A Land Divided

In two years, the optimism of the Oslo peace accords has disappeared, leaving a land torn by suspicion, hatred and unimaginable violence that's left thousands dead and wounded.

September 22, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

JERUSALEM -- Two years after the fight between Palestinians and Israelis began hurtling to an unprecedented level of violence, the cost to both sides has been enormous and the hope of ever restoring a peace process seems to have disappeared.

The death toll has reached the proportions of a full-scale war. More than 2,100 people have been killed since the uprising the Palestinians call the Al Aqsa Intifada began late September 2000. That includes more than 1,500 Palestinians and almost 600 Israelis. Five Israelis and a 19-year-old Scottish student were killed by a suicide bomber on a bus in central Tel Aviv on Thursday in an attack that marked the end of a six-week lull in terror attacks against Israeli civilians. The casualties on both sides include soldiers, fighters, police officers, settlers, old men and women, young mothers and infants.

The impact of the conflict on the economies and the way of life of both sides has been devastating -- far more so on the Palestinian side, but both people live in a state of fear, anger and frustration.

Palestinian suicide bombers have killed Israelis on buses, in their cars, in night-clubs, restaurants and hotels, penetrating the hearts of the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Israeli unemployment has reached as high as 9 percent. The national economy has been contracting for two years. The shekel, Israel's currency, is losing value. Tax revenue is plummeting.

Bus rides are life-threatening risks. Hotels are practically empty, and most restaurants have hired security guards for their trickle of patrons. (As if going to a restaurant in West Jerusalem weren't considered dangerous enough, Israeli security this month broke up a plot by Arab staff in a prominent restaurant to put poison in the food of Israeli patrons.)

"We're fighting for survival," said Raanan Gissin, chief spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

And severely punishing the Palestinian population in the process. Living conditions for large parts of the 3.5 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza are horrendous.

Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians live, many of them in hot, squalid refugee camps, is said to have an unemployment rate of 60 percent. Israel has sealed off the Gaza Strip, prohibiting anyone from leaving. About 100,000 Gaza residents used to work in Israel.

Roadblocks surrounding Jerusalem make it difficult, humiliating and sometimes impossible for West Bank Palestinians to get to the city. Palestinians may wait for hours at the hot, dusty checkpoints while Israeli soldiers determine the pace of the traffic and who may pass.

Curfews and checkpoints set up by the Israelis around major Palestinian cities and towns leave people unable to move out of their homes except for brief periods, or to get from one community to another.

Last week, a 12-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. He had gone out during the curfew to buy cigarettes for his father.

In Jerusalem, the passionately disputed city where Israel asserts that Arabs have the rights of citizenship, it is not unusual to see Israeli soldiers pushing and shoving Palestinians in East Jerusalem, especially around the entrance to the old walled city and the nearby commercial district. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, near Biblical Bethany, a high wall has been built across the main street, barring any cars from entering by that route.

Aleko Karmieh, who lives in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, has a son who drives a taxi. Shaking his head one day recently, he said, "My son drove to take his taxi to Ramallah two days ago and he still has not returned." Ramallah used to be a 20-minute ride from Jerusalem.

Cities demolished

Israel has used U.S.-supplied jets, helicopters and tanks to invade and demolish parts of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is headquartered.

Friday, Israeli forces re-entered Ramallah in a reprisal for the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, blew up three buildings in Arafat's compound and demanded that he turn over some 20 wanted Palestinians.

The bombardment was so intense that it raised the possibility that the Palestinian leader might have to leave the compound where he has been holed up for months.

Gaza, Jenin, Nablus and other Palestinian towns are also under siege. Israel has killed more than 75 Palestinians suspected of involvement in terror attacks.

Often, Palestinian civilians have been killed in these assassinations. Thirteen civilians were killed in three recent attacks. In addition, Israelis have demolished homes of suspected or known terrorists and their families.

This summer, a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions for the U.S. Agency for International Development found that the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza faced a crisis of malnutrition and susceptibility to disease.

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