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- April 29, 2002
- Vol. 57
- No. 16
Separated by Just a Mile, Two Families—One Palestinian, One Israeli—Struggle with Loss and Search for Hope
Just a mile—and a world—away, in a hillside house in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, another sleepless mother battles her own thoughts. The lonely hours after dark are when Sipora Ben Shoham, 65, is flooded with recollections of her youngest daughter. Limor, 27, was sitting at the bar of Jerusalem's Moment cafe on the night of March 9 when a Palestinian carrying a hidden cache of explosives and nails blew himself up, killing Limor and 10 others. The death is so recent it still seems surreal to her mother. "I haven't really absorbed it," admits Sipora. "Maybe it didn't happen."
Yet the killing continues, and Beit Jala and Gilo—separated by a small valley and a 7-ft.-high concrete wall on Jerusalem's border—have become a microcosm of the conflict raging between Palestinians and Israelis. Families like the Abu Eids view the Israelis in Gilo as occupiers of land that was once in Palestinian hands. But Gilo's residents consider the land vital to the security of Israel, which captured it only after neighboring Arab nations invaded in 1967's Six-Day War.
Since then, the rift has only grown deeper and bloodier—never more so than in recent weeks. On March 29 Israeli forces, responding to months of terror attacks within Israel, began rolling into West Bank towns and cities, determined to smash the Palestinians' ability to wreak terror on Israel's civilians. Even as Secretary of State Colin Powell shuttled through the region in a desperate bid to restore calm, the carnage continued unabated. "Each death drives these communities further outside the circle of peace," says Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli who runs a group for families of victims on both sides of the dispute. "Every time someone dies, it makes more hatred, bloodshed and revenge."
The rage is palpable on the streets of Beit Jala, a hilly town of 13,500 where Fauz and George Abu Eid, Palestinian Christians, live in a solid two-story home built more than half a century ago by George's late father, a schoolteacher. George, 56, a housepainter who worked in Israel until the borders were sealed 19 months ago, once considered himself a political moderate, and as Christians—like most of Beit Jala's residents—the Abu Eids have never been strongly aligned with the Muslim fundamentalists behind the wave of terror attacks on Israel. Still, the loss of a child—and months of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 fellow Palestinians—have taken their toll. "Israelis killed my son," says Fauz, a cook at a Greek Orthodox seminary, who has two daughters, Maysa, 18, and Mahira, 14, and a son, Issa, 6. "My children will never forget."
Mousa, recalls his mother, was "a good boy," who was studying to become an electrician and had started working part-time at construction sites three months earlier. "He was so happy to be bringing money into the house," Fauz says of her son, who instructed his mother to save the money to buy a computer for Maysa's studies. "He just wasn't political at all."
On the last afternoon of his life Mousa returned home from a shopping trip with treats for the whole family. "He said, 'I brought you the best cookies in the shop,' " recalls George. Mousa urged his family to come downstairs, where he felt they would be safer. After months of fending off fire from Palestinian gunmen—mostly Islamic militants from outside Beit Jala who have injured some 400 Gilo residents since September 2000—Israeli troops had moved snipers onto Beit Jala rooftops.
Fauz, son Issa and Mahira were downstairs playing cards around 6 p.m. when Mousa went up to get a blanket for his brother. Suddenly Fauz heard a thump from the floor above. Moments later George discovered Mousa collapsed on the floor, blood gushing from where a bullet had pierced his neck and come out the middle of his back. Israeli military officials would say later that their sniper had fired at a gunman, but George says his son did nothing more than glance through the window of his own home. "He didn't throw stones—he wasn't out shooting," says George. "That wasn't Mousa." Little Issa rushed upstairs and "for three minutes, he watched his brother dying in a pool of blood," says George, who did his best to resuscitate his son—to no avail.
The family plunged into mourning. They placed Mousa's body in the family's black, marble-faced tomb in a cemetery at the center of Beit Jala, but with firefights on the streets outside, the Abu Eids spent most of the traditional three-day mourning period trapped in the house. Younger brother Issa was bewildered. "He didn't understand that Mousa would never come back," says sister Maysa, a student of business administration at a Bethlehem university, who has dealt with her own grief by focusing on her studies.
For Mousa's parents, the death proved devastating. "It not only killed him—it killed me, my wife, my whole family," says George, whose home is now adorned with poster after poster bearing large photographs of Mousa and declaring him a martyr for the Palestinian cause. In a second-floor window, a small pane of glass still bears a single bullet hole. "I won't change the glass in 10 years," says George. "It is Mousa's memorial."
It also serves as a symbol of George's increasing indignation at the Israelis, who, he says, are occupying land that rightly belongs to Palestinians. George estimates that the Abu Eid family has lived in Beit Jala for some four centuries, and he resents Israeli settlers who have come from other countries, such as the former Soviet republics, to settle in Gilo. "Overnight they take it and call it theirs," he says. "Is that justice?" Though the couple say their Christian religion does not condone suicide bombing, they do not blame the bombers and gunmen who have killed 420 Israelis since the intifada began. "I see them as martyrs," says Fauz.
