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And Darkness Covered the Land | The Nation

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And Darkness Covered the Land

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Rehavam Ze'evi was a young officer in the elite Palmach during Israel's 1948 War of Independence when he draped a sheet over his body one day, climbed on a goat and rode it into the mess hall. The barber had just shaved Ze'evi's head, so the skinny fighter with the wire-rim glasses bore a striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist. The nickname stuck. But as he told me in Jerusalem in one of his last interviews before Palestinian gunmen fatally shot him, "Of course, the nickname Gandhi has nothing to do with my views."

Christine Dugas helped in reporting this article. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Robert I. Friedman
Robert I. Friedman has written extensively about the Middle East. His most recent book is Red Mafiya: How the Russian...

Gandhi, who was Israel's tourism minister, also headed the Moledet Party, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs. "I believe there is no place for two people in our country," he said. "Palestinians are like lice. You have to take them out like lice."

Gandhi's assassination in October marked the first time a Cabinet minister or Knesset member had been killed in the long war with the Palestinians. A special session of the Knesset was convened and a black sash was placed on his chair. "His legacy we will fulfill," intoned Sharon. "May God avenge his blood." The education minister immediately called for Gandhi's "legacy" to be included in the school curriculum.

Even left-wingers mourned his death. "It is another one of those mornings that make you crazy," Yossi Sarid, the head of the opposition left-wing Meretz Party told reporters. "I'm utterly devastated by this murder.... We did have moments of personal closeness and affection."

Despite his openly racist views, Gandhi was akin to royalty. He was a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, a storied warrior in the nation's army. Born in 1926, Gandhi rose to become the head of intelligence in the Palmach, the left-wing commandos nominally under David Ben-Gurion's Haganah (predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF). A general during the Suez War of 1956, Gandhi planted the Israeli flag on Mt. Sinai. A man of imperial tastes, he kept two full-grown pet African lions tethered outside his office when he was military commander of the West Bank in the early 1970s. And he was erudite in Israeli history, having edited some seventy books on the subject.

Shortly before he was murdered, Gandhi bolted the right-wing coalition government, complaining that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was too soft on Arafat. "Arafat is the most evil person for the Jewish people after Hitler," Gandhi said. "Other than Hitler, there is no one else who has caused so much death."

At his graveside, Gandhi's son implored Sharon, "Arik, take revenge the way Gandhi would have avenged you."

Sharon declared that the deliberate targeting of a high-ranking Israeli official had taken the war to a "new level"--beyond the horrors of Palestinian drive-by shootings and suicide bombings. Of course, Sharon didn't see the similarity to his own highly controversial policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders and suspected gunmen in what the United States has denounced as "extrajudicial killings." Sharon gave Arafat a week to turn over Gandhi's killers, and then dispatched tanks to blast their way into six Palestinian towns and villages to hunt for so-called militants. The IDF had itchy trigger fingers. More than forty Palestinians were killed in just a few days, including some civilians who were clearly trying to flee the withering tank and machine-gun fire, according to news accounts.

In death, Gandhi pushed Israel to the hard right. His vulgar ranting about expelling the Palestinians--a call for ethnic cleansing--has become deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche. When Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane was alive a decade ago, spewing his racist venom about expelling the Arabs, the idea was considered taboo and few mentioned it publicly outside his hard-core followers. Now 50 percent of Israelis favor "transferring" the Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Arab countries, according to a recent poll in the mass-circulation daily Ma'ariv.

Israel did not set out to be a right-wing apartheid-state-in-the-making, where Palestinians would be held in bantustans--if they were not expelled. But it is dangerously close to becoming just that. The religious right, with its demagogic dream of Greater Israel, seemingly has won.

 

Life Under Intifada II

 

I first started coming to Israel about twenty-five years ago. On a recent visit, I was struck by the pervasive bitterness and despair. In the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, life goes on, but not as it was before the second intifada--one of the worst calamities to hit the two peoples since the 1948 war.

