December 3, 2000
Correspondence/From Peace to War;
The Dubious Privilege Of Living on Two Sides of a Chasm
BYLINE: By DEBORAH SONTAG
ON the day that an angry mob lynched two
Israeli soldiers in downtown Ramallah, I watched shortly afterward as
Palestinian youths danced there in the freshly spilled
blood. The next day, still reeling from the electric madness
in that air, I traveled a world away to a sandy cemetery in coastal
In a thick crowd, as the traditional mourning prayer was intoned in Hebrew, I struggled to avoid being knocked off balance onto a grave. One of the two soldiers killed in Ramallah was lowered into the ground; his grief-stricken brother crawled through the dirt toward his coffin. The elderly woman beside me grabbed my notepad and sketched a message: a broken heart with jagged edges.
From outside the cemetery walls, the ugly chant of a ragtag parade grew audible: "Death to the Arabs." The previous day's chant, "Death to the Jews," still echoed in my ears.
What a dizzying and sometimes dubious privilege to be privy to the extreme passions on both sides of this conflict. To each side, at this moment, there is only one truth. But we foreign journalists go back and forth between that one truth on the Israeli side and that one truth on the Palestinian side, wearing our bulletproof vests.
Once -- was it just over two months ago? -- we traveled between Israel and the West Bank, Israel and Gaza in plentiful company. There were Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, politicians, artists, gamblers, shoppers, tourists and peaceniks crossing between the two sides. Now, all that traffic has screeched to a halt, leaving Israeli and Palestinian associates on separate banks of a deepening trench of misunderstandings. Shuttling that chasm, there is no one but us, and the diplomats in their armored vehicles.
"Eetonayim," we tell the Israeli soldiers at the blockades, "journalists." It is our password -- sometimes respected, sometimes not. "Meshuga!" one young soldier told me, circling his index finger by his temple as he waved me through to Ramallah with his gun. "You're nuts!"
So much has unraveled so quickly here that we are physically, geographically and socially disoriented. We need maps -- unavailable -- to guide us through the new reality. You can't take a left after the orange orchard any more because the Israelis have bulldozed it. You can't take a right because the Palestinian youths are burning trash barrels. We used to love quick, spontaneous jaunts from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for hot tea, spiced with fresh mint, at the new Intercontinental Hotel. Now that tiny trip can turn into a harrowing journey between two tunnels on a highway that is sometimes a shooting gallery.
One Friday afternoon, after a funeral, my colleague Rina and I were in Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem just before dusk as Israeli helicopters hovered overhead and Israeli tanks encircled the city. The streets, still adorned with last year's Christmas decorations, turned ghostly as word traveled that an Israeli soldier had been killed at Rachel's Tomb and the Israelis might retaliate. Alone, we drove through the empty city, which was to have become the centerpiece of Palestinian tourism, holding our breath that nothing would fall on our heads. The next day, back in Jerusalem, a friend, Khaled, told me, "Now you know what it feels like to be a Palestinian!"
In the coastal cemetery I had been told something very similar: now you know the burden of being Israeli.
TWO and a half years ago, when we moved here, this was considered to be an attractive family assignment, crime-free and compact. Security cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians had almost eliminated terrorism. Small children walked to the corner store by themselves; journalists could drive from one end of the Israeli and Palestinian territories to the other and back home to sleep that night. Through all its convulsions, the peace process, inaugurated in Oslo in 1993, was believed by the majority of locals and foreigners to be an inexorable process.
Now, however, my 7-year-old daughter, who was born with a talent for the deepest sleep, often stirs and moans through the nights in our West Jerusalem apartment. How could she not? There is the rat-a-tat of machine guns, the booms of tank and helicopter shelling, the wailing of sirens, the copycat howls of car alarms.
In the morning, blissfully amnesiac of her nighttime panic, my daughter and her little brother eat their Special K out of their Arthur the Aardvark bowls. We listen carefully for the honking of their school bus, but it comes late these days, if at all. Bassam, the driver, lives in Beit Jala, the Palestinian town that has been the object of nightly Israeli shelling in retaliation for the routine gunfire from there on the Israeli suburb of Gilo.
Sometimes, Bassam is red-eyed from lack of sleep. "What can you do?" he says. Many in his neighborhood are terrorized by the gunmen who have used their whitewashed hillside town as a base of operations for their attacks on Israel; they are paying the price. Sometimes, Bassam cannot make it through the Israeli checkpoint to report to work.
The school bus is very empty, because the school, an international school, is very empty. A third of the students have been evacuated to their home countries. Two Serbian sisters, my daughter's good friends, were flown back to Belgrade to live with their grandparents; two years ago, the grandparents had been flown to Jerusalem for their safety. Some of the Palestinian children cannot get past Israeli blockades, so the school has posted the daily lessons on a Web site.
