Life in the shadow of the dead

February 07, 2002|By Jason Keyser

JERUSALEM - Sometimes I meet my neighbor this way: A tremendous explosion rocks our limestone building and we both rush onto our balconies to peer down at horrors blurred by dark smoke. So it was Jan. 27.

A young Palestinian - the first woman in 16 months of fighting to do so - set off a blast that shook loose pigeons from rooftops. Red scraps of her body flecked an alley, and an elderly Israeli man who had stood beside her was dead. The street crunched with glass. Mannequins riddled by bullets in a shooting a week earlier spilled into the sidewalk.

In the detached silence before sirens and shouts of police officers, before the wounded felt their cuts and cried in pain, my neighbor looked at me. I shrugged. And I ran down the stairs to begin another gruesome day as a journalist covering 16 months of Mideast bloodletting.

I've found shelter from horror in my role as a reporter, an observer, neither a Jew nor an Arab. I escape into notebooks and computer screens to tell the story. But a year after I arrived, the story gets harder to tell. I live in it, and when people die I feel angry. The shrug to my neighbor on the balcony has become a journalistic shrug. I no longer feel able to make sense of the battle.

Moments after last week's bombing on Jerusalem's Jaffa Street, 20-year-old Yamit Amuzig barricaded herself in the cosmetics store where she works. Nervously smoking, she resolved to carry on despite the deaths of three friends in recent attacks on the street.

"I'm living in the shadow of the dead. This is scary, but this is our country, our life," she said.

Behind those perplexing words is a grim acceptance of the horror. Few speak out against it. Palestinian and Israeli peaceniks are silent. There's even talk - no longer just among radicals - of stringing fences, checkpoints, cameras and police between Jerusalem's mostly Arab east and Jewish west. Unless we're talking Berlin proportions, it would do little to thwart attackers. It would just match the wall of suspicion and hatred with a real one.

A legion of barriers in place in the West Bank since fighting began have proved porous to militants while making worse the Mideast rendition of road rage: Ordinary Palestinians face daily humiliation at checkpoints surrounding their cities.

Leaders who confronted each other 20 years ago in Lebanon have returned to power, sad reflections of the past. Ariel Sharon, who routed Yasser Arafat into exile from Lebanon in 1982, has again cornered him, placing tanks on the doorstep of his office.

And in a speech last week reminiscent of his days as a guerrilla leader in Beirut, Mr. Arafat told supporters of his wish to become a martyr on the way to Jerusalem. The two leaders' decades-old showdown continues - a day after the speech, a militia linked to Mr. Arafat's movement sent Wafa Idris, 27, up Jaffa Street, where she detonated her awful payload. The woman, a paramedic, would have done her people more good by staying alive.

The Palestinians' intifada looks less like a fight against occupation. It's swamped in unbearable and shortsighted yearnings for revenge and terror, like those of Ms. Idris. The Israeli military, for its part, unleashes the rage by killing militant leaders it says are behind attacks.

Extremists on both sides have hijacked the two nations. The results are familiar.

When shopkeepers on Jaffa Street were bombed Jan. 27, they were repairing windows shattered by gunfire five days earlier. Having been there myself that day, I was also just regrouping. I heard the crash of automatic fire and the snap of pistols.

A few steps away, a Palestinian rampaged before being shot dead. I ducked into a shoe store as passers-by on the street pulled pistols from their belts and leveled them, taking cover behind trashcans and corners.

A terrified saleswoman sunk in tears behind the counter and frantically dialed the phone. In the rainy street, two old women crumpled under the spray of gunfire and later died. One of them was 79-year-old Sarah Hamburger.

As a little girl, she had survived the 1929 Arab massacre in the West Bank city of Hebron because an Arab neighbor hid her in his basement and the next day dressed her in Arab clothing and ferried her on a donkey cart to Jerusalem.

In a hillside cemetery, under a blue sky and a thin white moon, her daughters prayed she would again find shelter, peace and honor.

I shrugged and made a note of it in my notebook.

Jason Keyser is an American journalist living in Jerusalem.

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