The Human Cost: Inside the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

When the guards had finished searching me, I walked into the airy, white rotunda lobby of the Marriott Center in Washington, D.C. I was there for the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly, the largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders in the world. It was postponed after September 11, and many feared the turnout would be light. But they shouldn’t have worried. The Jewish people have been dealing with terror for decades. They know that the terrorists win when plans are changed.

Throughout the spacious entryway, middle-aged professionals from all over North America sipped coffee and mixed with casually dressed, college-aged Israelis. A half-scale replica of the famous seated Lincoln, like that in the nearby monument, stared down over the crowd.

I walked down the orange-carpeted hallway and into the auditorium. There were several thousand seats—all taken. I stood.

The audience was passionate, and the gathering felt like an extended family reunion. Israeli Foreign Minister Simon Peres strode onto the stage with an almost paternal smile. A huge video screen behind him that was meant to amplify his presence somehow only made the short man seem smaller.

The next day Peres would leave for New York to face a hostile United Nations (UN). The Sunday before, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat condemned Israel before the general assembly to great applause. But here in Washington, Peres was clearly enjoying his moment among friends.

“There is a huge American contribution in the formation of Israel,” he said in his soft voice. “We are mixed together in history…. We have the same spirit and the same direction.”

In the past, he objected to Israel’s policy of refusing to negotiate with Arafat—the man with whom he shares the Nobel Prize—saying that while Arafat’s far from being a perfect partner, the alternative could be much worse. But that’s not to say Peres is a fan. He recalled an exchange where Arafat questioned the many different voices of the famously split Unitary Parliament of Israel. Peres responded by casually alluding to Arafat’s purported ties to armed terrorist groups. “We may have many views in our cabinet, but we have one gun. You may have one view, but you have four different guns, shooting in all different directions.”

Peres closed his address with a surprising announcement. He used the goodwill in the room to unveil a new policy shift by Israel. It was a concession he would later offer officially to the UN. “We are not interested in seeing the funerals of families. We are ready to make a compromise. We will need two states.”

There was an audible buzz in the press section. This was what they were waiting for. In a closed-door briefing room that morning, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior alerted the press to this newly reclaimed Israeli position—abandoned since the December 2000 failure at Camp David. “The creation of a Palestinian state is not an anti-Israel statement; it’s a pro-Israel statement,” Melchior had said. “I do think that a Palestinian state can help the peace process.”

While most of the world seems to agree, some of the Israeli faithful do not. In the auditorium, Peres’s announcement got a subdued reception.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the next image on the jumbo-tron screen. Transmitted from Israel, his face was cast in dark shadows. If Peres is the voice of moderates in Israel, Sharon is the top hard-liner. “We live in the most trying of times,” he said, continually referring to terrorists as “the forces of darkness.” But he closed with a more cautious and personal message. “I have seen the horrors of war. For true peace, I will make painful compromises—but only for true peace.”

The audience clapped politely. But the applause had been much louder for Ori Tennanbaum.

Ori was 20 on October 4, 2000, when his father, Elchanan, gave him one of his famous bear hugs before leaving on a business trip to Europe. That was the last time Ori saw him. When his flight landed in Brussels, Elchanan was kidnapped by the terrorist group Hizbullah. They claimed he was recruiting spies in Lebanon.

Elchanan left behind a boy, but if he returned today, he would find a man. “I am a big boy,” Ori read to the general assembly from a letter he wrote his father. “But even a big boy—a young man—needs his father’s tender love and care.” Sadness poured out of the young man, and the crowd received it. “My heart is breaking,” he said.

In private, Ori is different—he smiles a lot. Not as tall as he looks when he is behind a podium, Ori has brown, deep-set eyes and a black goatee sparse enough to betray his youth.

But bring up his father and his face darkens. “My father was ripped from me for no reason at all. We used to be a normal family…but no longer.”

Ori knows to the hour how long it has been since his father was kidnapped: “465 days and eight hours ago.” All the wonderful memories children take from growing up with a loving parent are a source of pain for him now. “I have flashes of memories,” he said. “They bring feelings of anguish, frustration, and helplessness. I cannot sleep at night knowing that he cannot be with us.”

But the hardest thing for Ori, his sister, and their mother is simply not knowing Elchanan’s fate. Since their initial announcement that they had Elchanan in their custody, the Hizbullah have kept him from communicating with anyone. The International Red Cross has repeatedly tried to visit Ori’s father but to no avail. This is especially vital since Elchanan suffers from a medical condition that requires daily medication.

“I have been denied the most basic human right: to know the fate of my father,” Ori said, clenching his fist.

In 1947, the UN established a Jewish homeland, carved out of the British-ruled Palestinian territories. The move was motivated in large part by sympathy for Europe’s Jews, who had suffered and lost so much during World War II—more than six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Needless to say, the Arab residents of the new nation were not pleased.

