Hit by a terrorist, kibbutz still shares a well with Arabs

A gunman kills five, but Kibbutz Mezer fights to save land for Palestinian neighbors.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After one of the more shocking terrorist attacks in the past two years, reprisal was on the mind of many Israelis, including some in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet. Sunday night, five people - including two children - were killed at this kibbutz by a Palestinian gunman, who then escaped.

But at a meeting Monday with Mr. Sharon, leaders of this dovish community wanted something else: a commitment that a new, security fence - stretching some 66 miles through the West Bank to block terrorist infiltrations - will not be built on land taken from their Palestinian neighbors in Kafin village, just across the old border in the West Bank.

"As it stands, a grave injustice is being done to our neighbors," said Doron Lieber, the economic coordinator of the kibbutz, the only Israeli community to argue for rerouting the fence. According to current plans, Kafin would lose two square miles - 60 percent of its farmland. Mr. Lieber says this will not only be bad for the Palestinians, but bad for the kibbutz, fueling enormous resentment throughout the area.

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"The moment those beautiful trees are cruelly uprooted, our island of tranquility is turned into any other place in Israel," he says.

This kibbutz prides itself on a half century of good relations with neighboring Arab Israeli villages. So the irony that it was targeted by a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement was not lost on anyone, including Palestinian leaders.

But on Monday and Tuesday, it seemed to be precisely that history, as well as the kibbutz's humanistic ideology that were coloring the initial responses to the attack. "I feel like someone who has been slapped in the face," said Lieber. "My hand was stretched out in peace. But a slap in the face is only temporary. It rings in your ears a bit, but when the ringing stops you go on."

For others, it will be ringing for a long time. Five-year-old Matan Ohayon's crayon-drawn New Year card to his family is still on the door of their house: "Happy New Year, I hope we will have a sweet year of happiness and health Love, Matan." Matan was shot dead along with his brother, Noam, a year younger, and his mother, Revital, whom neighbors believe was clutching the boys to protect them. Minutes earlier, the gunman had opened fire outside the kibbutz dining hall, killing a woman visitor, Tirza Damari, and then the kibbutz secretary-general, Yitzhak Dori, who had rushed to the scene.

Dori's death came as a sharp blow to Tayseer Harasheh, the Kafin town council leader who had asked his help in rerouting the fence. "The deaths of our friends have left us in shock," he says. "The members of the kibbutz were the only group in Israel who stood by us on the issue of the separation fence."

Other kibbutz members took comfort in the large number of visitors who came from nearby Arab towns to pay their respects, including a large number from neighboring Meisar, from which the kibbutz derives its name.

"All of Meisar came here, just like for a wedding," says Dov Zir. Mr. Zir is one of the founders of the kibbutz, mostly immigrants from Argentina who were members of HaShomer HaZair, the socialist Zionist movement whose ideology stresses peaceful coexistence. "Mezer is a very ideological kibbutz, it not only talks about coexistence, it lives it," says Aviv Leshem, spokesman for HaShomer HaZair.

After two years of conflict that have left most of Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens separated by a gulf of suspicion, Meisar's children still come to Mezer every day to play basketball. "We still go over there and feel good, and they come to us and feel good," says Bahaa Amarneh, a student from Meisar. Meisar residents say Mezer was built partly on land belonging to their village in 1953. But good ties evolved nevertheless. Meisar later proposed that Mezer share its water supply, and the two communities still use the same pipeline.

Several Mezer members stress that whoever carried out the attack was not representative of Palestinians as a whole. "There are a few of them who are ready to murder in the name of God," says Yehoshua Mondrich, a veteran kibbutz member. "Most are good people, but a cruel minority imposes itself on them." He says he plans to resume work in the avocado fields, where he supervises Palestinian workers from Kafin, still a source of cheap labor for the kibbutz.

But Ariel Gabai, another member, told reporters: "I've been active in Peace Now for years and I continue to say that one idiot who shoots in a house won't change my mind. But the more time passes, the more I understand that the problem is not entirely on our side, but rather on the other side."

Mohammed Hourani, a legislator from Fatah, says the attack was a violation of Fatah's position not to harm civilians inside Israel: "We know that this area is filled with Israelis who believe in peace so we announced clearly this time that we feel sorry for the victims of this attack."

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