Until the breakdown of the talks at Camp David in July 2000, many Israelis believed that peace was at hand. It was said that Ehud Barak offered more to Yasir Arafat than any Israeli prime minister before him. The Israelis blamed Arafat for refusing the deal of the century. The Palestinians thought Barak's proposal, which would have cordoned them off into four cantons, was unacceptable. Then one day in September 2000, Ariel Sharon and a delegation of hawkish legislators, accompanied by about 1,000 police and soldiers, took a stroll on the Temple Mount, the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. This move triggered the new intifada, helped bring down the Labor Party and destroyed prospects for peace. The sudden rage of the intifada left Israelis reeling, forcing them to live with the random horror of young Palestinian suicide bombers detonating themselves in pizza parlors and shopping malls. Unlike in the first intifada, which broke out in December 1987, even women and children have been deliberately targeted. So far, at least 225 Israelis have been killed.

In this climate, Israelis have changed many of their daily routines. In West Jerusalem, many people are afraid to go downtown. "It's horrible," says Janet Aviad, a leader of Peace Now. "Downtown Jerusalem is half empty. You can get a parking place anywhere you want. You wouldn't bring babies downtown." Private security guards prowl the shopping malls and the cinemas with a new intensity. Parents insist that their kids take cell phones to school and call when they arrive.

Many Israelis feel betrayed by the Palestinians. The prospect of peace, especially during the years of Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, seemed tangible. Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs who had moved to other countries were coming back to take advantage of potentially profitable new business opportunities. A so-called peace industry sprouted.

"I actually lived in the illusion that Peace Now would close its offices in 2000, and I'd move on to another agenda," Aviad says. "In fact, friends of mine told me, 'Why are you still in this business? We're living in a post-peace age.'"

Mammoth hotels were built by Israeli companies in anticipation of a burst of tourism in the new millennium. But tourism dried up soon after the violence started. Even Israelis are not doing much traveling within the country, fearing Palestinian roadside ambushes. The sparkling-new, posh Novotel and the Olive Tree hotels, which tower over East Jerusalem, are shuttered. Tourism revenues are expected to plummet by two-thirds this year--from $3 billion to less than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the intifada, the lost tourism dollars and the crash of the high-tech industry have sent Israel's economy spiraling into a recession. The recent contraction in the country's GDP is the worst recorded since 1953.

Not surprisingly, many Israelis are considering abandoning the country. "I know from the kids I talk to that if they could get a chance to get a job in the United States, they'd take it," says Aviad. They believe "there's no hope here." In a recent poll, 35 percent of Jews between ages 25 and 34 said they wanted to depart. "People are tired," explained Colette Avital, a dovish Knesset member of the centrist Labor Party. "You get up in the morning and you think, 'What's next? What's going to happen today? It can only be worse than yesterday. There is no way out.'"

As bad as life has become for Israelis, it is far, far worse for Palestinians: Their economy has crumbled; IDF roadblocks prevent Palestinians from getting to work, children from getting to school and the sick from getting to hospitals; missiles and rockets crash through apartment buildings in the middle of the night and tanks rumble down streets maliciously crushing cars. More than 770 Palestinians have been killed and some 16,000 injured by the army and settlers since the onset of the second intifada.

Every Palestinian I talked to was burdened by feelings of sorrow. Yet they have great endurance. I met Laila Atshan, a Palestinian psychologist, for breakfast in October at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. She treats war-related trauma on behalf of the mental-health mission set up by Doctors of the World. Laila is blind, rambunctious, with a laser-sharp wit and a highly infectious laugh. Two nights earlier, she said, she had been at the hotel bar, playing the piano and dancing until 3 am. "It is the first time I had danced in ages," she said. "It was great because it helped relieve my stress."

"I live in Ramallah," she went on. "Being a psychologist, everyone comes to me. My whole life is everyone's problem. And I'm stuck too. I canceled a ticket to the United States after the World Trade Center attack."

Speaking about the intifada, she said, "Violence brings violence. When you put a cat in a corner, it will get violent. People are so cornered economically, to me anything is understandable. A man in Nablus I bought juice from was a suicide bomber. I asked his brother, 'Did he have problems?' And he said, 'Not more than anyone else.'"

One problem that has become even more miserable during this intifada is the daily humiliation Palestinians endure when they pass through Israeli army checkpoints that pepper the occupied territories. They are manned by a rude force of young Israelis, who seem to delight in the discomfort they cause the Arabs. On the road to Ramallah, the checkpoint was bedlam. Palestinians lined up in what appeared to be a lime quarry, waving their documents and screaming at the impassive Israeli soldiers to let them pass through a small, dusty opening for foot traffic. Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian cars and trucks were belching fumes, honking their horns and hardly moving in either direction.

