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Palestinians in U.S. Lament the Unheard Side in Conflict


WASHINGTON — Laguna Beach shop owner Samera Sood is reluctant to discuss politics with patrons of her Native American art store. So when a customer recently noted her accent and asked where she was from, Sood said simply that she was born near Jerusalem.

Taking Sood for an Israeli, the customer said she was glad the Palestinians were "getting what they deserved."

Sood told the customer of the recent Israeli assault on the West Bank town of Jenin and the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israeli allies at refugee camps in Lebanon. History, she said, should not be repeating itself. Jews, "of all people, should stand up," said Sood, who is president of the Palestinian American Women's Assn. of Southern California. "These are innocent lives."

Palestinian Americans, who began immigrating to the United States more than 100 years ago, have largely achieved the American dream. About 350,000 strong (give or take those who go back to Palestinian territories each summer to renew their family ties and language skills), they are middle-class professionals, many Christian, often Republican, who decry the actions of the Sept. 11 terrorists as barbaric.

But as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ended his peace mission this week, some Palestinian Americans expressed deep dismay about the failure of the Bush administration to engage early enough in Mideast diplomacy or to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stop what they see as a massacre of their people.

"People are being killed," Sood said. "Why is the world not saying anything? Is their blood so cheap?"

Like Sood, many Palestinian Americans are grieving because of the sense that they have lost a connection. Arabs under Jewish rule, they left Israel and the territories to escape a feeling of being second-class citizens. They embraced freedom of speech and educational opportunities in the United States, only to come to feel as though they are second-class citizens again.

"We came seeking freedom and dignity, and we found them in America," said Lily Karam, a Downey businesswoman. "Now I feel so lonely, as I did when I was growing up over there. I love the American people, and suddenly I feel so alienated."

Part of the alienation, they said, stems from a conviction that the Palestinian side of the story is rarely heard in the U.S., that there is a double standard about the lives lost to violence.

"The core problem for us as citizens of this country is this disparity: Every effort by Palestinians to resist occupation is seen as an act of terrorism and every effort by Israel is seen as self-defense," said Nahid Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

They are also angry that their tax dollars, in the form of U.S. military aid to Israel, are helping finance the Apache attack helicopters and M-16s used in the current Israeli offensive, which has resulted in the deaths of relatives and the destruction of property.

Samir Kassees, a retired high school instructor who now teaches American government at Widener University in Chester, Pa., told Powell during a meeting with community leaders April 3 that "we are allowing use of our weapons and our tax moneys to destroy our own property."

Kassees, a Korean War veteran who heads the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, said he is incensed that Israel does not heed the call of the U.S. government to end its military incursion. Palestinian Americans see it as a snub and a fresh reminder of the impotence they experienced under Israeli occupation.

"I remember going shopping with my grandfather in Ramallah. I was 16. He was 72," said Michel Shehadeh, who heads the Southern California office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "An Israeli soldier at a roadblock asked my grandfather for his ID, dropped it on the ground and kicked my grandfather when he reached to pick it up. My grandfather got up and put his hand in front of me to stop me from doing anything. I was so humiliated--for him, for me--that I cried for hours."

In touch with relatives by e-mail and cell phone, Palestinian Americans offer accounts of new humiliations at the hands of Israelis--reports that bodies of civilians have been buried in hospital parking lots, that Jenin has been flattened, that American citizens were among those killed. They are trying to raise emergency funds for the hospitals--suddenly overwhelmed with casualties--through the Washington-based United Palestinian Appeal. The going is slow, fund manager Makboula Yasin said.

Like many Americans, both Jewish and Palestinian, Asad Salameh thinks that the road to peace is clear: End Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas; police the border, perhaps with U.N. observers; and learn to coexist.

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