The exotic becomes an Intifada casualty

May 20, 2001|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel -- From the climate-controlled supermarkets ringing my suburban Israeli town with their underground parking and oversized carts, one would never imagine that minutes away an open-air market still offers the paradigm levantine experience.

Every few months, when I had my fill of computerized scales and bar-coded products, I'd zip 10 miles up the highway to Netanya, pull my rusty shopping cart from the trunk and head for adventure among the olives and the eggplants. Leaving the sunshine, I wound my way through dark congested alleys between stalls stacked eye high with tomatoes and kohlrabi, bouquets of parsley and mint and grapefruits by the hundreds.

The sellers, joking and laughing, hawked their wares aloud. They were pleasant so long as you didn't try to pick out the strawberries one by one. They made a ceremony of tossing my cabbage into plastic bags and twirling the ends closed.

I would return home with freshly caught fish I had no idea how to cook, pounds more fruit than my small family could consume and the feeling that I had shed my jaded urbanite existence at least for half a day. Visiting the market was exhilarating, exhausting, sweaty, colorful and fun.

Fun is the last word now that comes to mind associated with the market in Netanya. I have not been there since the Intifada broke out in late September. I may never go again.

Netanya, a seaside city less than 30 minutes up the coastal highway from Tel Aviv when there is no traffic, has been the target of several terrorist attacks in the past half year. The last bomb in March exploded in mid-morning at the entrance to the market and was probably destined to be detonated within its crowded midst. But the bomber, upon seeing that he had been spotted, immediately exploded his bomb at the periphery.

Four were killed, 60 wounded. I could never wander carelessly there again, fearing that an explosive may be hidden under any crate of oranges. But that's just one reason I stay away.

The other is because I don't want to see the vendors and wonder which of them participated in the mob attack on a Palestinian worker in the market minutes after March's terrorist attack. The man, Salah Bassam, had been working as a laborer for several years in the market.

Dozens attacked him and beat him nearly to death. After two months in an Israeli hospital, Mr. Bassam was released recently, according to the Ha'aretz newspaper, "physically scarred and physically disabled."

The mob attack in the heart of Israel made the nation's news, but the lack of general outcry prompted outgoing Justice Minister Yossi Beilin to advise his successor: "This ministry and its head must tell the people, with all due respect, `Don't turn into wild animals'. When I see how the lynch in Netanya was accepted so quietly -- somehow no one protested, no one shouted. We seem to understand lynches better these days."

Almost as terrifying as the primal rage which caused the attack on Mr. Bassam as retribution for a bomb he had nothing to do with is that although many witnessed the assault in the market, not one of the attackers has been identified or arrested. Journalists conducting private interviews claim they have tracked down the participants, but the police have made no move.

Opposition Labor Party leader Yossi Sarid charged that the Netanya police do not want to conduct a serious investigation. This is in contrast to the arrests by Israeli security services of several Palestinians suspected of participating in the brutal lynching of two Israelis in the West Bank city of Ramallah in October.

Netanya police claim that they know the identity of those involved but lack evidence to bring charges. Mr. Bassam reportedly knows some personally, but refuses to speak out.

Last year I visited Ramallah, walked its streets and ate openly in a restaurant there. If I were to step into Ramallah today, chances are I would not come out alive.

No mob would attack me in Netanya. But I have lost all desire to see the men in the market who so cheerfully wrapped my cabbage and appeared so brusquely friendly. And as for the police, how could I count on them to protect me or any powerless person unless it is sure I belong to the "right" side?

Helen Schary Motro is an American-born lawyer who divides her time between homes in New York and Israel.

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