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The Palestinians: Where To Now?

17 minute read
Matt Rees/Beit Jala

Ata Sarasra crunches slowly over the cracked, gray-marbled tiles and ruptured pipes where his kitchen used to be. A week before, Israeli soldiers came to destroy his seven-bedroom home, a day after his son Hazim, 17, blew himself up in a Jerusalem suicide attack that wounded five Israelis. As the 47-year-old father of five balances himself on the debris of his home, he looks tired. He is worn by a week of mourning for his son, “who died a martyr, thank God,” and for his house. What little sleep he got the previous night at his brother’s home, where his family now stays, was disturbed by the sound of three powerful explosions as the Israelis blew up more homes near his village, Beit Jala.

Ata Sarasra’s house had been born in hope. For two decades, Sarasra, a schoolteacher, worked in the United Arab Emirates, saving his wages to one day build a place in his hometown in the West Bank. Finally, three years ago, encouraged by the prospect of Palestinian self-determination and peace with Israel, Sarasra returned to Beit Jala and built his simple house of cinder block and poured concrete. It was to be a home for his children and the families they would raise in the independent Palestinian state Sarasra thought would come soon. But in one night that idea turned into broken slabs of concrete and contorted rebar strewn through the steep olive groves.

Destroying the homes of Palestinian assailants is Israel’s latest contribution to the escalating battle between the two sides over who can hurt whom more. Actually, it’s an old technique, from the time of the previous Palestinian intifadeh, or uprising, from 1987 to 1993. Israel abandoned the tactic, decried by human-rights groups because it punishes those not involved in violence, after signing the Oslo accords. The return of house demolitions is the latest measure of how, in the 22 months since the Palestinians launched their new intifadeh, the two societies have set back time, erasing the progress of seven years of peacemaking.

That is not to say, though, that the Israelis and Palestinians are back to where they were before Oslo. The last two years of fighting have warped both sides, exacting tolls that go beyond the monstrous body count of 607 Israelis and 1,702 Palestinians dead. For the Palestinians, even before Oslo, there was at least the faith that if they stayed true to their cause, if they refused to bend to Israel’s dictate, they would one day have the elemental right to rule themselves. If they did not know precisely how they would be delivered, they at least knew by whom: Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Although they were trampled as a people, the Palestinians continued to function as families, clans and towns, held together by old traditions.

But the Aqsa intifadeh, as the new uprising is called, has crushed those certainties. No longer do Palestinians trust that history will redeem them. They no longer regard Arafat as their savior. Their understanding of who they are is lost. The old paths have come to a dead end, and no one knows which way now to turn.

Like most Palestinians, Sarasra sees only Israel’s part in the destruction of Palestinian property and aspirations; he cannot or will not examine the role his people have played in laying waste to their community. Though it was Israeli ordnance that destroyed his house, the vicious action of his son Hazim lit the fuse. In fighting the intifadeh, the Palestinians have pulled the walls of their society down on themselves. Like Sarasra, they sit helpless and angry in the detritus of what was, wondering how it will ever be possible to rebuild. “Our problem is so huge,” says Sarasra, “how can anyone even imagine a solution?”


If anyone thought he could protect his children, it was Asad Abu Shouqa, a former Palestinian karate champion and an officer in Arafat’s General Intelligence. But Abu Shouqa could not shield his son Haitham, 14, from his own choices, and the boy chose death. Abu Shouqa’s hands, honed as hard as stone by martial arts, now are knotted into big, clumsy fists, pressing hard against each other. He sweats with the difficulty of controlling his rage as he talks about Haitham. He will not say what he would have told his son, had the boy confessed his plans to his father. “Some feelings I keep to myself,” he growls. His son-in-law whispers later that Abu Shouqa is furious with Haitham for the mission he undertook, but the father, he adds, can’t admit it now that people acclaim the boy as a shahid, a martyr.

