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For Some Palestinians, Home Means Living in a Cross-Fire

Mideast: Villagers are cut off from jobs and confined to battle zones where walls are marked by bullet holes.

October 29, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIT SAHUR, West Bank — The children begin the bullet-hole tour of their home on the first floor.

There's the shot that nicked the bathroom mirror. Here are five or six bullet holes just above the headboard of Yusef abu Latifa's bed. And here's the one that pierced a green plastic table where 80-year-old Ali Mohammed Latifa was eating.

Scores of pockmarks left by large-caliber bullets--most from a nearby Israeli army post and some from Palestinian gunmen--cover the homes of the Abu Latifas and their neighbors.

Coming under Israeli and Palestinian fire is only one of the troubles besieging the Abu Latifa clan.

In the more than four weeks since bloody unrest swept the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Abu Latifas--35 of them--have lived under a kind of lock-down, unable to venture very far beyond the walls of their two-story duplex or, at most, the winding streets of their village.

Like dozens of Palestinian towns and villages, Beit Sahur, a suburb of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, is blocked off by a closure imposed by Israel as a security measure. It restricts movement into and out of the village by both Israelis and Palestinians.

For the Abu Latifas, this is dire. Three adult brothers, the family's main breadwinners, hold jobs in Israel. None has been able to go to work since the closure. Money is getting low. The college-age children have not been allowed to cross to the towns where their universities are. They sit at home, terrified and angry. The younger children have to dodge bullets to get to and from the village school.

Israeli authorities say closures are a necessary tool to prevent weapons and potential terrorists from entering Israel. But human rights activists have long complained that closures are a disproportionate, collective punishment that devastates the entire Palestinian economy. More than 120,000 Palestinians work in Israel, and most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is sustained by their salaries.

Their inability to work in Israel has resulted in losses of about $40 million in October alone, according to a U.N. study. Another study, by a German foundation, estimates that closures combined with lost investment and export income will cost Palestinians as much as 4% of their gross domestic product if the unrest continues.

In addition to being blocked from entry into Israel, Palestinians are restricted in their attempts to move from village to village. Palestinian villagers have difficulty traveling to hospitals, schools and markets in larger towns. Trucks hauling food and other supplies are blocked; some grocery stores are reporting shortages.

More than 2 million Palestinians are living under some level of closure. Israel has also imposed curfews in some areas. The most severe is in Hebron, where about 400 Jewish settlers live among thousands of Palestinians; there, Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron are allowed to leave their homes only between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., an Israeli army spokeswoman said.

Life under siege has its dangers, risks and despair. But it also has its degrees of tedium and forced ingenuity.

The Abu Latifa family consists of three generations: patriarch Ali Mohammed, who at 80 has two teeth, walks with a wooden cane and wears a traditional robe and white kaffiyeh; his four sons and one daughter (with two other sons in Saudi Arabia and another in the U.S.); four daughters-in-law; and 25 grandchildren.

The simple but large cinder-block house consists of four apartments, on the first and second floors on either side of a large central stairwell.

It is the misfortune of the Abu Latifa family that their home sits on a slope just below a tiny Palestinian police post and, on the other side of the house, about 300 yards away, is an isolated Israeli army base.

The two exchange gunfire almost every night, and the Israeli soldiers have fired rockets into the neighborhood. The sides of the Abu Latifa house that face the Israeli base are covered with bullet and shrapnel holes, indicating sustained fire from heavy machine guns and other weapons. There are a few holes on the side facing the Palestinian police.

"We are between two armed forces, and we don't know who is on our side," said Yusef abu Latifa, who at 53 is the eldest of Ali Mohammed's sons. "We are under fire just by sitting in our house."

The army maintains that it responds when under attack with "precise and accurate" return fire. But Col. Marcel Aviv, who is in charge of the region around Beit Sahur, explained the gun spray this way: His men are firing at multiple Palestinian shooters, and not all of them benefit from the same precision as a sniper with binoculars.

The shooting and the interminable closure are the greatest differences between today's conflict and the earlier intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation in the late '80s and early '90s, said Yusef and his brother Ferid, 43. It was not the norm back then to be shot at while sitting in your house, they said.

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