Wherefore art thou, Mideast peace?

January 30, 2001|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel -- The 100-year feud between Mideast Montagues and Capulets has culminated in yet another tragic denouement -- the death of a 16-year-old Romeo hardly older than Shakepeare's hero.

Instead of reciting poetry beneath a nighttime balcony, he used e-mail to court his Juliet. But in this modern Middle Eastern drama, Juliet herself turned out to be Romeo's betrayer. Both Israelis and Palestinians have developed expertise at sabotaging each other's official sites; now the Web has been harnessed for more lethal ends.

Ophir Rahum, an 11th-grader, died because he thought he had found love on the Internet. A whiz with his own Web site, Ophir used a computer to reach beyond the confines of his provincial hometown, Israel's coastal Ashkelon. One of the many he chatted with electronically was a girl in Jerusalem who called herself Sally and told him she was an American tourist.

In fact she was a 25-year-old Palestinian whom Israel claims has longstanding ties to nationalistic terrorist organizations. Last month, Ophir traveled to Jerusalem to meet her. He returned home smitten by this glamorous "older woman," telling his friend she couldn't wait to go again. On Jan. 17, he skipped school and hopped a bus to Jerusalem.

The next day his body was exhumed from a fresh grave near the West Bank city of Ramallah. He had been seen getting into a car with a young woman in Jerusalem. She is alleged to have bolted from the automobile as it sped north toward the West Bank minutes before three masked men riddled Ophir with 19 bullets.

Ophir left home with an unspecified large amount of money, so it is inconclusive whether the background for his execution is criminal as well as tied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Speculation that the killing may have been an honor killing in revenge for romantic involvement is unlikely, as that code usually punishes the errant girl, not the boyfriend.

Although the Palestinian police claims to be cooperating with Israeli authorities to solve the crime, a team of Israelis disguised as Arabs swooped down on the woman's home to arrest her. Roundups of suspected gunmen have begun.

The Israeli media has been screaming the story, alleging that the Web snared the youth, allowing him to be bewitched by what one newspaper termed an "Internet temptress."

Ophir's death has traumatized parents who until now have marveled as their children click away at the keyboard with the speed of light. Now parents worry if instead of looking up facts on Britannica.com they may be conducting virtual love affairs with dangerous strangers.

Typically, Ophir's parents were in the dark about the content of his Internet involvement. They are giving tearful interviews on the radio, urging others to monitor their children's computer correspondence and to include warnings on the pitfalls of the Internet in addition to educating about the dangers of drugs and sexual diseases.

Parents fret about their kids looking up pornography, yet the lure of reaching out for contact may be more compelling, and potentially more dangerous.

Romance on the Web is a hot commodity. "You have mail" is today's prelude to the love sonnet. The Internet offers to mask everything but what the writer chooses to reveal. If Cyrano de Bergerac could have typed his wonderful words into e-mail, his looks would have been irrelevant.

Not every adolescent will fall head over heels with an anonymous correspondent and set off to meet her with a song in his heart. It takes a certain emotional vulnerability, maybe even a tragic flaw. But, for good or bad, emotional vulnerability is often the defining characteristic of youth. Censorship seems the wrong way to go, both as an invasion of privacy and doomed to failure.

Hackers may be able to crack a computer code, but parents will be stymied by a secret password. Warning young people about Ophir's gullibility may have some impact, although most teen-agers, like most adults, won't believe a trap like his could ever ensnare them.

Ophir is the latest of the nearly 400 people killed in this year's bloody Intifada. His death gruesomely plays out the cliche that all's fair in love and war. Here, as in Shakespeare's tragedy, the real culprit is hatred, the medium upon which this dark plot could be concocted and carried through.

At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets bury their feud. But even a Shakespeare would be hard-pressed to invent characters capable of bringing reconciliation to the hostile Middle East.

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer who divides her time between living in the United States and Israel.

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