Seeking new paths toward peace

My friend Rochelle and I first met at a women writers' peace conference in Tel Aviv in 1997, sitting nearby in a packed auditorium as passionate speeches were translated simultaneously into Hebrew and Arabic. In 1999, we found each other again on a Women's Walk for Peace where Jewish and Arab women marched thousands strong along the recently opened Israel-Jordan border.

The groups were distinct, but they danced in circles to each other's music, looked each other in the eyes, and traded smiles. In 1999, it was a happy optimistic time, when all the signs we could read pointed to better times yet to come. No one foresaw the outbreak of the intifada a year later.

My professional and personal relationship with Rochelle was catalyzed on that march. From then on, our frequent meetings have not been by chance. Yet as the times worsen, more and more of our communication is by e-mail and telephone.

Rochelle and I both live inside the original borders of the country set in 1948, but even though no military zones or occupied territories separate us, in the past two years the road between her house and mine has become an often treacherous course.

Rochelle, who moved from her native Canada to an Israeli kibbutz 25 years ago, found poetry in midlife, and more and more the world has been listening to her voice. Lines about the seascapes around her childhood Vancouver have given way to poems about the valleys and fields of her adopted home - and of the tragedies that abound in those beautiful vistas.

To drive the hour and a half to her home, I must wind my way through Wadi Ara, the main thoroughfare crisscrossing the country, lined with Arab towns and villages. In better times, one traveled there without a second thought.

But since 2000, busses on the Wadi Ara road have been repeated targets. In the latest this October, 50 people were wounded and 14 killed, including two Israeli-Arab victims, as 100 kilograms of explosives were detonated. At least one Jewish driver was shot dead point blank while stopped at an intersection. And this June, the little Palestinian village of Barta'a buried one of its sons. Twenty-six-year-old Iman Kabha, studying at a teacher's college in Jerusalem, was killed when a suicide bomber blew up the public bus he was riding to college. At Iman's funeral, 200 of his fellow students traveled from Jerusalem to his village near the Wadi Ara road. Iman's bereaved father addressed them: "I don't know which of you are Arabs and which are Jews, but I thank you for coming to honor my son."

Entering Rochelle's small community there is a turnoff. The road signs straight ahead say "Jenin." In the height of the battles around that town last spring, Rochelle's husband needed urgent surgery for a newly discovered medical condition. He was taken by ambulance to a Jerusalem hospital. Usually the patient's family must accompany the ambulance by a separate vehicle, but the driver who had traveled the road filled with tanks and soldiers told Rochelle, "Missus, you better ride with us."

Jerusalem is too far for a daily drive back home, so Rochelle planned to stay in the city through her husband's recuperation. With Israeli violence constantly in the world's eyes there has been a 90 percent drop in its major industry - tourism. The hotels still open are empty and Rochelle knew she would have no trouble with a reservation. But she found only one hotel in town solidly booked: the one where she wished to stay. It was the guest house next to Hadassah Hospital - every single room was overflowing with families of recovering terror victims.

Rochelle lives not far from Mount Gilboa, where a 17-year-old teenager walking the hills was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper a year ago.

Until recently, farmers of the Gilboa region had big plans for expanded cooperation with Palestinians in nearby Jenin. Says Gilboa's mayor, "We paved that road four years ago and called it the 'economic path' - it was supposed to be the major thoroughfare for goods moving freely between communities in the Gilboa region and Jenin, in time of peace." That "economic path" has turned into a deathtrap for both sides. This month desperate Gilboa farmers, fearful of more infiltrators, have begun to erect a separation fence adjacent to the road.

Spring brings to Mount Gilboa a rainbow of red and yellow wildflowers to rival any Monet canvas. It is home as well to a rare and wonderful species of black iris. Every March I make the journey to wander among those black irises. I go for the flowers - and to see my friend.

But how far things have descended since the day we first met: from the optimism of peace to the pessimism of avoidance. I look with little confidence at what kind of spring awaits us. Embarrassed, I say to Rochelle, "Perhaps we can meet in Tel Aviv."

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and columnist living in Israel.

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