a few seconds, making sure it's safe for me to go. He tells me it's OK, asks me to call him when I get back safely to my hotel. I get out of his car and start walking with the rest of the crowd toward the checkpoint, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. I haven't yet heard that Hamas has recanted its threat to start targeting Americans. Besides, I don't know enough not to be scared. Or maybe if I knew more I'd be more scared. Who the hell knows. Keep your head down, keep walking, and thank God for being half Japanese.

It's warm in the dusk and the air is filled with diesel fumes. I can't stop looking at the silhouetted soldiers against the sunset -- guys with machine guns in the deepening dusk. An endless stream of people, carrying plastic bags or empty-handed, are going in both directions. They are Palestinians. This is their commute. If the traffic gets backed up, if the checks are heavy, it can take hours. The ground is dirty, covered with broken paving stones, random barriers, plastic junk.

An Israeli military truck clatters by and I look up and for a second my eyes lock with those of a young soldier -- the kind of sensitive, skinny Jewish nerd with glasses I grew up with. What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this? We ought to be playing hoops, you burning my ass with your slick fake to the hole and your automatic 17-foot J, or me turning you on to Nietzsche. History isn't supposed to come out like this. You deserve better, and so do these people you rule.

We cross over to the left side and enter a kind of covered ramp at the end of which stand Israeli soldiers. People pull out their identity cards and are waved through. As an American I arouse a few seconds of curiosity, then I too am waved through.

I am left standing for 20 minutes there, waiting for my taxi, as a hideous traffic jam of trucks and cars piles up and people scurry past in the fading light. Two guys are pushing an enormous piece of furniture from one side to the other. The soldiers watch it all. It's just another day at the checkpoint.

I saw a lot of things in Ramallah and heard a lot of stories. I went to the Muqata, Arafat's ruined compound, where the Israeli tanks smashed through walls two years ago and blasted everything except the few rooms he was in. Arafat, as mindful of visual propaganda as the Israelis, has intentionally left most of the devastation intact. So at one corner of his compound the walls are falling off, plaster and rebar sticking out crazily, jagged shell holes and bullet holes in the walls. Right behind the courtyard from which you enter his lair is a whole wall of smashed cars, run over by tanks, twisted into bizarre shapes. Even the doorway is a "Waiting for Godot" stage set, crazy tarps draped over sandbags. It's the world's most effective industrial-nihilist-romantic-revolutionary art installation, except it's too obvious. (Tear off the red badge of courage, Yasser, and do something for your people or get out. I don't know what they're telling you, but they're telling me they don't believe in you or your Palestinian Authority anymore.)

I saw the place where the Israelis gratuitously piled up an entire mountain of dirt across a road that was the only Ramallah access for dozens of Palestinian villages to the north, so that everyone -- kids and old ladies and sick people -- had to climb over or around it. (It was gratuitous because it served no security function, as the Israelis themselves tacitly admitted when they later removed it.)

I explored Bir Zeit University, where fresh-faced kids who look just like their U.S. and Israeli counterparts were doing homework together and giggling and learning to do TV broadcasts and radio and edit stories and who greeted an American visitor politely, while a few other equally fresh-faced young people were gathered outside underneath the green Hamas banner, listening to a passionate broadcast.

I met with Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi, whose house is across the street from the Muqata. After a precise political analysis of the situation, this elegant and refined woman -- I believe she studied English literature -- gestured out across her well-appointed office in her nice modern building and said, "We are in a state of collective pain and trauma constantly. Sitting here it's very deceptive. I'm traumatized. We all are. We need to step back, to have some normalcy, some semblance of real planning and serious thought. I have to steal the time to be able to think, to analyze, to write. Otherwise you're always in a mode of crisis management, in a mode of trying to overcome your own anger, your own sense of injustice, your own grievance, your own victimization. It's exhausting, it's debilitating. And yet I'm not the one whose house is demolished or children have been killed. My house has had to be renovated four times. We had our windows and doors blown in. We had the stones from the Muqata flying in. They destroyed the garden. And you have to keep rebuilding the garden, making your investment in life, as opposed to the death that you see. We keep planting trees on the sidewalk, and they keep uprooting them, and we keep replanting them. It's a battle, but you have to show that you have a commitment to life."

