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The late Ala Abu Dhaim was a 25-year-old deliveryman in Jerusalem. A Palestinian Arab with Israeli citizenship, he lived with his family in East Jerusalem, and so was free to travel into West Jerusalem, where, on the night of March 6, he used his Kalashnikov assault rifle to shoot to death eight Israeli students attending a yeshiva, a religious school.
In his neighborhood, he was known as a gentle fellow who was looking forward to getting married this summer. But his family says that the recent retaliatory Israeli attacks in Gaza, which killed nearly 120 Palestinian Arabs, including children, had infuriated him.
Dhaim's revenge seemed at first to be a solo operation, but on March 7, Hamas—after initially simply congratulating him—stepped forward to claim credit for the executions, according to a Reuters report. Whatever the truth of the case, with many Israelis now fearful that a third Palestinian intifada could soon begin, ushering in a new wave of suicide bombings, it's clear that this first major murderous assault inside Jerusalem in four and a half years could well forebode many more human body parts strewn on the city's streets.
When I first heard of the killings of the mostly teenage Israeli students, I remembered the worldwide shock and revulsion in February 1994, when an Israeli settler on the West Bank, Baruch Goldstein, rushed into the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and shot to death 29 Muslims as they were deep in prayer.
In his new book, A History of Modern Israel (Cambridge University Press), Colin Shindler, a historian at the University of London, notes that the Goldstein atrocity "radicalized more Palestinian Arabs and persuaded Hamas to extend its campaign into Israeli proper [with] suicide bombers."
And some radical Jews, venerating Goldstein's willingness to sacrifice his life for a Greater Israel, were strengthened in their own extremism by his example—including young Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for being "soft" on the Palestinians. (On Amir's bookshelf was a collection of essays honoring Baruch Goldstein; Rabin had shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasir Arafat and Shimon Peres for their attempts to reach a peace agreement.)
After Goldstein's barbarous killing of Muslims at prayer, he was reviled by just about every sector of Israeli society, including those most unforgivingly hostile to Israelis working for peace.
This year, after Ala Abu Dhaim cut off the brief lives of those eight yeshiva students, there was jubilation in the streets of Gaza, with thousands of Palestinians celebrating and shooting off their guns in satisfaction. And at the mourning tent in Dhaim's East Jerusalem home, waving over the heads of more than 100 grieving Arabs, were the green flags of Hamas.
Yet despite the burning anger among Israelis, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—resisting the inflamed demands of some Israelis that he send the full punitive force of the Israeli army into Gaza—insists that he will not abandon his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. In a fierce contrary obbligato, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Israelis shouted "Death to the Arabs!" outside the yeshiva on the night of the murders—and Rabbi David Shalem, the director of the Institute of Talmud Studies at the yeshiva, yelled to the press outside (including a New York Times reporter): "Let the government go to hell! Write that down! Let the government go to hell!"
All of this brought me back to when I was a child in Boston—some 20 years before Israel was established in 1948 as a Jewish state. Almost as soon as I could walk, I joined other Jewish boys on the streets of my neighborhood carrying a blue-and-white tin container, collecting donations to plant trees in Palestine, which would somehow hasten the coming of a Jewish homeland. (Soon the Nazis would try very hard to remove the need for such a place.)
I had no idea back then, knocking on my neighbors' doors with my little container, of the continuous bloodshed that would be generated by the ever-perilous existence of the Jewish state. Over the years, I've read the histories by advocates on both sides, as well as the revisions of history (by Israelis as well as Arabs)—and I have come to understand certain deep grievances that have been spawned by "the Occupation," as have the Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli human-rights organizations.
Despite the new festering wounds in Gaza and Jerusalem, I am now somewhat encouraged by the wrenching realism—as reported in The Economist (March 8)—of "those Israelis who favor talks with Hamas," as loathsome as the prospect may well be to both sides. They include "former heads of all three of Israel's fabled and often deadly intelligence services: Ephraim Halevy [Mossad] . . . Shlomo Gazit [military intelligence] . . . and Ami Ayalon [Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security network]."
As I indicated last week, there are also Palestinians—including some in Gaza who are not celebrating the murders of the yeshiva students—who want all the killing to stop. And there are Arab governments who fear that a wildfire of Israeli-Palestinian violence could begin to engulf them all, inciting Muslim fundamentalists and other resisters to rebel against the authoritarian governments in those states. Egypt, for instance, has met with a Hamas delegation to try to work out a cease-fire in Gaza.
There is also a potential scenario that The Economist calls "fanciful" at present, even though it "may become more realistic" over time: an agreement between the bristlingly hostile Hamas and Fatah organizations "to let Mr Abbas continue to negotiate with Israel, [while] both Palestinian parties would agree to hold new elections—and to respect their results."
More in line with the present grim reality is the reaction by Israeli citizen Moshed Harel, whose 15-year-old son was inside the Jerusalem yeshiva when Ala Abu Dhaim began firing randomly in the library. After waiting an agonizing half-hour to learn that his son was safe, Harel said heavily: "It's a long war. It didn't start today. It won't end tomorrow."
Some years ago, I was told that the trees we Boston kids helped to plant in Palestine—in the hopes of seeing a Jewish homeland there one day—have survived. For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, I hope they remain standing.
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