That sort of passionate hatred only deepened when the Israelis—pushed over the edge by the March 27 massacre of 28 people at a Passover seder in coastal Netanya—swept into the West Bank, imposing 24-hour curfews in places like Beit Jala. For days on end, the Abu Eids have been stuck close to home, keeping busy with card games, gardening, TV news and—in Fauz's case—embroidery, while the sound of gunfire and the roar of Israeli aircraft rumble almost constantly outside. "It feels like we are wasting our lives," says George. "We are prisoners in our own home."
When a friend calls on the afternoon of April 13 to share the news that the curfew has been lifted, Fauz leaps into a battered sedan driven to the market by George's brother Suhail. On the way he stops the car so Fauz can visit the local cemetery, where she makes her way to the stone bearing Mousa's name and portrait. She straightens a wooden cross, then touches Mousa's etched smile, wipes a tear from her face and walks away in silence toward the market to shop.
Minutes later Fauz is carrying a bag of five chickens from the market when explosions rock the area. Israeli troops have fired two teargas canisters to disperse the crowd. Quickly she jumps back in the car to head home. Asked whose side God is on in this bloody conflict, she says, "God has nothing to do with this. It comes from the brains of humans."
On the other side of the concrete wall, another family grieves and rages, in striking symmetry with the Abu Eids. Early each morning, when taxi driver Shlomo Ben Shoham drives from Gilo to begin his shift, his first stop is at a narrow Jerusalem intersection down the block from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's residence. At what was once the Moment cafe, Shlomo, 66, weeps as he places his daily memorial candle in memory of his daughter. "I loved her so much," he says. "My soul has been taken."
Shlomo last saw his daughter the evening of March 9, when she left the home she still shared with her parents—secular Sephardic Jews—for a night out with friends. When Shlomo saw on TV that a terrorist had just struck in Netanya, he called Limor, a copy-company accounts supervisor, on her cell phone to caution her to be careful. "She said she was okay," recalls Sipora. "She was near the prime minister's residence." For young Israelis frightened away from the cafes and bars of central West Jerusalem after a series of terror attacks, Moment—in staid, upscale Rehavia, just 100 yards from Sharon's heavily guarded official compound—had become an oasis. Just two weeks earlier Limor, single, apolitical, the center of a large group of friends, had celebrated her 27th birthday there.
That night she was waiting at the bar near the entrance for some friends to arrive when the 20-year-old bomber made his way to the packed cafe's entrance. When Shlomo, home in Gilo, heard the cafe's name on the TV, he immediately guessed the worst. "I knew she was dead," says Shlomo. In minutes a call came from one of the friends who was to meet Limor, asking where she was—and taking Sipora's last hope. "It meant she was gone," says Sipora. "I started to go crazy."
During shivah, the traditional Jewish week of mourning, friends streamed into the Ben Shohams' terraced home, and all spoke lovingly about the vivacious woman who had been lost, who loved partying and enjoyed giving friends makeovers. "She had a heart big enough to include everyone," says her brother Yaron, 36, a hospital driver. Says Sipora: "The house is so sad now."
It was hardly the fate the couple had envisioned when they moved to Gilo 25 years ago. Sipora, the Jerusalem—born daughter of Syrian immigrants, and Shlomo, who immigrated with his family from Turkey at age 13, married in 1963. A construction worker, he also fought in three of Israel's wars—including the 1967 war, when Israel occupied areas that included the West Bank and Gaza. They settled near Tel Aviv but moved to Gilo in 1977. "I was born in Jerusalem and wanted to come back," says Sipora, who spent 25 years as an office worker at the nation's labor ministry.
Living close to the West Bank, the family regularly visited nearby Bethlehem to shop for furniture and hired Palestinians to tend their lush garden and to do odd jobs. "They would come by and eat and drink," says Sipora. "They were like friends."
Now, all interaction has stopped. "They send 17-year-olds to kill themselves and others," says son Benzi, 34, an army master sergeant who lives across the street from his parents. "They don't value life." The Ben Shohams have dug in their heels politically. Shlomo once supported foreign minister Shimon Peres, longtime backer of the peace process with the Palestinians. Now he backs Sharon's military actions.
Like the Abu Eids, the Ben Shohams now live in fear. Every trip to the grocery store, each visit to the bank, carries a risk of tragic consequences. "We are afraid to go out on our own streets," says Sipora. Now her grandchildren, 7 and 4 years old, play make-believe games, pretending to be ambulance dispatchers sending vehicles to suicide bombings. "It's impossible to live this way, with explosions all the time," says Benzi's 7-year-old son Roy.
Still, they do not talk about leaving Gilo or Jerusalem. "I love the country," Sipora says. "I will not leave because of terror." But after the death of Limor, peace with the Palestinians seems farther away than ever. "I am much hardened since then," says Benzi. "It is impossible to forgive them." And with each new report of terror, the wound opens anew. "I sympathize with every mother," says Sipora. "Who knows how many lives have been ruined?"
That maternal sympathy may, in the end, be the region's only hope for salvation. This, says Middle East scholar Philippa Strum, is what happened during the last intifada. "It was mothers concerned about their children who continued to talk about peace. I expect that someday they will again say, 'Enough. Let's resolve this without the bloodshed.' "
For now, though, a mile away, Fauz Abu Eid spends her afternoon reading from the Bible while the war rages outside. "It's not impossible for the three religions to live together on this land," she says. "I don't know what will happen, but I hope we will live in peace."
Pete Norman in Beit Jala and Gilo
- Pete Norman.
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