The next day, Ashrawi joined 60 other prominent Palestinian intellectuals in calling on the public not to retaliate for the killing of Sheikh Yassin with more violence. "Resistance does not have to be violent resistance," she said.

I saw the wall -- and yes, for much of its length it is indeed a wall, not a "fence" or a "security barrier" as Israeli euphemism would have it -- running through the middle of Palestinian land, many miles from the 1967 "Green Line," Israel's internationally accepted border, where it would have to run to have any moral or legal legitimacy.

And, of course, I heard about people losing their homes, and people losing their children, and people being killed.

Many of these things are of course of far greater significance than a simple checkpoint. But it is the checkpoint that I will remember, because it's the only one I lived, if only for half an hour. It will remain, for me, a small vision of hell, like an obscure background in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Those silhouetted figures with guns, that smell of diesel fuel, the debris, the blank look of poor people fumbling for their papers, making their way home. One of the outer circles of hell, to be sure. But I felt in my bones it was not right. And as an American, I will carry that memory as a badge of shame. Because I pay for it, I support it. That soldier in the twilight is me.

Thursday, 1 p.m. I am driving through the modern, Jewish part of Jerusalem, with Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, two Israeli authors and journalists. They point out where the 1967 borders of Jerusalem were, where the city expanded on what was Jordanian territory. They take me to their neighborhood of Gilo, where Palestinian sniper fire from across the valley forced the authorities to build a bulletproof wall. "We used to jog here," Yehuda says. "Now we don't anymore." From the hilltop you can see the nearby town of Bethlehem. "We used to drive there, go shopping -- they had really good markets," he says. "That was six or seven years ago. We can't anymore. We wouldn't dare go there."

They describe hearing the sirens from their house, knowing if there are more than a few that something terrible has happened. It quickly becomes clear: The terror attacks have taken over their lives completely.

As we head back toward downtown, Eilat points to a nondescript bus stop on the right. "About a year and a half ago they blew up that bus -- more than 20 people were killed. Mostly young students who go to the university. The No. 32 bus." A few seconds later she points to the other side of the road. "There were two bombings over there," she said. "Both parents of two small children were killed."

Yehuda pulls up behind a stopped bus ahead. "If I have to drive next to a bus, I'm very nervous," he says. "I try not to show it, but I try to get away as soon as possible." They are giving me a tour of the city, not a Death Tour of atrocities. They are not propagandists. But this is their city, this is the street they drive down to work, and of course they have to mention that at that cafe six months ago, a Palestinian kid blew up himself and a dozen other people, that that spot there was where a kid was saved because he was standing next to his uncle. One woman who was only lightly wounded in an attack, a well-known writer, has been unable to get out of bed for two months and cannot take care of her children.

The great Israeli journalist Amira Hass, the only Israeli reporter who lives in Ramallah or indeed anywhere in the occupied territories, said Palestinians wanted Israelis to suffer as they are suffering. They are succeeding.

We go by the Moment Cafe, a young people's hangout. It was blown up recently. An armed guard stands outside. Armed guards stand everywhere.

Eilat and Yehuda say that making the simplest decisions, like where to eat, or whether to go out at all, involves agonizing calculations. I know a little what they feel from my few days of ignorance, parachuting in full paranoid regalia into Israel two days after the biggest escalation in the conflict in years, pouring a few drinks down before wandering around the Old City at night. But it isn't the same, of course. "It isn't about how good the food is, or is there parking," he says. "It's all about whether you think a bomber will go there. So you try to think --'Should I go late?' But you can never be sure."

We drive through Mea Shearim, a big ultra-orthodox neighborhood. They point out that there's a heavy Brooklyn connection here and explain to me that secular Israelis used to come on organized tours here to soak up their past in surreal, ghostly fashion.

