Saturday, November 11, 2006

Remembrance Day

Pain and disbelief in Gaza

By Matthew Price

BBC News, Jerusalem

Earlier this week, tens of thousands of people mourned the 18 Palestinians killed by Israeli tank fire in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed regret and some Israelis are now beginning to re-assess the ongoing conflict.

When I got back home I went straight to the balcony.

I turned on the hose, took off my boots and washed them down. Made sure I got the blood off them. They are out there now, drying.

Then I went to shower, washed my hair, brushed my teeth. Beit Hanoun was dirty. I wanted to feel clean again. The streets were soiled. The tanks had left their track marks by the shops.

The wall outside the secondary school had been knocked down. Railings to stop children running into the street were bent over.

On one pavement I saw a trickle of dried blood, where a woman had fallen, shot in the head. And on a quiet residential street, the faces told me everything I needed to know.

The sides of the road were lined with people. Some stood, others sat. They stared into space, at one another, at the ground. Some put an arm around a neighbour. One man grieved alone, tears on his face. All had the same look in their eyes.

I noticed it because it was not the look you see so often, one of hatred, of revenge. This was a look of sheer disbelief. I noticed someone I had met before. A taxi driver who once picked me up at the Erez crossing into Gaza. Raed had the same look. Not quite crying. But you knew something was deeply, deeply wrong.

How many of your family have you lost, I asked? "All of them. They all had the same grandfather."
"I feel hate," he added. He did not spit it out like people so often do. He just said it. "I hate George W Bush. I hate Israel of course. I hate the Arab world. I hate Europe." His eyes, though, did not say hate. They said pain.


Later, when I got home, I spoke to an Israeli friend. She sounded broken. She is a true left-winger, always has been.

They are rare here now. She described how another Israeli had called her earlier, saying she felt so ashamed that she dare not call her friends abroad.

I told my friend it is not her fault. I know, she said. You meet very few Israelis who express such feelings.

Most, of course, express regret, especially at the death of children. But many of them find it impossible to properly understand Palestinians. It is often easier to blame. And it works both ways.
Earlier this week I met a Palestinian man who told me most of his neighbours think that all Israelis are soldiers.

"They only ever see soldiers," he pointed out.

"I try to tell them they are mothers and fathers like us," he added.

And this is the tragedy here. Neither side comprehends the other.

Hardliners prevail

The gulf between the two is so great that perhaps neither side wants to anymore.

The other day at an event marking the assassination of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of Israel's most acclaimed left wing authors delivered the keynote speech.

David Grossman pulled few punches. He talked of an Israel in crisis, and of the failure of the peace process.

"The Palestinians are also to blame for the impasse," he said.

"But take a look at them from a different perspective, not only at the radicals in their midst.

"Take a look at the overwhelming majority of this miserable people, whose fate is entangled with our own, whether we like it or not."

The sad fact is most Israelis do not take a look at the Palestinians.

More and more it seems to me, it is the hardliners on both sides whose voices are being heard the loudest.

A day after the killings in Beit Hanoun, the Israeli newspapers were full of comment.

Some - predictably - said the deaths were preventable. If only the Palestinians would stop firing rockets at Israeli towns, Israel would not have to shell Gaza.

But there were others from a different perspective.

One commentator wrote: "For us, [these deaths] pass as if [they] were nothing.

"We have to ask ourselves. Does this really serve our national interest?"

Haunting memories

When I left Beit Hanoun, I went to the BBC bureau in Jerusalem to edit a television piece.
We have both Israelis and Palestinians working there.

I took a break to make a coffee and walked out into the newsroom to find a young girl, four or five years old, her hair in pigtails, standing with her father.

He is a producer in the office.

An Israeli, and it threw me.

She looked exactly like some of the girls I had seen in Gaza that day.

Back from the dead, standing there in front of me.

We closed the edit suite door so she would not see the pictures.

Outside on the balcony, my boots are now dry. It will be harder to wash away the memories of what happened at Beit Hanoun.

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