In Israel, fear and hope for end to the violence

Many in Jerusalam criticize the Palestinians for embracing Hamas; others are cautiously optimistic.

Published January 27, 2006

JERUSALEM - Put three Israelis together, a saying goes, and you'll get four different opinions.

That was the case Thursday night as this city's Jewish residents absorbed the stunning news that Hamas - an Islamic movement committed to Israel's destruction - had won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Raanan Kop, an accountant, had a one-word reaction: "Terrified."

Ivan Halperin, an antiques dealer, said, "It is good."

And Malka Par, a teacher, was both "very sorry" and cautiously optimistic. "Who knows, maybe they are so strong they will do peace," she said of Hamas' leaders.

Israelis closely followed the Palestinian election, and nowhere more so than here in Jerusalem, the scene of numerous terror attacks since violence between the two sides erupted in 2000. Memories of charred buses and blood-stained cafes were clearly on the minds of many Israelis who thought the vote results proved Palestinians are not interested in peace.

"What was the election for - to decide who's a better killer?" asked Ilia Holodkov, a mechanic who lost a close friend in a suicide bombing.

Jonathan Lewis, who immigrated to Israel from New York four years ago, paused to reflect on the vote as he walked past the Cafe Hillel in the city's lively German Colony neighborhood. In 2003, a bombing at the cafe killed seven, including a renowned emergency room doctor and his daughter, who was to be married the next day.

"The Palestinian territories are a de facto terrorist state," said Lewis, who served in the Israeli army in the West Bank during the height of the violence. "It's only a matter of time until somebody polices them because they can't police themselves."

Other Israelis were dismayed that Palestinians used their first parliamentary election in a decade to elect so many candidates from an organization that has killed scores of Jews.

"It makes me think that what we read about the changes in their society is just the wishful thinking of journalists," said Kop, the accountant. He rejected the idea that Palestinians were voting less for Hamas than they were against a government widely perceived as corrupt and ineffectual.

Reaction to the Hamas victory was especially strong among Jewish settlers who were evicted from their homes in the Gaza Strip last summer when Israel ended its occupation. Many have spent the past five months in Jerusalem's Gold Hotel, awaiting permanent housing and fuming at an Israeli government they feel rewarded terrorism.

"I think a big part of Hamas' winning was the Gaza pullout," said Moshe Tashnady, an electrical engineering student who is staying with his parents at the hotel. "The Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip saw that if you behave more aggressively and do more terror actions, you gain more."

Now that it's in control of the government, Hamas will become just as corrupt as the party it ousted, Tashnady predicted.

"When they have access to all the money of the people, they will take it, and I have no doubt it will turn to terror."

Par, the teacher, took some comfort in the fact that the Palestinian Authority is almost bankrupt, and that the United States and European Union have threatened to cut off aid unless Hamas gives up its weapons.

The most optimistic view came from Halperin, who has an antiques store in the landmark King David Hotel. In 1946, the hotel was bombed and 95 were killed by what was then considered a terrorist organization - the Irgun, a Jewish underground group headed by Menachem Begin and committed to driving the British out of Palestine.

As Israel's prime minister 33 years later, Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt.

Halperin noted that hard-liners like Begin and Ariel Sharon, who ordered the Gaza pullout, made some of Israel's most daring moves toward peace. Now he thinks the same thing could happen on the Palestinian side as Hamas takes over a government headed by a weak president, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

"I don't know if Abu Mazen wanted to make peace, but even if he did he had to fight with Hamas," Halperin said. "He kept saying, "Give me more arms, give me more money.' Now Hamas is in power and there are no more games - all the cards are on the table. If they come to a position where they want to make peace, they are the ones who can do it."