However, a recent report prepared by the IDF's audit department concluded that the checkpoints do not prevent terrorists from entering Israel, their stated purpose. The report actually documented cases of soldiers looting from Palestinians and vandalizing their cars. The senior officers who prepared the report were themselves treated to "arrogant and insulting behavior" by everyone from checkpoint commanders to company commanders, says the report.

Even small children live in dread of Israel's military might. "My daughter is 6 years old," says Samir Saif, an educator from Ramallah, a relatively well-to-do city in a Palestinian autonomous zone. "She is starting to speak to us about politics. She said, 'Let's build a new house for the Jews so they won't occupy ours.' Once at 5 am (after F-16 jet fighters hit a nearby building) she collected her toys and said she was going to Amman [Jordan] because it's safer there. Then she wanted to go to the States, until she realized that they are supporting Israel."

 

A Walk on Temple Mount: The Trigger

 

Even today, nobody really knows why Prime Minister Barak allowed Sharon and his entourage to enter the Temple Mount compound in September 2000. The Israeli police and military intelligence had urged Sharon not to attend his pre-announced cavalcade there. For weeks, they had received reports that his presence would provoke a serious upheaval. Palestinian leaders also begged Barak to bar Sharon from entering the Muslim compound, declaring that it would trigger a religious war. Sharon--the man who "bears personal responsibility" for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, according to an Israeli commission of inquiry--spent an hour walking around the compound. Military helicopters buzzed overhead. He was surrounded by hundreds of policemen. In the waiting crowd below, Sharon's supporters screamed "Death to the Arabs!" and "This is our land!" As predicted, Sharon's actions triggered a massive wave of violence borne of disillusionment with the failed peace talks and the ongoing settlement drive.

The Temple Mount is a stretch of flat, elevated ground just inside the Old City's walls where the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod once stood, and where two Muslim mosques now stand. With its exquisite, blue-tile mosaics and golden dome, the larger of the two Muslim holy places, known as the Dome of the Rock, is the crown jewel of Jerusalem's skyline.

The compound, run by an Islamic trust set up after the Six-Day War in 1967, has long been a bitterly contested flash point between Arabs and Jews. In the 1980s a messianic Jewish underground, which staged bombing attacks on democratically elected Palestinian West Bank mayors and machine-gunned Palestinian students who were eating their lunch at Hebron University, was caught planning to blow up the Muslim holy sites and replace them with the Third Jewish Temple. There have been other, less serious attempts to defile the mosques since then.

Just as ominous, as far as Muslims are concerned, is a messianic Jewish group called Ateret Cohanim (the Priestly Crown). Using large sums of money donated by American Jews, the group has bought buildings near the Dome of the Rock, where young Jewish students who believe that the Messiah's coming is imminent study how to slaughter a red heifer, whose ashes must be mixed with incense and then used to purify the high priests before they enter the newly built Jewish temple. Ateret Cohanim even bought Sharon a large Arab stone house in the Muslim quarter, which he draped with a large Israeli flag.

The disposition of the mosques remains one of the most intractable problems. Palestinians insist that they will never give up East Jerusalem as their capital, and they demand exclusive sovereignty over the Muslim holy places. One top Israeli military intelligence analyst who specializes in Palestinian affairs understands why the Palestinians so desperately cling to their holy places. "What is the Palestinian state?" he says. "It is a miserable, poor dust bowl without any resources save its claim to the Muslim holy places. They are the only reason Palestine would have a voice among the Arab nations."

The cleric in charge of the holy places, Sheik Ikrima Sabri, is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, one of the most influential religious leaders in Palestine. On the evening that I visited him, I was ushered into a room lined with brown velvet chairs and sofas adorned with gold lamé pillows. There were two chandeliers, and on one wall hung a photograph of the Mufti as a much younger man, when his bombastic speeches could send thousands into the streets for days of tumultuous riots. Now, no male under 40 is allowed to come to Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Mufti's speeches are carefully monitored by the Israelis, who have warned him not to incite from the pulpit.

The Mufti entered the room wearing a drab, gold-colored robe over a red shirt and slacks. With his gold-rimmed aviator glasses, gray hair, trim beard and friendly face, he almost looked like Santa Claus. Behind the kindly visage is a fiery religious zealot. The Mufti unabashedly justifies Palestinian suicide bombers, calling them "martyrs" who are "defending their country, their land." A suicide bomber, he explains, "is sacrificing his life to get rid of the occupation."

