A cold meal of eight-year-old crow

A former Mideast bureau chief revisits Jerusalem, and finds two old friends – one Palestinian, one Israeli – have retreated to their gardens.

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It is a salutary, if sometimes sobering, experience for a journalist to reread his old articles, even before he reaches memoir-writing age.

Returning to Jerusalem this month for a brief reporting trip, it occurred to me to look at some of the stories I wrote when I lived here in the early 1990s.

One of the last pieces I wrote, in August 1994, explored the new mood of confidence that was suffusing Israelis at the time, as the Oslo peace process blossomed, filling the air with the scent of hope.

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In that atmosphere, I concluded, with Palestinians looking forward to the creation of their state, "It will certainly take time, but it now seems inevitable that people on both sides of the conflict will at last be able to rescue their humanity from the depersonalizing grip of war."

Talk about eating eight-year-old crow.

Perhaps, I console myself, it is just taking more time than I had expected. But I have been shocked and astonished over the past two weeks at the depths to which mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis has sunk.

Depersonalizing has become a way of life. After a month or so of enduring curfews that were often enforced by a shoot-on-sight policy, many Palestinians regard the only Israelis they see – soldiers – as murderous oppressors.

The average Israeli, on the other hand, looks at any Palestinian he sees on the streets as a potential suicide bomber, and treats him as such, giving him a wide berth.

Normal social life has been disrupted on both sides of the line, though conditions are far worse for Palestinians, who are largely confined by Israeli roadblocks to the towns where they live. And nobody in the West Bank or Gaza Strip can be sure that Israeli tanks will not come back in, shelling without notice.

Many Israelis have stopped going out in the evening, avoiding the crowded pedestrian malls, cafes, and clubs that suicide bombers have favored as easy targets. After seeing 126 of their fellow citizens killed by bombers in March, they stay home.

I know how they feel. The other day, popping out to a local grocery store to buy some chewing gum, I found the streets peppered with Israeli border policemen. They had clearly been tipped off that a suicide bomber might be targeting the neighborhood.

I couldn't help but feel a little nervous, and a little stupid. I was possibly risking being blown up for a pack of gum?

I was especially struck by how a Palestinian friend of mine and an Israeli friend have, unbeknownst to each other, chosen exactly the same reaction to the horror that hems them in: retreat to their gardens.

Sitting under a canopy on the patio of a university lecturer's home in the West Bank town of Ramallah the other day, flowering plants brightening the border beneath a high hedge, it was almost possible to forget the scenes of destruction that Israeli troops had left in their wake elsewhere in the town.

A few evenings earlier, I had sat with a literary agent in her quiet residential district of Jewish West Jerusalem. Under her cherry tree, behind high walls covered thickly with scarlet bougainvillaea, is the only place she said she feels safe enough to fully relax.

But neither of these people, both of them thoughtful, reasonable, moderate, and tolerant, feel like reaching out to each other at the moment. They have – each in their own way – been too badly burned by the other side to muster the confidence they will need to start envisioning life as cooperative neighbors.

Still, there are flickers of hope. There are stories like the one of a Palestinian woman who called an Israeli friend of hers the other week to reassure her that her son doing army service was OK: The Palestinian woman had just looked out of her window and seen the young man on patrol in the street.

And it is quite possible that the few years of fledgling peace that both sides enjoyed in the mid-1990s laid foundations that can still be built on when the time comes again for building.

I just hope that it doesn't take another eight years to start.

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