Doubts grow over tactics in the Middle East

Jews, Palestinians ask whether fighting can ever bring peace

`It just makes things worse'

April 20, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIBBUTZ NIR AM, Israel - As they do once a year, residents of this settlement on the Gaza border gathered in the dining hall Wednesday to commemorate the Holocaust. Miriam Harel, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, lighted six candles at the sundown ceremony, symbolizing the 6 million Jewish victims. Others read names of family members who perished.

Leaving the ceremony, they heard loud booms and were told by soldiers that five mortar shells had landed on surrounding fields, apparently fired from the section of the Gaza Strip that Israeli troops had reoccupied the day before and then abandoned under U.S. pressure.

The attack shook up the residents, but not as much as the Israeli army's heavy retaliation to Palestinian mortar fire in recent days might suggest - even though the shells landed at Nir Am on a day when Jews remember history's brutal treatment of their people.

"I don't believe they should bulldoze houses. It's terrible for people who built and lost a house they worked their life for," said Marcell Bar-On, a young mother who works as the kibbutz's rental agent and maintains its dwellings. "It's terribly bad publicity, and it just makes things worse."

And the Palestinian group that claimed responsibility for the shelling, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, certainly wasn't acting as one of its senior members says it should.

"Public demonstrations are better than shooting or mortars," Younes Ahmed Jaro said yesterday.

The twin reactions offer insight on opinion among Israelis and Palestinians about the guerrilla war that has raged here in varying degrees of intensity for seven months, threatening to spill over into a larger, more intense conflict.

Among Israelis, views range from demands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza for ever-greater army protection - to the point of reoccupying hills around the West Bank city of Hebron - to those of a shrunken but aggressive far left that has joined in removing barricades that have locked Palestinians in their villages.

Among Palestinians, almost no one denounces the uprising, but some see terrorist and quasi-military tactics as pointless in achieving their goal of independence. They say the escalating violence is almost an uncontrolled reaction to Israeli shelling of civilian areas and shooting of demonstrators.

The expanse of fields between Kibbutz Nir Am and the Gaza village of Beit Hanoun embodies the wide chasm in the history of the two peoples.

The kibbutz was founded by Romanian Jews in 1943 when Palestine was under British administration. The kibbutz was overrun by the Egyptian army in 1948, but residents re-established it shortly after in what has been Israel proper since the War of Independence. Here they found abundant ground water. The kibbutz became a nucleus for 11 postwar Jewish settlements and in succeeding years, drew young immigrants from Morocco, France and Russia.

In the shade of towering ficus trees and alongside fields that in spring turn crimson with poppies, the kibbutz developed along strict Socialist principles. But now its serene bucolic lifestyle, like that of many kibbutzim, is under economic threat. And one of residents' chief fears is that the violence will make it worse.

The community is reorganizing to pay salaries instead of giving all members the same stipend. It is trying to draw income from a 12-room hotel, dining room and a museum marking the first place where water was found in the northern Negev desert.

"If we don't bring about changes, the banks will do it for us," Bar-On said. Members had come to enjoy "a very spoiled life," complete with built-in child care, she said.

Reuven Nahon, the manager in charge of social affairs, fears that news of the shelling could destroy the kibbutz's budding tourist trade. "All efforts that can be made to create sources of income are being made constantly," he said, but the current situation "can critically harm those efforts."

The kibbutz is looking into updating its bomb shelters. Child-care workers and the college students who board here have been briefed and drilled on where to go when the shells fall.

But there is little panic, and no one is ready to move, Nahon said. "Old-timers tell you, `Come on, it's peanuts compared to '48.'"

Unlike most of the rest of the country, the residents voted overwhelmingly for incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the last election. Nahon called it a "dubious honor" to be the target of shelling along with Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Unlike them, Kibbutz Nir Am is not on disputed land.

Bar-On said feeling in the pro-peace community is changing. "People are starting to get worried and say, `Maybe we should retaliate.'" But she opposes "heavy-handed" army tactics. "Every time they retaliate, it could spiral into complete violence," she said.

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