Two days before, Haitham had left his home in Sheik Radwan, a neighborhood of Gaza City in which the Islamist militants of Hamas reign, and walked with his friends along the beach. When they reached the edge of the city, near the three Israeli settlements at the north of the Gaza Strip, Haitham produced a knife and a small pipe bomb from his pockets. “I invite you to join me in martyrdom,” he told his companions. His friends declined and watched him continue. He was shot by an Israeli soldier guarding the settlement of Dugit. It is a testament to the popularity of efforts such as Haitham’s that 6,000 people came to the funeral of an otherwise unknown boy to celebrate the 14-year-old as a hero.

Abu Shouqa believes he knows what made his son die so desperately. It was his faith in God, who, the father says, “rewards martyrs in paradise,” and his craving for revenge after so much killing. “Even the stones want vengeance,” says Abu Shouqa, “not just the living.” But there is something more: the feeling that’s growing among Palestinian children–even children with fathers as sturdy as Abu Shouqa–that they must be responsible for their own protection, if not that of the whole community. In the highly patriarchal culture of the Palestinians, the figure of the omnipotent father has been a casualty of the intifadeh.

Early in the fighting, Palestinian children watched countless reruns of news footage that captured the death of Mohammed al-Durra, 12, even as his father used his own body to try to shield the boy from a barrage of bullets. “In their games, children identify with the martyr,” says Dr. Eyyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. Psychologically, he says, “they have left their fathers for the martyrs.” A cult of death has appropriated a Palestinian generation, but a deep fear underlies it. Today, according to Sarraj, 35% of Palestinian children under the age of 15 wet their beds, up from 7% before the intifadeh. Sarraj estimates that 30% of children suffer from post-traumatic stress.

In Arab society, the father is likened to a god; he is called rabb al-‘ayyila, master of the family, just as Allah is rabb al-‘alamin, master of the universe. No more. To men like human-rights advocate Raji Sourani, who withstood years of persecution by the Israelis when they controlled Gaza City and then more by Arafat’s secret police, this is the cruelest blow. When his twins asked for guns, Sourani took them to a toy shop. “I don’t want a toy,” said Basel, 7. “I want a real gun.” “What for?” Sourani asked. “To protect us,” the boy answered. “I’ll protect you. Don’t worry,” the father said. The kids did not swallow it. “You want us to die like Mohammed al-Durra?” Basel replied.


Tinted moon blue in the Gaza night, the streets of Jabalia Refugee Camp are empty, as though the people had been extinguished with the lights. Only the gunmen roam, threatening and black clad, the walking dead who do not expect to survive the Israeli assault for which they wait. At 1 a.m., three gunmen twitch their fingers on their Kalashnikov triggers at the first sight of headlights along the dirt road at the edge of the camp. It is from there that Israel’s tanks last came, killing 17 gunmen who stood sentinel that night, and the tanks will surely come again. Abu al-Fahed stands back as his two comrades question the driver of an old white Renault, in case he is an undercover Israeli. From his accent, they conclude he is Palestinian and let him pass.

Abu al-Fahed wears fatigues and a stocking cap with narrow eyeholes cut into it. Around his brow is a white strip of cloth with black writing: KATA’IB SHUHADA’ AL-AQSA, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah organization that vies with Hamas as the principal orchestrator of attacks on Israelis, including civilians. As the gunmen crouch behind their 15-ft. sand barricade, they shift their feet and their grips on their weapons, on some level wishing that the Israelis would come now and be done with it. “I’m prepared for martyrdom,” Abu al-Fahed, 28, says through his mask. “They kill us anyway, so I may as well resist.”

This hopeless defiance has grown in the Palestinians during the intifadeh. Those who feel it admit they have let go their hold on logic, stopped trying to think of solutions and turned to the welcoming, numbing embrace of death. Men like Abu al-Fahed would have made unlikely martyrs before these two years of bloodshed. With five children, he would not have gone out to die on a suicide mission and leave his family without a wage earner. And though he is religious, like most Palestinians, he is no fundamentalist with dreams of paradise. Jobless because Israel no longer allows laborers like him to enter the country to work, faced with relentless television images of Israeli violence and surrounded by poverty, death and despair, he awaits the order that will end his life. “Every member of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is ready to infiltrate Israeli settlements or be martyred in any operation,” he says quietly, without boastfulness. “These operations are not just to kill Israelis but to make the world pay attention to the suffering of the Palestinians. Though I have children, I am obliged to resist because of all these people who have lost their fathers. I am ready to sacrifice my life so my kids can live in peace.”


