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Peaceful Palestinians pay a price

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001

When you think of recent images from the Middle East, those of force and violence immediately spring to mind:

Ariel Sharon, the ex-general who is Israel's new prime minister, making his way to a Jerusalem holy site accompanied by 1,000 riot-equipped Israeli police;

Mohammed Al-Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian caught in a gunbattle, cowering in his father's arms until the boy is shot dead and the father convulses in agony from a bullet to the neck;

A murdered Israeli soldier flung like a rag doll from a Palestinian police station while one of his killers throws up his bloody hands in glee.

Yet in remembering the early days of the second intifada, the latest uprising of Palestinians against Israel, I am pulled back to a different scene. In its ordinariness, it might say more than all those dramatic images about the challenge facing both sides as a new, hard-line Israeli government takes power.

It is a beautiful October day. I am standing on a small hill near Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, talking with Hani Hassan, an architect.

With quiet pride, Hassan points to the magnificent residence he has designed for a Palestinian businessman who lives in South Carolina. The home, an example of what Hassan calls "eco-architecture," is perfectly situated to get the warmth of the sun in winter and the cooling breezes from the Mediterranean in summer.

Construction, though, has come to a halt. The workers can't get here because of Israeli roadblocks. And even if the house is finished, will its Palestinian owner want to leave the security of the American South for this seemingly perpetual war zone?

This is just part of the frustrating story of Hassan's life, and the lives of so many well-educated, non-violent, middle-class Palestinians whom the rest of the world hears so little about.

Hassan, 46, has Jewish friends in Israel, professional people like himself. He understands why many Israelis live in fear of Palestinians, some of whom have committed despicable acts of terrorism against innocent men, women and children.

What Hassan doesn't understand is why Israel seems to to view all Palestinians as terrorists. Why so few Israelis seem to understand what it's like to be treated as a criminal every time one wants to go the airport, or visit relatives in another town or drive more than a few miles through the desert in springtime bloom.

Although he was born in Bethlehem, Hassan grew up in Colombia where his father, like many other Palestinians, had emigrated. Hassan got his undergraduate degree there, went to Spain for his master's and returned to Colombia to serve in the army, in a brigade that included two Jews. They had "very tough" discussions about the Middle East, Hassan said, "but we respected each other."

In the mid-'90s, Hassan decided to move back to the West Bank to do what he could to help build the Palestinian economy and, one day, a Palestinian nation. It was at a border crossing between Jordan and Israel that Hassan realized Israeli soldiers now saw him in an entirely different light.

"When I used to visit Palestine as a Colombian, they never opened my bag or searched me," Hassan said. "Later, when I came as a Palestinian, they did everything -- opened my bag, searched me, made me take off my clothes. I felt like there was no respect for human dignity. From that time on, I began to feel like a Palestinian who was under suspicion, who must be treated like everyone else, that there was no difference between me and millions of others. I was just another Palestinian."

In listing their concessions toward peace, Israeli authorities note that 97 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank live under Palestinian rule. What the Israelis don't say, unless pressed, is that most Palestinians are extremely limited in their movements because Israel retains such tight control over roads and borders.

Two years ago, for example, Hassan's brother, a dentist, was denied permission to go to Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport to catch a flight to South America. Instead, he had to fly from Amman, Jordan, to Athens, where he met up with his wife and children.

Like those working on Hassan's house, many Palestinians can't get to their jobs in other Palestinian towns these days, let alone places of work within Israel itself. Most Palestinians in the West Bank have never been to the Gaza Strip 30 miles away, even though Gaza will become the western part of an eventual Palestinian state.

In electing Sharon, Israelis showed their dismay with what they saw as his predecessor's weakness in dealing with militant Palestinians. The tight Israeli control over Palestinian areas undoubtedly has helped reduce the number of terrorist acts in Israel. But even many Israelis realize that the long-term effect could be more Palestinian resentment and hatred.

"I wish we could have a better formula," says Michael Arbel, Israel's consul general in Miami. "When the borders are open we have 120,000 Palestinians coming to Israel (to work). Now we are afraid -- it is as if you are potentially bringing in 120,000 terrorists."

With one of the world's highest birth rates, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are steadily narrowing the gap with Israel's Jewish population. The enormous dilemma facing Israel is how to identify the relatively few Palestinians who will never foreswear violence and terrorism, and deal with the many like Hassan, who could be valuable partners in building a prosperous and lasting peace.

"The leaders of Israel and the Palestinians must take some very difficult steps and make some very difficult decisions," Hassan said that day in October, "because if they don't the chance is too high for the extremists to lead both people."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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