As far as Jewish rights over the Temple Mount are concerned, he bluntly says, "Jews were here in part of their history, but they themselves can't be sure where their temples were. We believe the Al-Aqsa Mosque is given to us by God." God would never take it away and give it to the Jews, he argues. The Mufti says that if Jews want peace, they should find someplace else to build their long-lost temples. As far as the peace process is concerned, he declares, "there won't be any peace with a person like Sharon because he is to us a terrorist, a criminal."

 

The Betrayal of Oslo

 

The Oslo agreements were a sham. Although the language did not promise a settlement freeze, the understanding on the Palestinian side was that Oslo would eventually lead to Israeli withdrawal from the territories. In fact, the accords turned into a state-run land grab of astounding proportions, leaving many Palestinians feeling that the Israelis had bargained in bad faith. In the eight years since the first Oslo agreement, according to the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, the population of the settlements has grown by 100 percent, to reach some 200,000 (not including East Jerusalem). Housing units have jumped by 50 percent. About forty new settlements were built between 1996 and the 1999 election, the vast majority of them rising after the fall of 1998. The settlers "have political power way beyond their numbers," groans Peace Now leader Janet Aviad. "About 5 percent of the population holds the rest of us hostage."

When Barak came to power there were great expectations among the Palestinians that the building of settlements would cease. Instead, during the Barak years the settlement movement manifested itself in the construction of huge subdivisions within existing settlements. Meanwhile, an expansive system of bypass roads worthy of the German autobahn was cut through the pristine ridges and hillsides of Judea and Samaria so that settlers wouldn't have to drive past Palestinian villages, towns or refugee camps. "During the Oslo years," says Didi Remez, who heads Settlement Watch for Peace Now, "we used to say, there was barely a Palestinian who didn't wake up in the morning and open his window, and not see a deepening of the occupation." Twenty-five new encampments have been established since the election of Sharon this past February. Taken together, the settlements reach out like long fingers that divide the Palestinian areas on the West Bank into three bantustans. In Gaza 6,500 settlers live among 1.2 million desperately poor, increasingly radicalized Palestinians. Some are living in conditions as horrible as any impoverished area in the world. With their clinics and other charitable work, the two main fundamentalist groups--Hamas and Islamic Jihad--are proving to be increasingly attractive alternatives to Arafat and the moribund, systematically corrupt Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, every settlement now has its own native militia, which has mortars, light and heavy-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles. According to current estimates by Israeli military intelligence officials, about 20,000 of these heavily armed settlers would use their weapons against the government if they were told to abandon their homes as a condition of a peace accord. Officials of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, say any prime minister who signed such an accord would be in great physical danger from the kind of extremists who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin in 1995.

David Ramati would rather fight than leave. Ramati lives with his wife and six children in a tiny apartment in Kiryat Arba, one of the most radical settlements on the West Bank. When I visited him in October, he told me that the intifada has taken a toll on him and his fellow settlers. Since it began, seventy-three Israeli settlers have been killed by Palestinians in the territories. In the Kiryat Arba area, several women and children have been gunned down by Palestinian snipers. The night before I met Ramati, Israeli tanks, Apache helicopter gunships and troops had stormed the hills overlooking the Jewish enclaves of Hebron--a short, uphill walk from Kiryat Arba.

"Most of the people [settlers] in the West Bank are suffering from what we in America knew or learned was called posttraumatic stress syndrome," a common affliction suffered by Vietnam vets, says Ramati. "It happens when a population is under constant threat or constant pressure."

Ramati knows something about Vietnam. The Chicago native did two tours with the Marines there. Then he moved to Israel, converted to Judaism, joined an elite unit of the Israeli army and fought Arabs. Ramati denies knowing anything about the infamous Jewish vigilantes who operate out of Kiryat Arba and Hebron. But if Ramati hasn't joined them, he certainly knows who they are. In February 1994 Ramati spent part of the night with Dr. Baruch Goldstein before Goldstein rose early to slaughter twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs. According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, since the beginning of the first intifada in December 1987, 124 Palestinians, among them twenty-four minors, have been killed by settlers and other Israeli civilians. In Hebron and Kiryat Arba, children under the age of 12 have looted Arab shops and committed various acts of vandalism, says Shahar Ayalon, major general in the Israeli police and commander of the Judea and Samaria District. In one instance, Jewish children broke into a mosque in Hebron and desecrated many sacred books, says a top Israeli intelligence official. Israeli law protects children under 12 from prosecution. "Anybody who's rational here sees that if the settlement movement continues to do what it's doing now, there will be a huge cataclysm," says Peace Now's Aviad. That hasn't stopped Sharon, who in the wake of Gandhi's assassination directed that twelve new homes be built in the heart of Hebron.

