Noe Valley Voice April 2002

Arab-Israeli Conflict Touches the Lives of Local Shopkeepers

By Olivia Boler

Imagine living in a place with views of the sea, rolling hills, the scent of jasmine on the breeze, and charming cafes, shops, and restaurants just down the street. It sounds a lot like Noe Valley, but in fact, the description is of Ramallah, the West Bank town that has been one of the hot spots of Arab-Israeli violence since September 2000.

For more than 18 months, many Noe Valley residents and merchants of Palestinian descent have been watching the daily bloodshed on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language TV news channel. They also have been worrying about their family members living near the center of the conflict.

Chuck Rafidi, who has owned Sun Valley Dairy Market on the corner of Church and 28th streets since 1979, came to the United States fresh out of high school in 1966, a year before the Six-Day War, the war in which Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan.

A native of Al-Bireh, a West Bank town right next to Ramallah, Rafidi has not been back to his homeland since 1983, but he fondly recalls the beautiful landscape and peaceful way of life. "There are four seasons, and it's nice, natural, easy living there," says Rafidi. "No one had social or financial problems. It was peaceful and prosperous."

Rafidi's was the only Christian family in the Muslim-dominated town, but everyone got along without religious or ideological strife, he says. Neighboring Ramallah was predominantly Christian, and the two towns ran right into each other. Today, perhaps as many as 90 percent of the Christians have emigrated to the U.S. or Europe, but most Muslims have stayed.

All of Rafidi's immediate family is in the United States now, but he keeps in touch with his cousins back in Al-Bireh. "Since the occupation began, things have been very bad for my relatives," Rafidi sighs. "They try to survive as best they can, and we talk on the phone at least once a month. Everyone there has cell phones now, just like here. It's quite modern." Still, Rafidi is concerned about his cousins' safety.

Charlie Harb is worried about his relatives as well. He frequently communicates with his uncle, a cardiovascular surgeon at Ramallah Hospital, via e-mail. Harb was born and raised in Noe Valley after his parents and older sisters emigrated to the U.S. A graduate of Riordan High School and the University of San Francisco, Harb owns both an accounting practice and a laundromat in Noe Valley. "My uncle in Ramallah is not doing well, but he e-mails when he can," Harb says.

Joe Eadeh, the proprietor of the 24th Street Café on the corner of 24th and Vicksburg streets, knows Harb's uncle, and has cousins who live across the street from Ramallah Hospital. During the latest outbreak of violence, his cousins have been forced to take shelter in their basement. They also have seen the hospital surrounded by Israeli soldiers and tanks. According to Eadeh's relatives, the soldiers have turned away ambulances carrying patients, as well as people who were trying to donate blood for casualty victims.

Others in Noe Valley have friends and family who have been traumatized by the Israeli Army's targeting of the hospital.

Sam Salameh, who owns the newsstand Good News on 24th Street, is frustrated because of his family's living conditions back in his hometown of Birzeit. Recently, his mother was suffering from a kidney stone and had arranged to have it removed at the hospital in Ramallah, since there is no hospital in Birzeit. What would normally be a 15-minute drive took the ambulance four hours because of all the checkpoints. Furthermore, once the emergency vehicle arrived for the pre-arranged appointment, its occupants were told that her doctor was not there: Israeli troops were not allowing anyone to leave their homes that day, including the hospital's medical staff. The ambulance was forced to turn around and make the long drive back to Birzeit.

"You want to hear stories?" Salameh says, raising his eyebrows. "I have so many stories like that. What happened to my mother is what happens on a daily basis. You've read about the pregnant women getting shot on their way to the hospital to deliver their babies? Kids [trying to go to school] are getting shot or bombed in the streets all the time, but the mainstream media shows everything upside-down. They show the Palestinians as terrorists, but the Israelis are doing the exact same thing. It's frustrating."

Frustration is the word Palestinian Americans use most frequently when talking about the situation in the Middle East. It is the emotion that comes over their features and causes them to shake their heads.

The last time Harb visited Ramallah in 1987, his sister, who was born there, was stopped and strip-searched after disembarking from their flight. Because Harb was born in the United States, he was spared the same ordeal. "It was a culture shock for me," he says. "You have to stop and show your papers whenever the soldiers want you to. You have to go by the Israeli Army's rules."

Eadeh and his wife Jacqueline's family, who are also Ramallah natives, still own a home there, and they and their three daughters make frequent visits. Their last two trips were in 1996 and 1999, right before the most recent intifada, or uprising of the Palestinians against the occupation.

Eadeh recalls during the 1996 visit that after getting off the airplane, all Arab passengers had to wait in line for a search of their property. Their passports were taken from them, and once the check was completed, the passports were tossed unceremoniously in a pile. The travelers were left to sift through 200 passports in order to find their own, while those with U.S. or Israeli passports passed through without any interference.

"I said to one of the people checking [passports] that it wasn't humane, but he just said that was the way it was," Eadeh shakes his head. "It makes me very angry. Israel says it's a democracy and a supporter of human rights. But this applies only to Israelis. It's not like it is here," he says, indicating his restaurant and neighbors. "Here, there is communication. We have so many different kinds of people and there is an open dialogue."

Perhaps what is most maddening to Palestinians and their families in the U.S. is the stripping away of the fundamentals of self-government. In the occupied territories, water and electricity can be shut off without warning. Rafidi says his relatives lose their power whenever anything bad happens in Israel.

To Harb, the diversion of the West Bank's water supply to kibbutzim, Israeli settlements, is another practice that should be abolished. "The area is highly agricultural, yet when I was there [in 1987], I saw dry, parched farmland on one side and swimming pools on the other."

Salameh, who received his MBA from the University of Texas in Austin and has owned Good News for six years, says his customers are supportive and understanding of the situation in the Middle East, but he wishes Americans in general were better informed about the Palestinians' plight.

"When [Timothy] McVeigh bombed the [Alfred P. Murrah Federal] building in Oklahoma City, everyone presumed it was a Palestinian. But it wasn't," Salameh says. "I hope people will listen to the other side, and not pre-judge. There is always the other side of the coin."

As for the most recent clashes in Ramallah, all four men share a sense of helplessness and say there is little they can do for their families except call and e-mail. All of them are hoping for a quick and peaceful end to the senseless violence.

None of the men condones the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers who are killing innocent people in cafes and on buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At the same time, they understand the desperation that can lead to such unspeakable acts.

"The majority of Arabs want peace," Salameh says. "They want to work, to own a car, to own a house. They want their children to go to school everyday without worrying for their safety.... But when tanks come in and bulldoze their homes, even refugee-camp homes, and cut off the electricity -- if you don't have a house and you can't go to work, if you don't have a future, you feel as if you have nothing to lose."

Says Eadeh, "I haven't seen Jerusalem since 1995 because I'm not allowed to go there. People are confined to their own towns. After years of that, of course people will explode."

Rafidi, Eadeh, and Salameh all want an independent, self-governing Palestinian state, with secure borders. They also want more involvement from the American government, as long as it's fair to both Arabs and Israelis.

"What we need is dialogue and communication," Salameh says. "[The U.S. should support] the many leftist, liberal groups in Israel who support peace, but who don't agree with [Israel Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's agenda or his military strategy."

Harb echoes that sentiment. "What we need are more moderate voices. Most Israelis and Arabs want peace. They all want the same thing."

And peace is attainable, says Rafidi. "I would like to see a full withdrawal of the Israeli occupation back to the pre-1967 borders. If we can implement the idea of Israel's right to exist, and they can recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist, everything would be solved and the whole area would prosper."

With a shrug, he adds, "It has to happen sooner or later."