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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Bloodshed and Fear Fuel Unholy Hatred

October 14, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — As he built a hut for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, reservist Avihai Vassal told how he had been a captain in the army unit that escorted Yasser Arafat into the Gaza Strip on the Palestinian leader's return from exile six years ago.

"I should have shot him then," Vassal said. "I hope there is going to be a war. You make peace with human beings, not animals."

Down the road in Jerusalem's Old City, Aida Sadawi held her prayer rug in one hand and clenched the other into a fist, which she shook at Israeli soldiers blocking entry to the Al Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers.

"We're not afraid of their rockets or their tanks. We are not afraid to die. This is our land," Sadawi seethed.

This is the raw mood in the Holy Land after two weeks of riots that culminated in the public lynching of two Israeli soldiers and a wave of Israeli missile attacks on Palestinian headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As helicopters circle overhead and the two sides hurl rocks at each other on the ground, the veneer of civility is being stripped away.

Now the violence is either Israel's battle for survival or the Palestinians' war of independence. The language is viciously uncompromising, with political correctness giving way to tribalism. Scores are kept in blood: the grotesque lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah versus the heart-wrenching shooting of 12-year-old Mohammed Durra at his father's side in Gaza.

Israeli newspapers showed images of the body of one of the soldiers being thrown from the second-story window of the Palestinian police headquarters. Palestinian papers showed images of the Israeli missile attacks. On both sides, neck muscles are flexed and temples are throbbing from accelerated heartbeats.

There is a feeling of inexorable movement toward war, as if events were being propelled by some force of nature rather than by conscious acts of political and military leaders and street mobs.

"We must have a war," Asi Romi, 23, a supporter of Israel's left-of-center Labor Party, said in downtown Jerusalem. "If we delay it, in 10 years they will be stronger and more efficient. We are in danger and we have to act."

On the other side of the yawning divide, Palestinian homemaker Jamila Rajeh, 62, offered a mirror image of his sentiments.

"No more peace with Israel, only war. This is what Israel understands," she said. "They want to kill us first, but they cannot. We are here to stay, and we will never go away."

Rajeh joined about 700 Palestinians marching through Ramallah after Muslim prayers Friday to protest the Israeli air raids of the previous day and the scores of Palestinians killed in two weeks of street fighting. Many of the demonstrators carried flags of the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah as they made their way from Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque to the police station that was the scene of mayhem the day before.

Palestinians cannot believe that Israelis see themselves as victims in the current conflict, when the vast majority of the nearly 100 fatalities in the clashes have been Palestinian. The protesters stood opposite the rubble of the police station--the second floor was leveled by Israeli rockets--and vowed to continue their struggle for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"The Palestinian leadership must drop the option of peace negotiations and concentrate on armed struggle as the only means to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine," one speaker said to the crowd.

At the end of the rally, some of the demonstrators headed for home while others went off to begin what has become a daily routine of rock fights and gun battles with the Israeli army.

"Yesterday, we killed two Israeli soldiers. Tomorrow, we will kill more," said a 26-year-old with an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder who gave a false name.

In Israel, meanwhile, the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency launched an ad campaign to boost morale.

"Zionism Shall Triumph," read the slogan on a stylized Israeli flag printed in newspapers.

"We have only had our country for 50 years, and I am not willing to give away an inch of it," said Lia Finkelberg, 22, a Russian immigrant.

Finkelberg was selling brightly colored decorations for Sukkot structures on Jerusalem's downtown Jaffa Street, which was hard hit during Hamas' 1996 bus bombing campaign.

With government warnings that another terror campaign is imminent, downtown Jerusalem was empty for a Friday afternoon. Some shops had closed early, and Sabbath flowers went unsold. Cafes usually bursting with good humor and animated discussions were subdued beneath a cloud of despair. Fear fed into the swelling anger.

"I don't want to show anyone I am scared. I don't want to give them the satisfaction," said Finkelberg. "If not today or tomorrow, then next year there will be a war."

The unyielding mood in the street was reflected in the Israeli press.

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