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Mideast Strife's Long Reach

Fear, anger envelop U.S. relatives of Israel, West Bank residents.

April 05, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been at least two weeks since Bajis Dodin slept through the night. Where once he might have watched a television show or read a book before he and his wife turned out the light, now he watches the news, in Arabic and English, flipping through the channels for hours. Then he lies awake, staring into the dark, searching his soul for hope.

Sometimes he picks up the telephone and dials the numbers he knows by heart, trying again to get through to his brother, his sister, his uncles and cousins who live in towns on the West Bank. Many nights the phones are down, but they are the only link left. A letter can take months, and it has been days since Dodin was able to communicate by e-mail--very few Palestinian homes, he said, have electricity anymore.

In the morning, only the sky over his Riverside home has lightened. Dodin's thoughts remain weighted with worry, for his elderly mother and the rest of his family who, he said, struggle to procure the bare necessities for survival--food, water, shelter from the fighting. He has tried to send them money; he has tried to get many of them out. Nothing, he said, has worked.

Peace between Palestinians and Israelis has often been tenuous and bloody conflict not extraordinary. But never has the region known a time like this; in the last two weeks, Arab suicide bombers have killed and maimed on an almost daily basis, Israeli soldiers and tanks have demolished buildings and opened fire on crowds, and every day brings death to both sides.

Thousands of Southern Californians have families living in the cities and settlements of Israel and the West Bank. From across an ocean and a continent, they have watched and prayed for a solution when none seems forthcoming. Their reactions, no matter what side they're on, are remarkably similar: anger and fear; frustration--with the warring factions, with the U.S. government, with the media; depression bordering on despair and, of course, exhaustion.

"I cannot concentrate," Dodin said. "I cannot think. I am strained always, tense and nervous. I try to keep away from my family, from even my children so not to take out my anger on them. It is a nightmare. I do not see an end."

In a house in Irvine, sleep is also elusive. Beverly Jacobs e-mails her daughter, Rachel Jacobson, trying not to ask the questions that roil in the vivid dark. The 14-year-old son of Jacobs' cousin was recently outside a restaurant when an Arab shot an Israeli Jew; the boy took cover and called his parents on the cell phone, asking what he should do.

"This is not a call a mother should ever get," said Jacobs. It is the call she hopes she never gets. For seven years now, Jacobson and her husband have lived in Israel; their 2-year-old was born there. There is a second child on the way. Every day, Jacobson drives half an hour to her job as an art therapist in a Jerusalem hospital; every day, Jacobs worries that her daughter's car will break down or she'll get a flat tire or something will happen to isolate her, to keep her from getting to her home and child.

"She told me the other day, something was wrong with one of the wheels, and I said, 'You have to get that fixed, right away, right away, ' and she said, 'Yes, Mother, we know that.'"

Jacobs would like her daughter to come home, at least for a while, but she knows better than to say such a thing--for Jacobson, Israel is home. And so Jacobs confines her conversation to everyday things.

"My daughter is trying to live her life without letting events interfere," Jacobs said.

"I've been calling more often than usual, but we really make an effort to make the conversation as normal as possible, which is very hard."

"Every morning you wake up and it's like a lottery," said Yuval Rotem, the L.A. consul general of Israel. "Who will be hit? What will have happened? Every morning, I check into the Internet. If there's a story close to Tel Aviv [where his parents and sister live], I call. If it's Jerusalem, where my friends from the foreign service live, I call. Every day I call. It is a constant toll of anxiety and fear, especially for those of us over here."

Rotem has been in Los Angeles for 21/2 years. It is his second stint in the U.S.; he was serving in the consulate in New York during the Gulf War, which he said was also very difficult.

But, he said, the events of the past few weeks have been unprecedented. The killings that occurred during Passover, he said, marked a shift in the reactions of the Jewish community. "Before, there was the belief that they would not touch holy days," he said. "Then the line was crossed."

A little more than a month before the holy days began, Barry Weiss and his wife had decided not to spend Passover in Israel as they have for the past several years. And even when events tragically proved their decision wise, they remained torn. "The emotional side says, 'Why aren't we there?' and the sensible side says, 'We've got three children, there are no safe places, it isn't reasonable.'"

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