The Jews, who hadn’t lived in the Holy Land for more than 1,000 years, were immediately attacked by the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. In the ensuing war, which ended in 1949, Israel absorbed much of the land the UN had set aside for Palestine. Half a century later, the military remains.

In 1987, Palestinians began the first intifada (Arabic for “uprising”), organizing mostly peaceful demonstrations across the West Bank in order to raise international awareness of their cause. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—a group that first came to prominence by providing education for the Palestinian people—led the uprising. In its charter, the PLO called for the destruction of Israel, accusing the Israeli military of ethnic cleansing and claiming that it was leveling the homes of Palestinians in order to settle their land permanently.

Several peace proposals since then have failed to reestablish borders between the two countries, despite the PLO’s official recognition in 1988 of Israel’s right to exist. Perhaps the best chance for peace came in 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with PLO President Yasser Arafat—an agreement that would have created a Palestinian state. But before the peace procedures could be implemented, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist outraged by the concessions Rabin had offered the PLO.

In December 2000, the two parties met again for negotiations at Camp David. Despite an optimistic start, the talks broke down primarily over the question of whether Israel would provide restitution for the homes and lands it had confiscated and settled.

Several UN resolutions have called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories—the most recent vote was 15-1 in favor of withdrawal. The United States alone, exercising its veto power, voted to oppose.

San Francisco’s Rev. Labib Kopti is a busy man. He serves not one but two parishes. Most of his parishioners are poor and distressed Palestinian refugees. Besides being a spiritual leader, he’s also a spokesman, teacher, theologian, translator, museum exhibitor, magazine publisher, Web site designer, and author.

Father Kopti was sent to the United States by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem to serve Arab Americans in California. He’s an expert voice for people without a voice. He lectures in churches and at conferences, meetings, and forums around the world. Now an American citizen, he’s passionate about the plight of the Palestinian people—his people.

He is in constant contact with the Holy Land and says the situation there is grave. “There is no work [more than 70 percent of Palestinians are unemployed], no future to envision, no security. So you can imagine the mood of the people.”

When Israel occupied the town of BeitJala, Father Kopti was working with youth groups there. Without cause, the army rounded up young people, questioned them, and threw them in jail for long stretches of time. “I remember the youth saying, ‘We are tired of living. We prefer to die than to live in these conditions,'” Kopti says.

Most people are surprised to learn that he’s an Arab Catholic priest. The common perception among Americans is that Arabs are necessarily Muslim. “We Christians are from the first century,” he said proudly. “Islam is from the seventh century. We [Palestinians] are Christians before anybody on earth.”

The Catholic Church supports Father Kopti’s activism. Pope John Paul II has continually called for peace in the Holy Land, referring to Jerusalem as “the mother of all churches.” He supported the creation of a separate Palestinian state years before that idea came into vogue in this country and recently condemned not just terrorism but Israel’s response to it. Archbishop Jean Louis Tauren, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, notes, “The Holy Land has been a central issue with which the popes have been concerned since the Middle Ages.”

Archbishop Henri Tessier of Algeria is more pointed. “I think the West has at last begun to understand the problem of a people who have rights and have agreed to enter into a peace process, while there is another part, Israel, which continues with its policy of gaining time, of retarding the implementation of the Oslo agreements.”

The hospitals in Bethlehem are full of teenagers shot by Israeli soldiers. Sometimes these boys throw stones at checkpoints, sometimes they appear in crowds, and sometimes—they say—they’re just walking the street. Israel vehemently denies targeting civilians in its fight against terrorism. Dore Gold, the chief adviser to Sharon, insists, “Our goal is to end terrorism now and progress toward peace in the near future. There is no country in the world more than Israel that wants to end the violence with Palestine.”

Still, independent groups estimate that 90 percent of casualties in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the past year are Palestinian. Israeli forces use M-16s that, unlike missiles, usually kill only what they’re aimed at. The M-16 fires a fragmenting bullet designed to tear up muscle, nerves, and vital organs inside the body. Robert Kirschner of the Nobel Prize–winning Physicians for Human Rights condemns this use of high-velocity bullets on protestors. “It is a form of summary punishment being inflicted in the field,” he says.

Because of international criticism, some Israeli soldiers have switched to rubber-coated bullets. But fired at close range, these are almost as bad. One boy in the hospital had a rubber bullet lodged inside his skull. It went in where his eye used to be.

Since Israel opposes international observers in the West Bank, we must rely on reports from organizations like Amnesty International, one of the only independent groups operating there. They’ve continually condemned the Israeli military for their disregard of Palestinian lives and property. Doctors keep seeing the same injuries: eyes and kneecaps blown out. This is curious, since soldiers are usually trained to shoot at the chest—the easiest part of the body to hit. Amnesty International suspects that Israeli soldiers are intentionally aiming at the eyes and knees, attempting to cripple or blind their targets.

