Intifada, terrorism, or the way it is

"The Situation": Their leaders call the struggle by other names, but for many Israelis and Palestinians, bloodshed is simply a fact of life.

September 26, 2001|By Peter Hermann | By Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - They call it simply "the Situation."

The politicians have their own names for the conflict that, beginning last September, has engulfed Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A popular uprising against occupation, Palestinian leaders call it. An organized terror campaign, the Israeli government says.

But for many on either side of the widening, bloody divide, it is simply "the Situation." It is a neutral, understated way of describing a terrifying way of life, a way of creating normality for people who send their children to school on armored buses or are prevented from reaching their jobs or medical care by military checkpoints. It eliminates the need to find new ways to describe the seemingly routine and never-ending violence.

"Everybody is suffering," says Dr. Muhammad Khader, a Palestinian anesthesiologist whose home is perched on a cliff overlooking the West Bank city of Ramallah, surrounded by a ribbon of sweet-smelling mint. "Everybody is going nowhere."

The attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington have overshadowed the violence here. But if what is happening in the Middle East is any guide for the United States as it embarks on a military campaign against terrorism, people must be prepared for a confounding conflict in which neither the battle lines nor the prospect for victory is clear-cut.

In the Situation, both sides have paid an enormous price. Both sides mourn the loss of life and the loss of security. The two sides are locked in battles involving land and religion - the principles hardest to compromise. Israelis and Palestinians wait for the next bombing, the next checkpoint, the next truce talks. In the Situation, that passes for normal life.

`Our loss'

Arnold Roth will never accept that his daughter Malki died as part of someone's political statement.

It is not grief that drives this view. Roth does not live in the past. He is a practical man, a 49-year-old father of six, a lawyer and software engineer who deals with facts.

Malki is dead. His 15-year-old girl who sent smiley-faced notes to suffering friends was one of more than a dozen people killed while sitting in a Jerusalem pizzeria blown up last month by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

She became a casualty of the Situation, of the politics she and her family ridiculed at the dinner table. Her father sees her death as a family tragedy, but nothing larger.

"Her loss is our loss," he says. "The fact that it occurred against a certain political background is almost not noticed by anyone."

Roth wants the world to know what it has lost, so that another child won't be sacrificed in the future.

Malki played the flute. She wrote poems. She led a youth group for troubled children. Inspired by helping her blind and disabled sister, she searched her Jerusalem neighborhood for others in need.

That's all anyone needs to know, her father says. "I haven't learned anything helpful in any way about our Arab neighbors or their politics," Roth says. He doesn't want to try.

Roth emigrated from Australia 16 years ago to raise his family with Jewish traditions and religion. The son of an Auschwitz survivor, he gave up an expansive house for a cramped apartment in north Jerusalem. He gave up a partnership in a law firm to move to a city with a glut of lawyers. To find work, he had to find a new career.

Roth doesn't think about the pizzeria. An attack that occurred a few weeks later frames his daughter's tragic death. In that one, the attacker was thwarted by two police officers and managed to kill only himself.

Roth remembers that the man smiled before detonating the bomb.

"I don't blame him at all," Roth says. "He is the product of a process that is beyond comprehension, of an entire leadership whose contribution to their own people is to produce kids who can blow themselves up with a smile."

Roth said he compares that image with the outpouring of love from Malki's young friends.

"We can't build bridges," he said. "We have to build ramparts to protect ourselves. Political problems are resolved through compromise and discussion. There is no discussion here."

Roth once thought that "children were here to be told what to do." Now, for the first time, he sees the contributions his daughter made in her short 15 years.

He knew she played the flute. But he hadn't known she had started to write songs. He knew she went out of her way to help friends, but he hadn't understood her impact until one by one they came to his house to mourn, and each handed him a note she'd written to cheer them up.

"I look at the quality of kids who have come to our house," Roth says. "They express themselves with such understanding and maturity that you have to ask yourself: `If our youth are this good, where are we messing up?'"

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