Just a few days after the Jewish holiday of Succoth, Ramati took me on a tour of the Jewish enclaves of Hebron. The settlers are largely disciples of the late Meir Kahane or of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the founders and messianic leaders of the settlement movement. The streets were nearly empty, and the metal shutters on the Arab stalls in the souk were shut tight. The previous night's fierce fighting had spooked the residents. One female Israeli soldier darted from a bullet-scarred checkpoint to another. Settlers were hunkered down inside their homes.

Ramati took me to several sites where Jewish settlers had recently been killed by Palestinian snipers. We stopped in front of one pockmarked wall. Several months ago, he said, a Palestinian sniper fatally shot a 9-month-old girl. "And then he shot the father through the legs, so that he could lie there on the ground and watch his daughter die. That was pretty cold," said Ramati, a powerfully built man with an overwhelming sense of gloom.

"And then during Succoth, a 50-year-old woman was shot through the chest. She survived. Her daughter was also shot in the legs. And that's what provoked, finally, the Israeli army to take over the area, after ten months of constant sniper fire on the Jewish community."

Once, Ramati dreamed of Jewish-Arab coexistence in the Holy Land. He believed that the Arabs of Judea and Samaria would welcome Jews and that the peoples of Hebron would transcend their differences and become real neighbors. In fact, lots of settlers used to pitch that tune to reporters. But no more. The hatred is palpable on both sides. "The Palestinians are deliberately targeting women and children," Ramati said angrily. "They never did that before."

We glumly continued our walking tour. "This side of the street is all Arabs and this side is all Jews," said Ramati, pointing to the small stone houses that lined the street. "The white stone is Arab, the yellow stone is Jewish. So you see we live, pretty much, up each other's ass."

 

Peace When? The Silence of the Left

 

Although many Israelis still desire peace with the Palestinians, they no longer can expect much from the dysfunctional Israeli left, which imploded soon after the start of the new intifada. The turning point was the horrific TV image, in October 2000, of two young Israeli soldiers being lynched and mutilated by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah. From that point on, the Israeli left was in a bind: How could they push the peace process forward without condoning the intifada? If they condoned it, they would be called traitors. They never figured out a way to explain Palestinian violence and talk about a return to the peace process. "The left turned over every stone and never found an answer," says Lee Perlman, a peace activist who works in the theater department at Tel Aviv University.

In desperation, however, many Israelis on the left and right have turned to a political concept called "separation." It means banning Palestinians from a swath of land next to the Green Line, which divides the occupied territories from the Jewish state. Palestinians who try to cross the buffer zone would be shot. There are said to be at least four variations of the plan floating around the Labor Party. "I hate this word 'separation,'" Yossi Beilin, the justice minister in the Barak government, told me in his Tel Aviv office. "I don't subscribe to it or accept it. But of course we need a border between us and a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state is in our interest."

But many Israeli liberals, fed up with Arafat's inability or unwillingness to stop the terrorism, have moved to the right. Although polls say 55 percent of Israelis still want peace, more than 70 percent approve of Sharon's tough-guy methods. "We've lost our own children to the right," says Janet Aviad, who said that polling data commissioned by the left-wing Meretz Party confirms the trend. "The [peace] train went off the track in a terrible derailment, but people would prefer to get it going again than have this level of violence for generations."

Peace talks are not likely as long as Israel is governed by a coalition headed by Sharon, who is currently being propped up by the centrist Labor Party and Shimon Peres. Labor fractured after Barak's failure at Camp David and his loss to Sharon in the race for prime minister. The party has no appealing young turks. Its most promising rising star, Yossi Beilin, quit Labor after it joined Sharon's government. Beilin said that he was morally opposed to joining a government that included a racist Cabinet minister--Gandhi. He added that he didn't want to provide legitimacy to a Sharon government that is committed to the messianic settlers and the vision of Greater Israel.

Labor dove Colette Avital admits she is torn about Labor's participation in the government. She concedes that Shimon Peres is providing Sharon with international respectability. On the other hand, she says, if the Labor Party wasn't part of the government Sharon would be much more uncontrollable.

