'If they are ready for peace, Israel should welcome them'

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The Independent Online

The Ben-Yehuda shopping precinct, the hub of Jewish West Jerusalem, was crowded shortly before midnight on Saturday 1 December 2001. Two Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up outside Café Rimon in an attack claimed by Hamas, killing 11 Israelis and wounding 180. Around the corner in Jaffa Road, a car bomb went up in flames 20 minutes later.

Regina Rimon, the owner of the café, shudders at the memory. A few minutes before the bombing, she had gone outside to disperse a group of teenagers dancing and singing in the rain, disturbing her patrons. "If I hadn't gone out and asked them to stop the music," says Mrs Rimon, now 50, "there would have been dozens more casualties."

In his shop across the street, Yosef Zakayim, 67, an Iranian Jewish antiques dealer, displays a shard of glass. It's all that was left of his window. "A third of the shop was destroyed," he says. "I survived because I was in the back room. I shall never forget what I saw. There was blood everywhere, arms, legs, faces."

But four years later, as they prepare to close for the Sabbath a day after Hamas's landslide victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, they are surprisingly open-minded about the prospects for Israel.

"It could be very serious," Mrs Rimon reflects. "I'm afraid the Palestinian voters showed that they don't want Jews here. There's a new generation educated to hate us. If you tell a child that he'll go to heaven if he commits suicide, it's very dangerous." On the other hand, she volunteers, it might just be possible to make peace with a Hamas government. "The extremists are sometimes the ones who can make concessions. If they are willing to talk, it could be in our interest to talk to them. If not, we'll have to decide on our borders and make sure we can defend them."

Mr Zakayim says he's happy that Hamas won, even though it is a terrorist organisation. "Its leaders will be ministers, senior officials, with good money and good jobs. If a Hamas leader is going to be Prime Minister, will he be able to send people to kill Jews? They'll learn that they can't wave a gun in one hand and politics in the other. If they are ready to use their new power to make peace, Israel should welcome them. I don't want my two sons to go on doing reserve army service for ever."

Higher up the street, Zion Mutada, a 52-year-old flower seller who admits he's generally hawkish towards the Palestinians, agrees. "Everybody said they would never talk to Yasser Arafat, but in the end they did. So why not now with Hamas? If they lay down their arms and stop sending bombers, it could be a new era."

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