We go on past the prime minister's office, which appropriately looks very military. You almost expect to see a gun barrel pointing out the window. We have not yet talked about politics, but Eilat whispers, "We have never voted for him." They point out a little tent city where desperately poor single mothers have been protesting the harsh economic policies of Benyamin Netanyahu, the former extreme-right prime minister who is waiting in the wings should Sharon fall. Netanyahu is supported by the Oriental, or Sephardic, Jews, Yehuda says. "It's all family -- you don't go against your father." Neither Sharon and Netanyahu can ever be displaced, he says, because of their overwhelming popularity with Oriental Jews, who are in general less educated and more politically right-wing than the Ashkenazim. Plus, Yehuda points out, the Russian Jews who were imported in great numbers a few years ago hate communism and are a natural constituency for Netanyahu's Bush-style crony capitalism. "This country is becoming like a Third World place -- more and more people are either very rich or poor," Eilat says.

We visit Yad Vashem, which commemorates the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Children's Memorial, which opens with a few heartbreaking faces of the more than 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis, then moves into a reflecting tunnel in which candles in opaque mirrors create the illusion of an infinite universe of lost stars, is almost unbearable.

Outside Eilat and Yeshuda point out the enormous amount of construction going on and note the irony that the only thing that's being built in Israel is more commemoration of suffering.

We eat lunch in a gorgeous outdoor restaurant overlooking a verdant valley. "It's too far out to be bombed," Yehuda says wryly, although Eilat notes that some Palestinian workers have clearly tipped off bombers to the location of certain obscure places, because one illegal club was bombed. They talk about how whenever they enter a restaurant, they think hard about where to sit, whether it's better to be near the entrance or deeper inside. "A very smart woman lawyer told us she figured out that you should sit by the kitchen door, even though that's a bad table, because you can get out the back way," he says.

Over pasta Alfredo with mushrooms, I ask the question. "From talking to Palestinians and studying this issue, I think it's pretty clear that a solution is attainable," I say. "Yes, the problem originated in 1948. An injustice was done to Palestinians when the state of Israel came into existence. And there's a lot of fear because of that. But based on what was agreed at Taba, on the Saudi plan, on the Geneva plan, it's clear that the Palestinians are prepared to accept the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace. The refugees issue can be worked out --- they know Israel isn't going to take all of the Palestinians back. They already just about solved Jerusalem. In effect, they're prepared to say, 'We'll give you 1948 -- give us 1967.' So why isn't the Israeli public pressuring Sharon, who has no intention of giving the Palestinians the minimum they need, to make peace?"

Yehuda shakes his head. "Israelis are so terrified that they can't think clearly," he says. "In a tragic time you can't think reasonably or be courageous. When we interviewed the writer Alain de Botton, he said, 'If you're looking for new ideas, don't sit in your room. Get on a train or an airplane.' But Israelis don't move. They think there's nothing they can do. They don't even know how much the situation is affecting them."

"And people don't trust the Palestinians," Eilat adds. "They don't believe that they will really be satisfied with the land -- they will want to destroy Israel."

The sheer number of suicide attacks has dulled Israeli attitudes, Eilat says. "People used to call from Tel Aviv after a bombing to see if we were OK. Now they don't." Nor do TV and radio any longer stop all their programming for special programs for a whole evening after a bombing: "You can have a bus bombing at 8, and by 10 the Miss World pageant or whatever is on again," Yehuda says. In a tiny country like Israel, where everybody knows everybody, this is a monumental change.

But familiarity doesn't mean people are getting used to it, Eilat says: On the contrary, it feels like it is getting closer. The situation is intolerable, but people are afraid to change anything because they're afraid it'll get worse.

Walid Batrawi told me that after the Israelis killed Yassin, he couldn't bear to watch the news. It made it impossible to function, he said. Yehuda and Eilat said pretty much the same thing. "When we heard, in the morning, we went right back to bed and slept for three hours," she says.