Palestinian peace advocates have also been devastated by the lost promise of Camp David. One is Bashar Al Deek, the 27-year-old European desk officer for the Palestinian Legislative Council. I met him in Ramallah at the headquarters of the Palestine National Council. We sat in a large room with leather sofas and drank coffee.

"This intifada is worse than the last one because both of us lost a very important thing," said the soft-spoken, thin young man. "We had put in a big effort to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians, and it was demolished. It's a disaster. It's not just a matter of closures and shootings and shellings. The whole thing started when the Israeli people lost a great leader, Rabin. And after they lost Rabin, they lost the whole peace process. We had another two to three years after his death, but the intifada and end of the process were a natural result of his death.

"We gave up a lot" when we recognized Israel, he continued. "For us it was a big loss. We agreed in order to have at least a place to build a state. It's not a matter of one meter here or there. It's a matter of building an economy and trust between peoples. It takes a lot of courage to sign such an agreement. It's not easy for a Palestinian man to say, 'I won't have anything to do with Haifa and Jaffa and Tel Aviv.'"

For a short moment in time, Al Deek and his comrades in the PA were not feared by Israelis. Grassroots contacts between the two sides were extensive. "Once I traveled to Japan," he said. "I was invited by the foreign affairs ministry. It was 1999. I was part of a group of seven or eight Palestinian young people who met with a group of young Israelis. I felt we could have good relations. And even here in Jerusalem we later had a celebration and exchanged pictures and videos from our trip. We talked about the Tokyo spirit. We could have contacts and e-mails until last summer."

The intifada put an end to those relationships. "It's so hard to be occupied and say, Stop the violence," Al Deek said. "The Israeli people can express themselves. They are free to say what they want. I asked myself, Where are our friends in Israel? Where is the peace camp?

"But if I say 'Stop the violence,' they [the Palestinians] will say I'm a betrayer. I believe in peaceful struggle. If you say that in a loud voice, you'll be hurt and no one will listen. I'm so sad that the Tokyo spirit has gone out with the wind. We need the Tokyo spirit in such a stage. We need a loud voice to say 'Stop the violence.'"

 

Palestinians: No Way Out

 

Deep inside the occupied territories are Palestinian towns and villages where there is no nostalgia about the broken peace process, where the contacts with Israelis have produced only nightmares and memories of brutality. One such place is Huwara, a dusty village of 4,000 Palestinians near Nablus. I drove there one day with Laila Atshan and other members of Doctors of the World. It looked like a ghost town. In fact, it was under curfew. The streets were deserted; shops were closed. When we pulled up near an elementary school to park, there was an old wrinkled woman sitting in a doorway by the side of the road. "The only ones who remember God are the disadvantaged," she said. "If you're defeated and disadvantaged then you remember God. Otherwise no one cares."

Huwara, I was to learn, has the misfortune of being sandwiched between four radical, particularly nasty Israeli settlements. In November of 2000 a group of settlers stormed the village around 1:30 in the morning and torched the mosque. They broke a side window and threw in a Molotov cocktail. It hit the carpet and everything burned inside, including the Korans. "The fire was tremendous," said a villager named Ali who was surrounded by a group of his friends in the small community center. "In ten minutes the settlers managed to do their task and escape under the protection of the soldiers." The mosque was badly damaged. "We called the fire department in Nablus and the soldiers wouldn't let them come through," said one of Ali's friends. "It's only five minutes away, but they wouldn't let them come."

The villagers described a litany of horrors: Two months ago settlers tried to burn the local gas station and ended up burning a car and truck. They uprooted about 500 olive trees; they stole horses and mules; they poisoned a flock of sheep; they burned down the cornfields. "Just yesterday afternoon settlers were throwing rocks at villagers," said one of the men as he fondled his cell phone. "So the soldiers sit and watch until there is a reaction from us, and then they intervene. Often young men go to protect houses under attack, and soldiers start to shoot. They use live bullets."

Laila and I walked into an elementary school classroom next to a courtyard that was brightly painted with Mickey Mouse and other Hollywood cartoon characters. We were joined by a teacher, three mothers and a small group of children. It is very unusual for traditional village women to speak to a Western reporter. But they were articulate and angry. "Because of its location, on the way to Nablus, Huwara used to be a commercial center," said one woman. "Now it's dead because of the closures. Ninety percent of the men are unemployed. Since the intifada they've been doing absolutely nothing." Another woman complained that because their men feel helpless, they turn their rage against their wives, and there is a high incidence of domestic abuse. Some families go hungry, but the men are too proud to admit it. And children are in need of clothes and school supplies. Laila came to give therapy to a group of mothers who are stressed out by the intifada, but because the town was under curfew, they couldn't come. "We are very isolated," said another woman. "Honestly, everyone is destroyed psychologically. We are close to an explosion."