A few miles from the Marriott in Washington, D.C., along the beautiful International Drive, is the sprawling Israeli Embassy. When I called to make an appointment, I was asked for my social security number.

It took a few minutes before they buzzed me in through the wrought-iron gates. I entered a guard shed where they sifted through my bags and gave me a number for my camera. I wouldn’t be allowed to take it with me. I gave them a photo ID and stepped through a silent metal detector, only to be searched again with a wand.

Then I walked across a long brick courtyard and was buzzed through a set of padded doors into a small, dark room. A woman smiled at me through a Plexiglas window and gave me a security tag through a hole with a rounded bottom—like the money window in a 24-hour gas station.

Of course, I understood the tight security. Terrorists have targeted Israeli embassies all over the world. In the United States, it’s a doubly tempting target.

I was escorted down hallways hung with original art under speakers that softly played music from a Jewish opera house. Finally, I sat down in the office of Mark Regev, the embassy spokesman.

Israel has many solid arguments in its case against the Palestinians, and Regev hammered them home articulately. First: Arafat and the PA missed an opportunity for a two-state solution at Camp David by rejecting all proposals without attempting to counteroffer. “Arafat returned from the summit in Camp David and was cheered as a hero because he didn’t give in,” Regev frowned. “Where were those Palestinian voices saying ‘Maybe, Mr. Arafat, you should have compromised. Maybe you missed a historic opportunity’?”

Second: Israel is politically and culturally isolated from its neighbors. “We are the only Western, pluralistic democracy in the region. It’s not healthy to have a successful economy in a sea of poverty,” Regev said. “Americans should understand that the Middle East is not the Midwest. We live in a very, very tough neighborhood.”

Third: A country cannot negotiate while being attacked by terrorists. “You have to know that sometimes, if you give what you think is a concession, they can perceive it as weakness,” Regev said. “If you reward terrorism, and you negotiate under fire, what motivation do the terrorists have to stop? So I think Sharon’s approach is that we have to show strength.”

Fourth: Palestine demonizes Jews in its schools and newspapers. “People are taught incitement; people are taught hatred,” he said.

Fifth: The connection of the Jewish people to a particular geographical area is unique among world religions. This is the land God gave them. They believe—from Old Testament prophesies—that their savior will rise from this place. “Christianity comes from the word ‘Christ.’ Where does the word ‘Jew’ come from?” Regev asked. “A Jew is someone who comes from Judea. Jews and the Jewish homeland go hand in hand. It’s our psyche, it’s our spirit, it’s our entire being.”

The PA also has offices in Washington. Its headquarters is a small suite in a nondescript office building. As I walked completely unnoticed into the lobby, I was astounded by the difference between this office and the Israeli Embassy. There was no art on the walls, only grainy pictures of Arafat in $5 frames. Instead of classical music piped in through speakers, a cheap radio with an antenna made of tinfoil spurted out American Top 40.

I had a noon meeting with PA Chief of Mission Hasan A. Rahman. As it turned out, I had picked the right day: Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN on the subject of Israel and officially called for the creation of a separate Palestinian state. I took a seat next to Rahman and his aide to watch Powell’s speech on CNN. As it ended, the phone lines lit up. Rahman spoke with me between brief conversations with several major media organizations.

Switching from Arabic to Spanish and back to English, he gave the Palestinian case: Israel sabotages Palestine’s economic and political freedom by launching regular attacks in occupied areas and by blocking checkpoints. “People feel like they are robbed of their very essence, their dignity, their freedom, their livelihood,” Rahman said. “This is the most inhumane situation any people live under. It’s like being in a war prison without the protection of the law, because Israel does not abide by any standards except its own.”

Israel currently has the PA in a catch-22. It demands that Arafat crack down on terrorists, yet it dismantles his security forces by blowing up buildings and vehicles and arresting his troops. Rahman said it is hypocritical of Israel to justify these tactics by calling them defensive measures. “You act in self-defense if you are defending your own home, not when you are invading other people’s homes.”

According to the PA, Israel uses the tag of Palestinian terrorism as an excuse for all its acts of military aggression, even though most Palestinians are not terrorists. “Any act of violence that is directed against civilians, whether those civilians are Palestinians or Israelis, we oppose and condemn,” Rahman insisted. “The irony of all of this is that when we defend ourselves and defend our homes and our property like any other people, we are called terrorists—yet the Israeli invasion is not. Foreign invasion is always violent by its very nature.”