"Israelis are not even watching the news much anymore," Yehuda says. "And there's a decrease in the readership of papers. There used to be 10 papers -- now there are three. A major soap opera started running right against the news, at 8:05 -- and it worked. So people are not knowledgeable, they're not informed, they're just distracting themselves. And that is not a way to think clearly about the situation. They are being driven crazy and they are shutting off their minds. And when buses are being blown up, they don't criticize their government."

Hanan Ashrawi said almost exactly the same thing: "When they are assassinating people, no one can criticize the leadership."

Later, back in my decrepit hotel room on the Mount of Olives (where Christ suffered the agony in the Garden) overlooking the great golden Dome of the Rock, rising up in the center of a piece of land so tiny and so contested you half-expect it to simply turn into antimatter and vanish into a black hole, I thought about the special madness of this conflict. The squalor and humiliation endured by all Palestinians every day -- and the constant possibility of sudden violence -- was light-years removed from the roulette-wheel paranoia hanging over the nice, familiar middle-class streets of Jerusalem. But for both sides, the situation was unbearable. Just putting my toe in it for two days -- the killing of Sheikh Yassin was a kind of sped-up course in fear and loathing -- made me feel like I was starting to lose it. These people live it. They can't fly away.

An impasse, a void of mistrust, separates these bitter enemies. Israelis feel that they can trust no one; understandably, they will never let anyone threaten their survival again. Tragically, the circumstances that made them survivors may also have prevented many of them from grasping what the creation of their state did to the Palestinians. And the terror attacks, of course, ended that possibility. Palestinians, for their part, have been so ground down by far worse poverty, oppression and endless misery than Israelis that they have been driven to extremes. A movement that has begun sending unwitting children to their death has lost its moral bearings and is in danger of never regaining them.

Their leaders are bankrupt. Sharon is a cunning, ancient warlord, who registers the atavistic, shell-shocked fears of his countrymen and maneuvers cleverly, stalling, stalling, stalling. Arafat, comfortable and smug, has turned into a hideous statue of a Heroic Resistance Fighter, incapable of breaking out of his guerrilla mode. These men are not capable of making peace.

But both the Palestinians and the Israelis I talked to agreed that there was one party who could break the deadlock: the United States. "It's like two people fighting," Yehuda said. "You need someone from the outside to step in and break it up." Every Palestinian I talked to agreed -- but most had become so despairing of a reasonable U.S. policy that they didn't even bother to bring it up. Clearly they'd grown weary of grasping at vain hopes. Mention of Bush brought a bitter grimace, sometimes the dark smile of a gunfighter. This man is detested.

With its unique leverage over Israel, the United States could immediately broker a peace deal if it so chose. But this would mean taking on Sharon, and no American politician is willing to do this. But what American leaders, and the support-whatever-Sharon-says crowd who have intimidated those leaders, need to understand is that they are not helping Israel; they are destroying it. And they are doing something else: They are making us hated across the Middle East and the entire Muslim world. This is a much bigger miscalculation, in the age of global terror, than even Bush's Iraq debacle.

The issues involved here are bigger than just the Palestinians and the Israelis. For the last two weeks I have been traveling around the Arab world, visiting Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan as well as Israel and the occupied territories. The Arab people are unbelievably kind and generous to a rare American visitor -- and they are simply bewildered by our stance on the Arab-Muslim world in general and Israel and the Palestinians in particular. "I know Americans are kind people," said Mohammad, who drove me down to the Roman ruins and Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon. "But why your government do these things?" I heard this again and again, from Cairo to Beirut.

Every American policymaker, every American who cares about human rights, or justice, or Israelis, or Palestinians, or Jews, or Muslims, or the Holy Land (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site in Christianity, was empty when I visited), or just naked don't-blow-me-up self-interest, should come to the Calandia checkpoint. They should come to the rubble-strewn streets on the outskirts of Ramallah. They should stand at the No. 19 bus stop. This is not their problem: It is our problem. And then they should walk through the gates and into the Old City of Jerusalem, that divine gray maze that all three great faiths regarded as the center of the world and the terrestrial link with heaven, and see how hollow a man's prayers ring when he has not done what is needed.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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