Israelis despair at never-ending cycle of hatred

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The Independent Online

As the civilian death toll rises and suicide bombings become a daily occurrence, ordinary Israelis are showing signs of battle fatigue.

Purim is the Jewish Mardi Gras, a spring carnival. Yasser Arafat costumes, once a favourite of Israeli children, were conspicuously missing this year. There were lots of tiny paratroopers or police officers, even a few Osama bin Laden masks. The al-Qa'ida chieftain was a monster in other people's horror movies; Mr Arafat was too near home to be a figure even of morbid fun.

Although Israelis still enjoy a far better lifestyle than the Palestinians – they can still attend a concert or a football match, dine out, dance at a disco or go to the beach – they feel under siege after a year and a half of blood and cordite. "You're afraid to walk in the city," said Channy Maayan, a Jerusalem paediatrician. "You don't know what can happen from minute to minute."

It used to be said that what distinguished the Israeli left from the right was that the left were optimists, the right pessimists. The doves believed it was possible to make peace with the Palestinians, the hawks never did. Now you find only degrees of pessimism, the fuzzy line between depression and despair.

Dr Maayan said: "I still hope the Rabin days will come back. "But I have a feeling we've passed the point of no return. There is so much hatred on both sides. It's like a snowball, going faster and faster and gathering more snow. Not only do they have to stop it. They have to reverse the whole thing."

The hospital where Dr Maayan works prides itself on being "a game reserve of peace", with Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses treating Jewish and Arab patients. But the strains are being felt there too. An Arab family attended the paediatric clinic with a little boy dressed in Hamas uniform, complete with the green headband sported by Islamist suicide bombers. On another occasion, a Muslim boy pulled faces at an elderly Jewish woman visiting her grandson. "We never saw things like that before," Dr Maayan said.

In Tel Aviv, Rachel Kirschen, a film editor, said: "I don't see any chance for peace negotiations. No war is all I can hope for now." Others refuse to give up. Tamar Wolfin, the principal of a kibbutz high school in Upper Galilee, insisted: "You have to be optimistic. Otherwise, you can't work with young people. There must be hope that peace will come eventually. Right now it's tough. But we've got nowhere else to go, the Palestinians have nowhere else to go. So we'll have to live together." Yet Ms Wolfin admitted: "Till then, it might get even harder."

At her school, they are trying to conduct business as usual, going ahead with plans for the annual field trip. "The test," she acknowledged, "is whether the parents will agree."

Ms Kirschen, whose family moved to Israel from New York when she was a child, said: "People have become worn down. Many of my friends went on peace demonstrations, they criticised government actions. Now they're just tired. If only we saw one Palestinian woman on telvision saying it's wrong to blow up teenagers. We're tired of trying to be fair."

Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister a year ago because he promised to bring back security. Since the turn of the year, Israelis have been losing faith in the portly old warrior's capacity to deliver. The leadership is seen as impotent on both sides.

Ms Kirschen said: "I don't think Arafat wants to, or can, stop the terrorism. I don't think Sharon wants to make any kind of stand, in any direction."

This lack of hope, perhaps more than the lack of security, is causing a steady population haemorrhage. Ms Kirschen confessed that she had thought of moving back to the United States with her husband and four children. "I know quite a few people who are packing their bags," she said. "They're looking at it as a chance to take a break."

But the majority of Israelis are digging in, resigned to a long haul. But what then? Voices on the right are reviving calls for "transfer", a code word for mass expulsion of Arabs. "No Arabs, no terror attacks," runs a radical bumper sticker. But most people recognise that it is neither a viable nor an acceptable option. Others are demanding that Israel reconquer the West Bank and Gaza, or overthrow Mr Arafat.

The left, once so confident in pursuit of Shimon Peres's New Middle East, is as baffled as everyone else. Benny Morris, a historian who forced Israelis to confront their own contribution to the 1948 exodus of Palestinian refugees, has shocked his foreign admirers by condemning Mr Arafat for precipitating the current violence. "If the Arabs continue to reject a two-state solution, one people will ultimately prevail. There will be one state here. Whoever is stronger will win," he said.

Jonathan Frankel, a veteran Peace Now activist, takes a less apocalyptic view. "As long as Sharon is in power one has to assume we'll have more of the same," he said. "But in the long run, I haven't lost hope. Israel has shown itself a resilient society in far more difficult situations. I still believe it can weather this storm."

Just how, the British-born history professor is not sure, although he thinks the growing campaign for unilateral withdrawal could provide an alternative to Mr Sharon's dead end. "One way or another the occupation will end, because it's untenable – and in the long run suicidal. I believe Israel has a will to survive."

Five days of horror

Monday 4 March

Sixteen Palestinians, including five children, are killed in Israeli raids on refugee camps. Bushra Abu Quaik, the wife of a leading Hamas militant, and her three children are killed by an Israeli tank shell, and a doctor in an ambulance is killed by Israeli fire.

Tuesday 5 March

A Palestinian shoots and stabs Israelis in a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant, killing three. Police kill the gunman. A suicide bomber blows himself up on a bus in the central Israeli town of Afula, killing himself and an Israeli passenger and wounding 11. Palestinian gunmen kill an Israeli woman motorist.

Wednesday 6 March Thirteen Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers are killed in the West Bank and Gaza.The heaviest fighting is reported in the villages of Abassan and Karrara in southern Gaza, where 12 tanks move into the area, drawing intense Palestinian fire.

Thursday 7 March

Israeli troops conduct sweeps in refugee camps and kill a total 11 Palestinians, while a suicide bomber walks into a Jewish settlement's hotel complex and blows himself up in the lobby, injuring four people. Two other suicide bombers are thwarted. The heaviest fighting occurs in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Friday 8 March

In the worst day since the intifada began, at least 41 people are killed. Israeli troops kill 35 Palestinians, including two children, a rescue worker in an ambulance, a hospital director, and a military commander, in raids on villages and refugee camps. A Palestinian shoots dead five Israeli teenagers in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli soldier is killed by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, while Israeli settlers wound four Palestinians.