Israel says it will accept only a demilitarized Palestinian state. This is deemed unacceptable for two reasons. First, self-defense is a fundamental right of any nation—a condition of real self-determination. Second, demilitarizing the PA would prevent it from rooting out terrorist groups like Hamas. “We are ready to engage with Israel over all the issues!’ Rahman said, “including the issue of the security of both sides, but you cannot prematurely accept any conditions.”

Rahman ended the discussion with this question: What is Israel trying to hide? The Israeli government has repeatedly rejected requests from both Palestine and the UN to allow neutral observers into the West Bank. Palestine and the inter-national community lament the fact that there’s no one to see exactly what the Israeli military is doing. “Israel does not want any third party to witness its atrocities,” Rahman said. “We have an interest in seeing third parties there to tell the world who is doing what.”

Most Americans acknowledge that what’s happening in the Holy Land is troubling. But over half a world away, it’s easy for us to assume we have no personal stake in it. We’re wrong. The American government sends $2.9 billion in annual aid to Israel. The figures are even more staggering when one considers that Israel is a country of just over five million people (approximately the suburban population of Philadelphia). That’s a gift every year of $2,400 per four-person family.

But equally important are Israel’s political ties to the United States. “The two countries are intertwined in a very strong, supportive way,” Regev tells me. “And it’s at all levels. It’s at the political level, the military level, the intelligence level, the academic level, the business level.”

“We as Israelis always have to say we appreciate and thank the United States for its generous support,” Regev says. While the vast majority of U.S. aid is military, Regev feels Americans understand that Israel is a strategic interest. “I think a lot of people in America believe that military aid to Israel is money well-spent.”

Rahman, on the other hand, claims that if you add tax- exempt Israeli bonds to all the other forms of U.S. assistance, the actual aid figure is closer to $10 billion a year. “That’s the biggest amount any country in the world receives from anyone,” he says. “It makes Israel the biggest welfare case in history.”

For the United States, it is about more than money. “When Israel attacks Palestinian civilians with Apache helicopters, everybody in the Arab world knows those Apaches are made in the United States,” Rahman explains.

While the events of September 11 make the United States more sensitive to its image in the Arab world, they have also made Israel a more important ally. Every day, Israeli citizens debate whether to risk using mass transit or going to the mall. Children in Israel’s schools are taught how to identify suspicious bags the way American children were once taught to “stop, drop, and roll.” “Since September 11, a lot of people have come to us asking, ‘What can we learn from Israel’s experience with terrorism?’ Regev says. “So of course, Israelis are sharing their knowledge and experience with the Americans:’

But has this relationship handcuffed the United States? Rahman says Palestinians were shocked when the United States opposed neutral observers in the West Bank. “What we were told by the United States government is that they don’t support it, not because they are opposed to it—on the contrary—but because Israel says ‘no.’ So they have to say ‘no.’

Ahmed Alshaer knows guilt. Born in the Palestinian town of Rafah, Alshaer left Palestine as a boy when his father took a job overseas. Israel wouldn’t let them return. Not that he had a home to return to. Jewish settlers moved into his parent’s property and bulldozed everything, including a grove of 1,000-year-old olive trees.

He now lives in a quiet suburb of Washington, D.C., with his wife, Diya, and their five children. With a nine-to-five job, a gray Volvo, and an SUV parked outside his white-shingled house, Alshaer appears to have achieved the American dream.

“I live in guilt 24 hours a day,” he told me. “I am living in heaven over here. I don’t live in fear here like Palestinians.”

His family tries to give back by sending money to Palestine, where most of his relatives still live. In the last year during the recent intifada, he lost seven family members. One was killed in the street, another at a demonstration, another while playing with friends. They ranged in age from eight to 56. “Ninety-five percent of the deaths are just civilians. They aren’t taking part in armed struggles like Hamas or Jihad.”

Alshaer condemns terrorism, but he understands why some people resort to it. “I think they look at the Israelis and say, ‘They took my land, my house, my dreams, my future, and they killed half of my children. I am going to fight them, to terrorize them. This is the only way.’”

Horror is a daily companion for Alshaer’s people. “I called my uncle a month ago because he lost his son, and I wanted to express my condolences. He told me, ‘You know I am no different from anybody else in this land. Every family has lost a son.'”

He was silent for a moment. “We just want to live in peace.”

It’s grossly naive to assume that 80 years of conflict can immediately give way to peace and stability. But peace is possible if there is a reexamination of the fundamental reasons for it. We are in a unique historical situation: The world now recognizes the urgent need to find a peaceful solution to this conflict immediately—before it continues to spread. The international community is now committed to getting to the roots of terrorism. For too long, both Israelis and Palestinians have measured the conflict in hard-fought acres, in years, in dollars. Now, the world is waking up to the human cost. Every day the peace process stalls is a day that makes more widows and orphans and destroys more homes.

The victims are crying for peace. It’s no longer possible to drown out the sound.


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