The gnats fly up in a dense cloud as Jamil Bakr, 35, tends the fine, tan sardine nets on the Princess Siham. He has worked 20 years on the sea that has sustained his family for generations. “I’m like the fish,” he says. “I can’t leave the sea.” But he is a fish with almost no water. Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian boats have made fishing sometimes dangerous and almost always unprofitable. Before the intifadeh, Gaza Strip fishermen brought in $40 million of fish annually; last year the catch was worth $28 million. The figure is likely to fall further this year, as more of the 2,650 fishermen run out of money to operate their boats.

The Israeli navy patrols the coast off Gaza for weapons smugglers. But it also enforces periodic closures of the sea. The Oslo accords allow Gazans to fish up to 20 miles off the coast. But during the intifadeh, the farthest the Israelis have let them go is six miles. So close to shore, Bakr says, there just aren’t any fish left. The fishermen try to sneak out to where the fish are more plentiful, but the Israelis are vigilant. Usually they arrest a member of the crew for a few days and release him; sometimes they impound boats.

Under such pressure, the tradition of the fisherman is breaking down. Bakr, who sails with his two brothers, has five children, but he believes he will be the last in his family to take to the sea. In a way, that saddens him, given how deeply the trade runs in his blood. Under current circumstances, though, he would not have it any other way. “We inherited this profession from our forefathers, but I hope my son won’t live by it,” he says. “As long as there’s an Israeli occupation, it’ll be hard to live like this.”


The Abdel Hadi Palace stinks of urine and damp. A little girl with a dirt-smeared face shuffles barefoot in the muddy courtyard. The women of the Zakari family lean out of their window, an Ottoman arch whose grey stone is pitted by the weather of 250 years. The place was built for one of the richest families in Nablus. Now it serves as rented accommodation for the city’s poorest, hidden in the heart of the Casbah. “It’s not a palace anymore,” says Najah Zakari, the mother of one of six large families that squeeze into quarters once meant for a single household. “Do you think they’d let people like us live in a real palace?” She beckons to the spiral stone staircase, past the reeking squatting-toilet, to her apartment, where she offers mint tea. Her husband, 70, is out, pushing a delivery trolley for $2 a day, too proud to let his unemployed sons do the heavy work for him.

When the Israelis came to the Abdel Hadi Palace in one of their recent forays into the Casbah in search of militants, they took away Zakari’s son Khalil, 21. Now standing by the pomegranate tree, Khalil tells how he was detained two days in a camp outside Nablus with most of the other young men of the Casbah, huddling without shelter. He says he was beaten when he refused to recite a crude rhyme that professed love for Israeli troops and cursed the genitalia of Palestinian mothers. He finally recited it to avoid being hit again. Weeks later, he will only write the words of the rhyme in a TIME correspondent’s notebook, too ashamed to speak them aloud. He has not told his parents what happened when he was away.

The Israelis knew enough of the boy’s culture to understand that language hurts an Arab as surely as a blow. But just as assuredly, it shapes a future hatred. “I used to think of Israelis as human beings that felt as we do,” Khalil says. “But now I feel they are inhuman criminals.”


Stylishly dressed and cosmopolitan, Salah Abdel Shafi, 39, sits in his brother’s elaborate hotel overlooking the Gaza beach. As he describes the new political movement he is starting with other secular Palestinian intellectuals, the economist also acknowledges that he is considering ditching the whole project and resettling in Germany, where he was educated. His ambivalence is understandable, given the magnitude of the task he has set for himself. Abdel Shafi wants to cultivate moderation within a community that is brimming with bile. The aim of his movement is to create a new Palestinian agenda that will not frighten off Israelis from a peace deal. “We’ve scared the Israelis away with suicide bombs and an insistence on the right of return for refugees,” he says. Israelis fear that if Palestinian war refugees who left lands that are now Israel were allowed to resettle there, Jews would become a minority in the country. “We want an independent state,” says Abdel Shafi, “but we’re not against the existence of Israel.”

