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In Holy Land, Peace Is the Unknown Quantity

January 05, 1997|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who writes about the Middle East for the New Yorker, is now working on a book about Israel

JERUSALEM — For a few weeks at the end of the long hard year we just happily left behind, the Israelis, once again, seemed on the verge of redeploying from the Biblical city of Hebron. Redeployment is not an exact term, since what it really means is that a few Israeli soldiers will pull out, a few Israeli army buildings will be abandoned and most of the Israeli forces who protect the 400 or so Israeli settlers living inside the town will remain right where they are, doing what they do.

Israeli Pvt. Noam Friedman and his machine gun proved what everyone believed: There would be violence not only after Israel redeploys, but in the walk-up to redeployment as well--because both sides are angry. The settlers, because the Israeli's are "moving out." The Palestinians, because the Israelis are still there.

Here in Israel and the Occupied Territories, behind every wrong lies another wrong. No matter who does what, there is always someone to argue that there is a good reason for it. For example, behind any terrorist act committed by militant Palestinians lies Israel's occupation of the West Bank and, farther back, the mass expulsion of Arabs by the Israelis in 1948. Behind Baruch Goldstein's 1992 massacre of a mosque full of worshipers in Hebron lies the 1929 massacre of that city's Jews. On a grand scale, some argue that behind the wrongs of Israel's occupation of the West Bank lies the Holocaust, and the whole sorry story of the treatment of the Jews through history. In the most strained argument, settlers would say that behind Friedman's flurry of fire lies the certainty of future massacres in Hebron, should Oslo become a reality.

Up the street from my house in Jerusalem, is the house George Habash supposedly lived in as a boy. Habash is the founder and now gray-haired leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was established in 1967, the year Israelis won the Six-Day War and marched into the West Bank. It's a beautiful house with high protective walls around the garden, which is luxuriant with roses and bougainvillea. One high date palm and one swaying cypress stand sentinel off to the side of the stone house's graceful, arched facade.

In 1948, when Israel fought the war that made it a state, the Palestinian family living in the house left, never to return. Habash never again saw his boyhood home. Israelis live there now. The same is true of all the old, elegant Palestinian-built houses in my neighborhood.

Habash is now ill and living in Damascus. Several weeks ago, his group claimed responsibility for a drive-by shooting attack on an Israeli settler family that left Ita Tzur and her 12-year-old son, Ephraim, dead. When I pass Habash's house these days I imagine the PFLP leader as a boy, and think about Ephraim, and about how their lives coincided.

Ephraim and his mother were settlers from Beit-El, near the West Bank town of Ramallah. Settlers are, once again, in the cross-hairs of the battle over peace, for that is what is raging--sometimes quietly and sometimes not--in Israel and the West Bank.

Two days after the Beit-El attack, the Israeli Cabinet decided to reinstate financial incentives to Israelis wishing to add their number to settlements on the West Bank--a decision Yasser Arafat's advisors decried as "a declaration of war" against the peace process, which has been based, in part, on an Israeli policy that forbids the growth of settlements.

It was just another example of tit for tat, wrong vs. wrong, in an eroded and seemingly moribund peace process. According to a recent poll, 30% of Israelis--a people notorious for devouring the news--no longer read the papers or listen to news because it is too depressing.

In this atmosphere and the even more somber climate on the West Bank, it's hard to believe peace has anywhere to go, Hebron agreement or no Hebron agreement. Israel may redeploy from Hebron, but here in Jerusalem, decisions are being made that are more practical and more destructive of peace than would be a failure to get out of Hebron.

Just a few weeks ago, while the Hebron talks droned on and didn't drone on, the Israelis let it be known that they were planning to build 130 new Israeli housing units in Ras Al-Amud, in the eastern--or Palestinian--part of Jerusalem. The Palestinians see this as a clear attempt to strengthen Israel's assertion that the city must never be divided. The Palestinians maintain Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state, while Israelis claim it as Israel's "eternal capital."

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