Noe Valley Voice May 2002

Local Israelis Fear for Their Relatives

By Steve Steinberg

Last month, the Noe Valley Voice wrote about how local Palestinians were reacting to the current violence in the Middle East. This month, several local Israelis express their feelings about the continuing strife back home.

Amir's brother was lucky. He only had to spend a couple of days in the hospital after a suicide bomber blew himself up on the streets of the Israeli city of Netanya last year. It wasn't shrapnel or nails that injured Amir's brother. It was flying body parts, slicing through the air from the force of the explosion. Two people were killed in the bombing, with many others injured.

From his home on Castro Street, Amir (last name withheld at his request) fears that next time, his brother or some other member of his family might not be so lucky. "I worry about them constantly," he says.

Amir, who works in construction, was raised in Netanya, where another suicide bombing, this one during March Passover celebrations, killed more than 25 Israelis. That attack sparked the Israeli invasion of West Bank towns and villages, intended to root out what the Israeli government termed the terrorist infrastructure.

Amir is one of many Israelis in Noe Valley and the Bay Area for whom the safety of family members back home is never far from their thoughts. More than a hundred Israelis have been killed and many more injured in the wave of suicide bombings that began last year as part of the latest Palestinian intifada, or rebellion, against Israeli rule of the West Bank and Gaza.

"Each time there is a bombing, I'm afraid to read if it's someone I know or someone from my family," says Gila Arlaki, who also lives on Castro Street.

A 14-year resident of the United States who grew up in a village in the Negev region of Israel, Arlaki says the mood is grim back home in her native country.

"'You never know what will happen,' my friends tell me. 'You say goodbye to your husband in the morning and never know if you'll see him again.'" She adds that people in Israel feel as if they're in the start of a war.

"They live day by day and don't worry about anything else except their [immediate] survival."

Arlaki's large family of 10 brothers and sisters all live in Israel, with the exception of one sister, who lives in America too. So far, none of her relatives, including her Iranian-born father, has been physically harmed.

Hagit Nagar, who lives on Diamond Street, also hears anxious reports from the Middle East. "Everyone is afraid now, afraid even to go outside," she says. "You never know from where a bombing will come."

She notes that her family members in Israel -- she has five brothers and sisters, while her husband has 12 -- have been so nervous about potential suicide attacks that they stayed away from Israeli Independence Day celebrations last month.

The mother of two small children, Nagar says she can't understand the mentality behind the suicide bombings. "How can a mother send her child out to be a suicide bomber?"

'So Much Hate'

Sarah Levine, who hails from Jerusalem, blames the violent clashes on the profound enmity between Jews and Palestinians. "There is so much hate between the two groups now that you can't get anything done."

A 22nd Street resident who has lived in the U.S. for 11 years, Levine says her parents came face to face with a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem a few months ago. "He came into [my father's] grocery store, but then ran away." The man then detonated the bomb at another, more crowded location, she says.

In addition to her parents, Levine also has four siblings living in the ancient capital. But she is especially worried about her mother these days. Because the family can't afford a car, her mother has to take buses to get around in the city, and buses have often been the target of suicide bombers.

Levine plans to go back to Jerusalem for a visit soon and is preparing her two teenage children for a much more restricted stay than in the past. "I told my kids that this time they can't go out much, they can't speak to Arabs, and they have to be careful."

Before the Intifada

Amir and Levine remember when things were not so bad between Jews and Arabs in their troubled homeland. Amir says that before the first intifada in 1987, an Israeli Jew could go to the West Bank and talk with Palestinians. "There were many friendly, nice people," he recalls.

As a child, Levine used to go into the old quarter of Jerusalem, "talking to Arabs and buying things from them." Now, she says, Palestinians are as afraid to talk to Jews as they are to them. "They fear they will be accused of being a collaborator."

Levine's father, who speaks Arabic, used to conduct business with Palestinians, and until recently employed several Arabs from the West Bank in his store. The Palestinian employees often told her father that they did not want to live under what they said was Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's dictatorial rule, Levine says.

Support for Sharon

As for the latest escalation of the conflict, the local Israelis believe that Israel is following the only course it can to protect itself. "We had no other choice [but to invade the West Bank]," says Arlaki. "I wondered why they waited so long."

Arlaki says she used to be a "peace person." She used to object to the policies advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But now "I think he is the right person for the job."

Nagar also supports Sharon and the current military offensive. "We gave the Palestinians a chance to live with us, but they didn't want to," she argues. "They need to change their leadership."

No Easy Answers

Do the local Israelis feel there is any hope for a solution?

"I wish I could see a solution," says Arlaki. "But the terrorists have too much of a hold among the Palestinian people. It will be a miracle if something peaceful works out."

"The fanatics prevent peace," agrees Nagar.

Amir has some sympathy for the Palestinians but is perplexed as to what to do. "I know they live in poverty. I know they need some resolution, but I don't know what it is," he says.

Still, he thinks improving the Palestinians' economic lot is key. "When they have money and houses and something to look forward to, then they can talk peace."

Levine knows the current situation in the Middle East can't continue and that a separate Palestinian state is probably inevitable. "We don't want the occupation. Please take the occupation away. They should get their own country," she says.

But she feels the Palestinians, in their quest for an independent state, should stop accusing Israel of past injustices. "You can't go anywhere with 'You took our land, you took this, you took that.'"

Rather, she says, the solution lies in the lessening of hate.

"If we had a little less hate, we could do so much together."