Abdel Shafi’s movement so far has the support of many Palestinian intellectuals. But despite its name–Grassroots–it does not have backing among the people. These days, that support has shifted to Hamas. The militant group’s standing has grown steadily through the intifadeh, so that today, according to polls, a little more than 50% of Palestinians support Hamas above all other political factions, including Arafat’s Fatah. Not all Hamas backers–perhaps not even most–would endorse the group’s goals: the violent destruction of the state of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state ruled by Islamic law. But Hamas is the only major Palestinian faction not perceived as corrupt. What’s more, it is at least doing something. As the intellectuals debate, Hamas moves with the decisive force of a whirlwind.

The vigor is evident late at night in Gaza’s poor Zeitoun neighborhood, as 1,000 Hamas men pour out of evening prayers in the Imam Shafai Mosque. They have listened to Sheik Abdel Aziz Rantisi, 55, one of the most powerful and radical leaders of Hamas. Rantisi told them, “My beloved ones, you will continue your resistance to the day of victory.” Now their march begins, from the mosque to the house of a bereaved family. It is not the slow shuffle of protesters on the Washington Mall or Trafalgar Square; these men move almost at a jog. Rantisi is sandwiched between two bodyguards, in front and behind him, each with a Kalashnikov. The march glides fast through the dark and kicks up a billow of dust from the unpaved street, so that the green Islamic banners carried by adherents appear to ride on a cloud.

Except for Rantisi, the crowd is young, mostly students and men under 30. If they did not already believe that Hamas has the answers to their grievances, then they would come to feel it in the torrent of youthful muscle and belief that cascades along the dirt road.


Sheik Abdullah Nimr Dar-wish knows that hate can be overcome. Charming and intense, he offers himself as an example. Hate was the cocoon that nurtured him, until he flew free of it. Darwish, 54, believes his personal history is an illustration of why no one should give up on the Palestinians, even now when they have drifted so far from where the world thought they were headed.

When Israel was founded in 1948, Darwish’s family remained in their village, Kafr Qassem, though it had become a part of the Jewish state. Darwish grew up with Israeli citizenship, though his village, like the other Arab communities within Israel, lived under military law for the first 20 years of the new state’s existence. One day when he was 9, Darwish was riding home from the cabbage fields with three other relatives on a small donkey cart led by his Uncle Ghazi. While they had been tending their crops, Israeli authorities had placed a curfew on Kafr Qassem; unknown to the farmers, the deadline for the curfew had passed before their cart approached some Israeli soldiers in the twilight. The soldiers did not say anything; as Darwish remembers it, they simply shot Uncle Ghazi and the two other men. The donkey bolted for home, and Darwish fell back among the cabbages in the cart. That’s how he survived. When he got home, the terrified boy sobbed to his father: “The Jews killed Uncle.” There were 47 villagers slain that day in similar circumstances. Even now, Darwish says, “I live through that massacre every day.”

Revenge was the future Darwish saw for himself. In 1971 he formed the Islamic Movement, a group of Arab Israelis that advocated armed struggle against the state. Israeli authorities threw him in jail, where, he says, he was tortured. But when he was released he faced the same dilemma that confronts Palestinians now: accommodate Israel or face ceaseless suffering. In the early 1980s Darwish began making contact with Israeli peace activists; those relationships, he says, helped him take on “the mentality of coexistence.” Now he lectures three times a week to Israelis, advocating greater tolerance between the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens and the Jewish majority of 5.3 million. Frequently, he visits Arafat and urges him to conciliate, just as the sheik himself did years ago. Arafat recently asked Darwish how he could get the Israelis to trust him again. “Well,” Darwish said, “you could stop shouting about a million martyrs marching on Jerusalem.” Darwish says Arafat’s aides were angered by his criticism, but within a week Arafat had dropped the martyrdom mantra from his public addresses.

Sheik Darwish has learned to live with the ghosts of the massacre that haunt him. He looks them in the eye and respects the role they played in his journey, but they don’t rule his life. Now an entire people faces that same challenge–to succumb to the hateful anguish of loss, or to honor the sacrifice of the departed with peace. –With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Nablus

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