Mothers talking would be better than fences

February 22, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THE MOTHERS of two young Israelis killed by Palestinian suicide bombers came to see me on Friday.

Lea Zur's son, Assaf, 17, was killed when a suicide bomber destroyed himself and 15 others on a bus in Haifa. Assaf was one of eight victims younger than age 18. Florence Bianu's son, Mark, 29, was among 21 people killed when a Palestinian woman suicide bomber struck the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, killing 21 people. Mark Bianu's wife, Naomi, also died in the attack.

The two grieving mothers met each other less than a month ago at a cemetery in Haifa where a section has been set aside for the victims of Palestinian suicide bombers.

"It's already overflowing," said Zur, who is 44 and has two other sons, ages 20 and 7.

Bianu, 53, has a 25-year-old daughter. "Now she is an only child," she said.

These two women, passionate but dignified in their grief, were in America as guests of the Israel Project, a group that works on behalf of the Jewish state and is engaged in promoting Israel's decision to build a security fence along its border with the occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that the fence will prevent terrorists from crossing into Israel to launch suicide attacks. Given the number of innocent Israelis who have been killed in these attacks -- indiscriminate with respect to age or gender in selecting targets -- it seems reasonable that the Israeli government would build a barrier to protect its people.

The barrier has been compared to the Berlin Wall, but that was designed to keep a people in; this one's designed to keep people out. The Bush administration has expressed unhappiness about the barrier for a variety of reasons. The United Nations persuaded the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, to take up the issue of the barrier's legality under international law, arguing that the barrier intrudes into Palestinian territory and disrupts the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Israel announced last week that it would not send its representatives to the trial in The Hague, which starts tomorrow. The international court, Israel asserted, does not have "the authority to discuss the terrorism prevention fence since it concerns Israel's basic right of self-defense."

No one could argue that all of the above is fact. In the experience of Lea Zur and Florence Bianu, it is a devastating fact beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not lost a child, especially a young individual standing at the threshold of mature contribution.

Who knows what Assaf Zur and Mark Bianu might have contributed to the betterment of the world in which they lived if an agent of their enemies had not decided on a terrifying means to kill them, without ever having known them?

Lea Zur and Florence Bianu were brought to me by Yona Benstock of the Israel Project. The project is engaged this week in a prolific advertising campaign on major television outlets, including CNN and Fox, to support the security fence.

As we left my office, Benstock asked what I would write about their visit. I said I had not decided. The conflict between the hideous truth of what happened to the children of Lea Zur and Florence Bianu and the equally hideous truth of what has happened to Palestinian families who have lost their children does not produce an easy conclusion. There is a conclusion to be drawn from the disastrous impact of this abiding calamity on innocent people. The blame for this lies in the incapacity of the Jewish or the Palestinian leadership to make peace. Great people of influence do not exist on either side. The people in charge are not listening to each other.

Astonishingly, though, my Friday visitors complained about a media bias against Israel, a notion that the Palestinians get a better break in the press because they "offer ready-made stories and pictures," as Lea Zur put it.

I was astonished by this because in a decade as foreign editor of this newspaper and in the last three years as editor of Perspective, I could not recall a visit like the one from the Israel Project from anyone representing the Palestinians. In eight years as Middle East correspondent in the 1970s and 1980s, I could not recall any presentation from any Palestinian group with the sophistication of the Israel Project. Certainly, I cannot recall an advertising campaign from the Palestinians as far-reaching as a week full of spots on major television networks in America.

Forget the Israeli security fence, which is encroaching on even more Palestinian territory. Set aside, if it is possible, that many, many more Palestinians than Israelis have died in the past three years of extraordinary violence between the two sides. Set aside, if possible, the fact that the Palestinian equivalents of Lea Zur and Florence Bianu -- and there are many of them -- might not get permission from the Israeli authorities to leave the West Bank or Gaza to come here to make a similar pitch.

Ask this: Why can't these people make peace? Lea Zur and Florence Bianu want that fence, and I don't blame them. But they also say it's only a temporary fence until the Palestinians produce a leadership Israel can talk to.

But Sharon isn't looking for a Palestinian leadership to talk to. Israel is building barriers at the frontier and spending a fortune in time and money talking to Americans.

If an honest exchange of views between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership is not possible, they should try an exchange of mothers.

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