Man who lost 2 sons doubts conflict will end Israeli soldiers shot them down

September 14, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau

AL RAM WEST BANK — AL RAM, West Bank -- A single burst of gunfire was all it took to make Abu Khalid Hammouri a severe judge of peacemakers.

When they smile and wave agreements, he frowns and asks to see the fine print. When they speak loftily of a fine start, he says he'll wait for the finish. When they talk of sacrifice, he remembers the gunfire.

It came from Israeli soldiers in November 1989, killing two of his sons as they walked to visit an uncle. The soldiers claimed the young men had thrown stones and run away.

A human rights group raised a protest. There was an investigation. Nothing came of it, and the case sank into the statistical miasma of the "intifada" uprising -- 1,124 Palestinians dead, and counting.

"I will never be able to forget the hatred I felt that day," Mr. Hammouri says.

Mr. Hammouri and members of his family say they want peace as badly as anyone in the Middle East, whether Arab or Jew. He says he will accept more sacrifice if needed, although his wife doesn't seem as certain as she sits nearby, wiping away tears.

The Hammouris offer a glimpse of why many of the 2 million Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied territories have been such a tough audience for the new proclamations of peace. Such families have not joined celebrants waving Palestinian flags and pictures of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Nor have they joined naysayers shouting down the plan with promises of violent opposition.

You might call them part of the Palestinian silent majority -- the sullen crowd in the middle that wants concrete and significant results before it will get excited.

"If the Palestinians do not achieve an independent state, then there can be no peace," Mr. Hammouri says. "They really haven't given us anything as long as they hold the bridges and the borders. They give us one percent and keep 99 percent. We are still negotiating from a position of weakness."

While diplomats and world leaders converged on Washington for the signing of the historic agreement between Israel and the PLO, the Hammouris sat in their living room, talking of their feelings. Their stone home sits on the edge of a steep ravine, in the Palestinian community of Al Ram, a few miles north of Jerusalem.

The Hammouris still have two sons and two daughters, but their living room walls are filled with pictures of their two slain sons, Samir, who was 20, and Nidal, who was 19. Over one doorway, are memorial plaques sent to them by competing Palestinian organizations -- Fatah, the largest and most important faction of the PLO, and a supporter of the peace plan, and Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group that has denounced the peace plan. The display is disturbingly reminiscent of rival U.S. political candidates both showing up for an important funeral.

The Hammouri brothers were killed Nov. 15, 1989. It was the anniversary of the 1947 United Nations resolution partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors, an event later overtaken by the doings of armies. On this 42nd anniversary, all the local Palestinian businesses had shut down for the day, and Israeli soldiers were out in force, as they had been almost every day since the beginning of the intifada two years earlier.

It was dusk, and unseasonably hot.

"We were out in the garden," Mr. Hammouri says. "Then we prayed. Samir and Nidal left to go see their uncle. It was only a 10-minute walk away.

"A few minutes later," Mr. Hammouri says, "we heard shots, but we didn't know where they were coming from. The shooting was intense."

But they'd heard shooting before, so they gave it little thought. More worrisome was the weather. A cold front was moving in fast, and the temperature began dropping. Clouds gathered for a storm.

By 9 p.m., rain was falling and somebody was knocking at their front door. It was two Israeli soldiers.

"They said, 'come with us.' When I asked why, they said 'our officer wants to talk to you.'

"We went to the civil administration building in Ramallah. When we walked into the officer's office I saw my sons' ID cards on his desk. I thought they had been arrested."

"The officer said, 'Your kids were throwing stones, and shattered the window of an officer's car. The army called on them to stop, and when they didn't the army fired on them, and they are dead.' "

Mr. Hammouri became hysterical. "I began screaming, shouting, When they throw stones, you shoot them? Nazis are better than you!' "

He stayed at the office until 5:30 the next morning, waiting to see the bodies of his sons. It turned out they'd been outside all night, lying in a jeep.

The Israeli authorities only grudgingly allowed a burial in Jerusalem, and limited the funeral procession to a dozen people.

After all this, Mr. Hammouri says he still supports the intifada, and despite Mr. Arafat's call for it to end, he hopes it will continue.

"If it wasn't for the intifada, no one would have heard our case, and nothing would have happened," he says.

He sees its continuation not as an attempt to sabotage peace, but as a strengthening of resolve that will improve the bargaining position of the Palestinians.

Fueling his antagonism, the nagging nuisances of the occupation continue to dog his family. He told of his eldest son recently being detained for half an hour at a checkpoint after he refused a soldier's order to help an Israeli woman move her stalled car.

Sometimes these tensions spill into violence, as happened a few miles up the road in Ramallah on Saturday.

While the Hammouris sat in their living room, demonstrators opposed to the peace plan began throwing stones as Israeli soldiers moved in to break up their march. When the volley of stones continued, the soldiers answered with gunfire.

Two young Palestinian men were killed. And two more families joined the legions of the stern and severe, demanding more than just words of peace.

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