Peace-loving settlers who now live in a war zone

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The Independent Online

The view from Nerio Burchatt's balcony, three floors up on Ha'anafa Street, is eerily familiar. We see it nightly on the television news: the pillared, red-roofed mansion from which Palestinian gunmen shoot every evening across the ravine at their Jewish neighbours, the same Beit Jalla hillside that takes the brunt of the rockets fired in retaliation by Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships.

The view from Nerio Burchatt's balcony, three floors up on Ha'anafa Street, is eerily familiar. We see it nightly on the television news: the pillared, red-roofed mansion from which Palestinian gunmen shoot every evening across the ravine at their Jewish neighbours, the same Beit Jalla hillside that takes the brunt of the rockets fired in retaliation by Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships.

As we sit behind a cascade of multi-coloured geraniums in their plump terracotta pots, he pours me a beer and passes his binoculars, de rigueur these days for families living on the front line in Gilo, a settlement in a Jerusalem suburb housing 42,000 people, built on a mountain captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. "You see that gap to the right of the mansion?" asks the Argentinian-born artist and writer aged 68. "There was a second building there until last night."

Mr Burchatt and his Danish wife, Inga, bought a flat in Gilo 22 years ago. She is a 53-year-old architect. They were among the first to move here. "We came," he says wryly, "for the peace and quiet. I can sit up here painting and writing to my heart's content." Or could, until the second intifada broke out seven weeks ago, until six machine-gun bullets slammed through the window of his next-door neighbours, Russian immigrants with two small children.

"I'm not afraid," Mr Burchatt insists, "but I worry about Inga. She's frightened, but she won't admit it. I can see it in her eyes. If the shooting doesn't end soon, I shall suggest she takes a holiday in Scandinavia."

The night before, the exchanges of fire began at dusk and continued till 2am. Further along Ha'anafa Street, a Palestinian rocket set a flat on fire. When the shooting starts, the Burchatts sit in their living room, with its heavy Danish antique furniture, making sure to put stone and concrete between them and any incoming ordnance.

They sleep in an improvised back bedroom, which normally serves as Mr Burchatt's studio. He has a grown-up daughter living on the other, safer side of Jerusalem. She has offered a refuge, but her father is adamant. "If I leave this house," he says, "I'll leave the country. I'm an artist. Look at the view. For me, that is everything. I work here. Now I can't paint, I can't write." He brings out the manuscript of a book he has written and illustrated called Homage to the Palestinians. He knows people from Beit Jalla. I'm glad I haven't published the book yet," he reflects, "but I will do if there is peace." He doesn't blame the Arabs. "We're human beings," he says, "so are they. Why don't we have leaders who can solve the problem?"

His neighbours, Boris and Hanna Shtrikman, are less philosophic. You can still see the bullet holes in their floral curtains. One shot skimmed over the head of their five-month-old daughter, Michal.

Boris, a computer technician aged 46 who immigrated from Moscow nine years ago, shows me the flattened shell case. He has built a protective wall of stone and sandbags to keep out any more. He had to take three days' unpaid leave to do it. "I've lost money," he shrugs, "but do I have any choice?" Hanna, 38, a nurse in the emergency ward of a Jerusalem hospital, works a night shift three times a week. She was breast-feeding Michal, but her milk dried up because of the tension. The couple worry about their five-year-old son, Alon. "He doesn't want to sleep," says Hanna. "He keeps telling us to watch the television." The family have all moved into one back bedroom. They have none of the bluster or zeal of messianic West Bank settlers. They bought a flat in Gilo because the price was right, the development airy and well designed. "We didn't think we were coming to a settlement," Boris says.

Some of the neighbours have left. Others are preparing to follow. "It's impossible to live like this," says one of them, Emmanuel Cohen. "We are looking for a flat where we can live, not just keep hitting the deck. I feel as if I'm on a battlefield."

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