Deeply entrenched in his superhero fantasy world, my son, 4 1/2, is nonetheless aware and wary. He is the only one of us who is trilingual. He went to an experimental nursery school, where half the children were Israeli, half Palestinian. Comfortable in Hebrew and in Arabic, he makes dreidels of clay and mosques of blocks. At home, he plays with his downstairs neighbor, Itai, a mischievous imp who has a hard time keeping his kippa on his head. At school, he plays with Ahmed, the grandson and namesake of Ahmed Qurei, known as Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian legislature. He senses that his two friends inhabit separate universes, but he struggles to make sense of that. "Itai is kosher," he says. "Ahmed is Muslim. They can both come to my birthday party, right? Every religion eats cake."
WE are transient here. This is not our conflict. We can escape, fly away to our homeland, Brooklyn Heights. Our children are not Palestinian children who climb into their parents' beds at nights to tremble as the rockets fall perilously close to -- or into -- their homes. Our children are not settler children whose school buses are targets for terrorists or Israelis who will grow up to be soldiers. Our children don't need to get toughened up at a young age, exposed to bloodshed and hatred because that's life. That's not their life.
But even so, even if they have the good fortune to be, existentially, at the periphery of all this ugliness, it permeates their world quite vividly. "Mama, did you know we heard a bomb at school today?" my daughter says. She doesn't ask and doesn't want to know anything more, like the fact that it killed two Israelis two blocks from her school, during gymnastics club. With both arms, she safeguards her world, which is shrunken to keep her away from crowded public spaces that might be choice sites for a bomber or disputed territory that the American government warns Americans away from. No more Fun-Fun indoor play space or movies, since they're both in malls; no more play dates at Julie's house in Gilo; no more meandering explorations through the Old City.
Life looks pretty ugly when you bear direct witness to warfare, blood-curdling hatred and chaos of enveloping proportions. I have certainly been shown splattered brain matter one too many times. "Look, look, here you see part of her scalp, too, with hair attached," a Beit Sahour villager told me, holding my hand, after an Israeli assassination of a paramilitary commander accidentally killed two passers-by. "Go, stick your nose inside that bus and breathe deep, smell the blood, the blood of our people," a Jewish settler said, leading me toward a freshly bombed school bus in the Gaza Strip.
During our first two years here, with terrorism at bay, the conflict was no longer front and center for many of our Israeli friends. Instead, they delighted in racing hell-bent toward a "normal life." During a 52-year legal state of emergency, much was neglected -- the environment, the transportation infrastructure, civil rights, etiquette, and so on.
But suddenly, even though a final peace had not been sealed, Israelis felt ready to put parts of their house in order. The justice minister moved to abolish the chronic state of emergency. The environment minister instituted a limited amount of recycling. The heaviness began lifting, especially when the Israeli troops rolled out of southern Lebanon last May. Unimaginably, the army contemplated shortening the three years of obligatory military service, an optimistic plan that like others is now on hold.
For Palestinians, the situation was more muddled. On the streets in the West Bank and Gaza, it was clear that faith in the peace effort was eroding with each passing year, that frustration was building and that conditions for a popular revolt were ripening. But a state-building mechanism was in gear, financed by aid from around the world. Many Palestinians from the diaspora had returned, investing their time, their money, their hopes. Genuine peace could take a generation or more to build, it was thought. But some kind of peace and some kind of state appeared to be on the horizon -- an incomplete state, perhaps, but a state nonetheless.
Within each world, there were critics who said that the peacemaking process was superficial or unjust or out of touch with reality. Some of them were considered cranks or obstructionists or extremists, but unlike many Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and politicians and unlike many foreign diplomats, they were not trying to impose rationality on a conflict that entwines religion and nationalism in a double helix of passions. They understood how quickly the civilizing cloak of peacemaking could fall away to reveal a rent undergarment, a sad, bare, overexposed struggle.
Many Westerners chose to believe that the conflict could be solved because, on behalf of the larger world, they wanted to be done with it. Many of us here, who chronicled the evidence of progress and the efforts at reconciliation, who shopped with the Israelis at the Palestinian crossroads markets, who flew with the proud Palestinians out of their new airport, wanted to believe. We live here, and the hurt and the hopes have gotten under our skin. Like my son we want them all to eat birthday cake, we want Itai and Ahmed around our table blowing party horns and not chanting mourners' prayers.
AT her slumber party last week, my daughter presided over a second graders' discussion of the violence that was heartbreakingly casual. Even in America, she told her friends at the end, there is fighting. She heard it on TV, she said, her blue eyes clear and wide: there's a battle for the presidency. My husband tried to explain to her that battles can be fought with words or at least without guns. And my daughter looked at him like the soldier at the checkpoint had at me: You're nuts.