Karima, whose name means "generous," is 11. She has wavy hair worn in a braid, and strands keep falling into her face. She has a beautiful smile. Laila told us that after Karima's mother died of a heart attack, her father took his sons and moved to Hebron, leaving Karima to live with her grandmother.

"I feel angry when the Israelis don't let us go to school," Karima said, referring to the frequent curfews. "The soldiers are here because they are occupying all of Palestine. They are greedy."

Adham is in the eighth grade. He is thin and taller than his classmates, with a stern expression. "We feel that when they cut down the olive trees they are cutting our lives off," he said. "We have to keep fighting even if many are hurt. Our parents shouldn't hold us back from resisting. Parents try to keep us back, but we throw stones. We get a scolding."

On March 3 Adham lost a cousin, who was killed in an ambush by soldiers, according to a report prepared by B'Tselem. Adham says the soldiers were dressed in Arab clothing. "One bullet hit his heart and one hit his eye," said the child.

Ahmad's father is a construction worker who has been unemployed since the intifada began. I asked Ahmad, 11, why he thinks the Israelis won't go away. "Because we have fertile land and it has historical importance. And they want to occupy Jerusalem. I don't believe Arafat can solve the problem. I think he's scared of the Israelis. They have advanced weapons and we have only rocks.

"We're not allowed to give up Jerusalem," he went on. "That's what the prophets say. Al-Aqsa is the most beautiful part of Palestine. It's a place we want to be our capital. There is no way to live in peace with the Israelis because they're cheaters."

"If Sharon came here, what would you do?" I asked.

"Before we could even kick him out he'd be dead. If I ever see Sharon I'd like to torture him."

It's no wonder Palestinians despise Sharon. He is the godfather of the settlement movement, the butcher of Beirut and the master of a brutal and relentless occupation. Sharon's requirement that Arafat must enforce a seven-day ceasefire before he will enter into negotiations is a charade. This prerequisite places the Palestinian leader in an impossible situation. Arafat does not have absolute control of the Palestinian streets, nor does he control the Islamic extremists any more than Sharon controls the violent Jewish settlers. Even if Arafat could control terrorism, Sharon has never shown any real intention of bargaining in good faith and allowing the Palestinians to realize their goal of statehood.

Sharon is trying to undermine the Palestinian Authority and delegitimize Arafat. If the US government didn't hold him back, many observers believe, he'd assassinate the Palestinian leader. Recently, however, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Sharon told a visiting diplomat, "We could cause the collapse of the PA and send them all to hell, but we're working slowly, in order to prevent a deterioration of the situation."

Sharon, who opposes a Palestinian state, is very cunning. He knows that the longer the intifada drags on, the more entrenched the extremists on both sides will become and the harder it will be to restart the peace process. He has reportedly stated that he would eventually like to install a quisling Palestinian leadership that wouldn't press him to give up too much territory--in particular, Jerusalem and the holy places--in a final negotiated settlement. Sharon's attempt to demonize Arafat--calling him "our bin Laden"--only strengthens the Palestinian fundamentalists, who call for Israel's destruction. If they take power from Arafat, the intifada will become a jihad in which both sides would be enormous losers.

While Sharon continues to place obstacles in the path of negotiations, the situation on the ground is degenerating. On November 22 five Palestinian children walking to school were blown apart when they stepped on an Israeli booby trap. During a demonstration at their funeral the following day, Israeli soldiers killed a boy during clashes.

Meanwhile, Israeli settlers are picked off in roadside ambushes. And looming over Israel is the ever-present threat of more horrific suicide bombings like the ones that rocked Jerusalem and Haifa in early December.

As evil as terrorism is, however, it doesn't represent an existential threat to Israel. The absence of peace does. Without peace that would result in a viable Palestinian state, Israel will soon be ruling over a hostile majority-Palestinian population, and then "the situation will deteriorate in a very short time into hell," says Yossi Beilin. "I don't know what kind of hell, but it will be hell."

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