First Person: November 5, 1997
A Mideast correspondent mourns the region's resurgence of violence and retaliation
by Alan Sipress '83
THE BREAKTHROUGH in the Middle East peace process came so abruptly that I barely had time to change my shirt. That September day in 1993 was a historic one for Arabs and Israelis as well as dramatic for me personally. Freshly dispatched by The Philadelphia Inquirer to begin an assignment as a Middle East correspondent, I was whisked by taxi from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, pausing at a Jerusalem hotel barely long enough to grab some clean clothes, and then winged on to witness the making of a dream.
As Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat prepared to conclude their landmark accord on the White House lawn, Israeli lawmakers and Palestinian leaders elbowed into the gracious banquet room of East Jerusalem's storied American Colony Hotel to watch live CNN coverage on a large screen. Champagne glasses clinked. Several of these seasoned politicians dabbed away tears, as did my Israeli assistant. This unprecedented crowd of Arab and Jew, sweaty from the late summer heat, found a common language to express their newfound hope, raising the American civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
It was hard not to be swept along by the exuberance. In the following days, hope seemed to take root even in hostile soil. Arabs in the occupied territories suddenly hoisted thousands of Palestinian flags, the ban on them lifted by Israel only days earlier, to celebrate Arafat and his peace initiative. On a visit to the Gaza Strip, the first of scores I would make over the next three and a half years, I spied hundreds of flags displayed even in the muddy, hard-knuckle quarter of Shaikh Radwan, a notorious stronghold of Islamic Hamas militants opposed to the treaty. The flags whipped in the stifling Mediterranean breeze, lashed to countless balconies, antennas and rusting rooftop watertanks. So many were stitched overnight by Gaza's tailors, I was told, that they ran short of green cloth and added, for the first time, an aquamarine stripe to the Palestinian colors.
On Israeli streets, the mood was less ebullient but no less hopeful. Jerusalemites continued their shopping. Tel Aviv's youth lingered in chic sidewalk cafés. What Israelis most desired was normalcy, a margin of breathing space in a suffocatingly hostile Middle East. The Knesset's approval of the peace pact was welcomed by most Israelis with relief.
These were heady days. I didn't appreciate, however, how quickly they would slip away. My assignment as the Inquirer's Middle East bureau chief would continue until earlier this year but my stint as a "peace" reporter was already almost over. By late that winter I was under fire.
The massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by a Jewish settler in February 1994 prompted fierce Palestinian protests later that day on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Israeli troops answered the volley of stones with tear gas, rubber bullets, and then live gunfire. As I cowered behind a centuries-old Mameluke wall, I quickly learned two useful lessons: one, how to distinguish the flat report of a rubber bullet from the sharper crack of live ammunition; and second, the importance of keeping an onion handy. As several Palestinian teenagers instructed me that afternoon, a whiff of raw onion can ward off the searing sensation of tear gas.
SUICIDE BOMBINGS AND SONIC BOOMS
There would be more lessons in the coming months as negotiations bogged down and the peace process came to look little like a process and even less like peace. Islamic militants opposed to the 1993 treaty launched a campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis, disemboweling commuter buses and savaging crowded city street corners. I learned, like many jumpy Israelis, to tell the difference between the boom of a bus bombing and the frequent, nearly identical sound created by Israeli military jets passing overhead. Both rattle the windows, but sonic booms are followed an instant later by the distant rumble of aircraft, bus bombings by the wail of sirens.
Yet, as the peace process limped through 1994 and 1995, I repeatedly reminded myself how far the Middle East had come. I waited for hours in Gaza City's teeming central square, perched on a teetering corrugated metal shack, to chronicle Arafat's return after 27 years of exile. I waited hours more in the desert valley between Jordan and Israel to witness the epic treaty signing between those two former adversaries. In both cases, I took away a glimpse of history, a reason for renewed faith, and a sunburn.
There were other grounds for optimism as well. Israel, after much delay, confounded skeptics and made good on its promise to withdraw from most Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank. The bombers of Hamas, meanwhile, grew silent in the second half of 1995. A blast on a Jerusalem bus, less than a half mile from my apartment, had jarred me from sleep one morning that summer, but afterward the militants suspended their campaign, facing a furious crackdown by Arafat's police and, more importantly, dwindling support on the Palestinian streets.
On January 5, 1996, I got an urgent telephone call from a Palestinian friend that Yehiya Ayyash, Hamas's master bombmaker, was dead. Israel's secret police, the Shin Bet, had tracked him to his hide-out in a Gaza refugee camp. He was killed when a booby-trapped cellular telephone packed with explosives had blown up, detonated from an airplane passing overhead.
I'd visited Ayyash's West Bank village, Rafat, months earlier. His relatives and friends in the hillside hamlet spoke with pride about this evil genius, who even at age 10 could craft the best toy gun in the village from wood rubble, elastic, and old pins. Neighbors recalled how later he had eluded checkpoints by donning the disguises of a woman and an Orthodox Jew. Dubbed the Engineer for his incendiary skills, Ayyash had won the admiration of countless Palestinians, even those firmly committed to the peace process, for avenging years of occupation with little but his wits.
My friend's phone call made me anxious. Partisans of the peace process would certainly shed no tears for Ayyash. But Hamas had been quiet for almost five months and many Arabs now expected revenge. This killing would be Hamas's excuse to revive its bloody campaign and could spark a devastating chain reaction. I was afraid this day would prove fateful.
Within two months, after the traditional Muslim mourning period, the attacks resumed. Once again, I found myself with pad in hand amid the gutted remains of the red-and-white commuter buses. The streets were again littered with glass and metal, pocketbooks, school books, and flesh. And again, I returned to the cemeteries with grieving mothers and bit my lip.
ISRAEL STRIKES BACK
The bombings also wrecked the popularity of Israel's ruling Labor Party. So Prime Minister Shimon Peres, facing elections, hit back. In the hills south of Lebanon I watched, and at times dashed for cover, as Israel's jets blasted rural villages while its warships, poised in view of the Lebanese coast road, pounded cars, taxis, ambulances, and trucks heavy with chickens and fruit. Running this gantlet myself, I rapidly learned another Middle East lesson: to calculate the instant of a shell's impact by measuring the delay between the tuft of smoke above the ship's turret and the crack of the gun. Israel's intention was to shut down the guerillas of Hezbollah. But the only funerals I saw were of Lebanese civilians.
The strains of "We Shall Overcome" had grown faint indeed that spring. One month later, the melody seemed to fall altogether silent as Benjamin Netanyahu--a man long opposed to the principle of land for peace--was elected as Israel's prime minister.
When I finished my Middle East assignment earlier this year, I hoped to host a farewell party for my Israeli and Palestinian friends. But I couldn't. Several of the Palestinians were banned from entering Jerusalem because of Israel's general security blockade of the West Bank. Several Israeli friends were wary of venturing into the West Bank, where tension continued to mount. So I settled sadly for separate gatherings. They were held a mere four miles apart, but a broken dream away.
Alan Sipress '83 is a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.