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Arab Friends Sustained Settler

West Bank: Brooklyn-born Avraham Boaz felt more at ease with his Palestinian 'extended family' than in Israeli society, mourners say.

January 17, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIT JALA, West Bank — Avraham Boaz, a Jew, and Jamal Arza, a Palestinian, shared a friendship so old and so strong that it endured through the fighting that has raged between their peoples for more than 15 months.

Even when gunmen in this Palestinian village fired at the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, and Israel retaliated by shelling Beit Jala, the decades-old bond between Arza, the villager, and Boaz, the settler, survived.

But Tuesday, the cycle of revenge killings that has become the leitmotif of this conflict proved more powerful than Boaz and Arza's love for each other.

A Brooklyn-born architect, Boaz had continued to build houses with a Palestinian partner in Beit Jala long after most Israelis became too fearful to walk its narrow streets.

Although he moved to Israel in 1962, Boaz never became an Israeli citizen. He later relocated to the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. His U.S. passport got him through Israeli checkpoints after the army banned Israelis from Palestinian-controlled areas. Boaz thought the passport--and his friendship with Arza and many other villagers--would protect him from Palestinian gunmen.

It did, until Tuesday. One day after Israel assassinated a Palestinian militia leader, gunmen seeking revenge stopped his car at a Palestinian police checkpoint and drove Boaz, a 71-year-old who walked with the aid of crutches, to nearby Beit Sahur. There, they beat and shot him to death in a muddy soccer field.

The killing of a man who had developed such deep relations with Palestinians left both sides wondering whether it will ever be possible to erase the hatred that has grown between them during fighting that has claimed more than 1,000 lives.

"He would call his many Palestinian friends 'my extended family,' " Yifat Cohen-Haddad, a relative, said at Boaz's Jerusalem funeral Wednesday.

"You stuck to your principles even when your family began to worry . . . even though we couldn't understand how you could do so as everything burned around us," she said in eulogizing Boaz.

Through all the months of conflict, Boaz had remained a frequent visitor at Arza's Everest Hotel on Beit Jala's outskirts, where he lunched with the family several times a week and often stayed the night.

"He was my brother," the 65-year-old Arza said simply.

At the Arzas' hotel, family members tried to make sense of it all Wednesday as they sat in the cavernous, empty restaurant that was routinely filled with Israelis before the outbreak of violence in September 2000.

Shaken Faith in Peace

A few feet from where they huddled, the Arzas had shared rice and salads the day before with the man they called "Avi."

Makram Arza, Jamal's son, blamed what he called the Israeli army's heavy-handed response to Palestinian attacks for the surging hatred expressed in Boaz's killing.

Blockades of towns and villages, destruction of homes, killings, arrests and other measures, he said, have "broken this connection between the people. What will we do after all this destruction? The normal people have lost everything. How will people be able to trust? How will people be able to live with people? This is what we have lost between Israelis and Palestinians."

The architect had come for his first lunch with the family since his wife died of cancer 10 days before. After lingering over the meal, he drove to Beit Jala with one of Jamal's sons, Bashir. The pair planned to pick out furniture for an apartment that Boaz had rented in a nearby Jewish settlement.

They never made it to the store. At a Palestinian police roadblock, gunmen commandeered the car. They pistol-whipped Bashir and threw him into the street, then drove off with Boaz. Within an hour, his bullet-riddled body and car were found in Beit Sahur. A militia linked to Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement claimed responsibility for the slaying.

Although his wife and daughter were Israelis, Boaz never felt that he fit into Israeli society, said Evyatar Cohen, Boaz's son-in-law. Boaz often told his daughter, Idit, that he only truly felt at home with the Arzas, Cohen said.

"Avi thought he was immune, bulletproof," Cohen said. "I can only hope people will no longer go there. There is no chance. It's hopeless. It's a fact. . . . The sad case of Avi Boaz just proves that there's no hope. We need total separation."

In Beit Jala on Wednesday, residents who knew Boaz as a familiar figure at the village greengrocer and the barbershop expressed shock and outrage at his killing.

"I knew the man for 30 years," Judeh Saleh said. ". . . I cried when they told me that he was killed."

"He came for his haircut Thursday or Friday," said Khalil Mattar, Boaz's barber for the last five years. "One time I asked him: 'Avi, why do you risk your life to have your hair cut?' He said: 'I'm an American. Everyone knows me here.' "

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