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MIDDLE EAST

Preoccupied Territories

In the West Bank, living a normal life is no longer possible -- and that's a problem for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

January 19, 2003|Lynn Cohen

NABLUS, West Bank — I am awakened by gunfire. Through plastic sheeting that covers the window, the sky shows murky black. For a moment I think I must have been dreaming, but after some seconds I hear another series of shots. They are coming from the street, directly below.

What advice did I hear about gunfire? Get down flat on the floor. I am already on the floor, on a foam mattress. I can smell carpet fibers, mildew, cardamom, dust. I listen. Some moments pass, then another shot, farther down the street. Retreating. Another, farther yet. After a minute, nothing more. I hear my own breathing.

The house is silent. I wonder if anyone else is awake, or if they've learned to sleep through this sort of thing by now. Then I hear the muffled voice of Ibrahim in the next room. As quietly as I can, I dress. I put on my shoes too, thinking we all may need to leave in a hurry.

When I open the door, Ibrahim looks around at me. He's sitting on the bed, cell phone to his ear. His young brothers are still asleep under blankets on their floor mats; his four sisters and mother are in the other room, also asleep. The only light is the green glow from his phone, illuminating the right side of his face.

Fifteen, handsome and sullen, at least in my presence, he would surely in another life spend his days playing hoop, dating girls. Instead he calls around to friends and neighbors in the middle of the night for news of how great the danger is this time. As a Palestinian Muslim, he can no longer live a normal life. He attends high school only on noncurfew days; he devises strategies to stay clear of soldiers.

"Are you scared?" he asks now in English, hanging up the phone. These are the first words he's spoken to me since I arrived at his house several days earlier. "I don't know," I say. "Are you?"

"I don't know," he answers, and we laugh uneasily.

In truth, I'm not that scared. The soldiers outside are Israeli, and I'm an American, a Jew. I speak Hebrew. I don't believe they would shoot me. For Ibrahim, it is different. He knows what gunfire means in the middle of the night. We stand together in the dark until it seems reasonable to assume the soldiers aren't coming for him. He decides to return to bed. I go toward my room. "Don't sleep up against the wall," he says.

It probably needs to be said explicitly: I love Israel. I want with every fiber of my body and mind for it to continue to exist as a state. And I know that in the Middle East, nothing is simple. It's easy to look at the overwhelming oppression of the Palestinians by Israel today and see it as an inexplicable wrong. But there is also context to be considered.

Before I came to Nablus, I spent a few days in Tel Aviv. I found myself veering away from passing buses, always thinking twice, deciding against breakfast in a pleasant outdoor cafe. I felt gratitude, even reverence, for the security guards who unsmilingly opened my purse at the entrances of Dizengoff Center. To be an Israeli these days is to be always afraid and furious. Furious about having to be so afraid.

In that context, the Israeli reaction to the Palestinians is understandable. It is a product of fear and anger. But as a country born to address a gargantuan wrong, Israel has an overwhelming responsibility to behave righteously. After spending a month in the West Bank refugee camp of Balata near the city of Nablus, I can't see much that is righteous in Israel's actions. More pragmatically, they are counterproductive.

Some 20,000 people live in Balata camp, in a square mile of cement apartment blocks built so close together you have to turn sideways to walk through many of its alleyways. In many homes you see gaping holes in walls between apartments left by Israeli soldiers who found it safer to get from one home to another by blasting through walls rather than going back out on the street. Sheets and blankets have been hung to cover the holes, but neighbors can still smell the meals and hear the conversations of their neighbors.

Daily life in the camps is exhausting. One day, leaving a checkpoint, I share a cab with Awad, a 40-year-old floor maintenance contractor and father of three who, like me, was trying to get back to Balata camp from Ramallah. The trip should take an hour: It takes us six. One checkpoint is relatively quick, half an hour, but others are said to be slower, so the cab goes far out of the way to avoid them.

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