Tale of two families: living the Arab-Israeli divide

YAACOV and Najeh live about an hour's car ride apart -- in worlds that are as different as if they lived on separate continents. Yaacov Leviatan, a slim, serious-faced young Israeli, began his mandatory three years of military service last year. He lives with his parents, two sisters, and a brother in a comfortable apartment in one of west Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods.

Najeh Abd Al-Kharim Hassan, quick to smile, also is slim and slight for his age. A Palestinian Arab, he lives with his parents, five sisters, and a brother in the West Bank village of Beit Furik. Najeh and his family live in a tiny cinder-block house with no running water. They are landless peasants, and Najeh, a first-year biology student at Nablus's An-Najah University, is the first in the family to attend university.

In interviews, the two families spoke about their memories of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and about their experiences living with occupation. The ``heroes'' are the two young men, both 19, both born the month the occupation began -- in June 1967. Israel has now ruled the West Bank and its 800,000 Palestinian inhabitants for as many years as Jordan did before 1967. The story of Najeh, the Palestinian:

In the afternoon heat, Rahmah, Najeh's mother, sits with her children in a room that serves as a living room by day and bedroom by night and remembers the day her first son was born.

Rahmah: It was June 1. I had heard on the radio two days before that [Jordan's] King Hussein and [then-Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser had signed a treaty. They were joining forces to fight the Jews and take back Palestine, and I wished for their success. So I named my first son Najeh -- ``success.''

[Rahmah and her husband, Abd, who worked on a farm in the Jordan Valley during the week, already had two daughters. Abd looked forward to celebrating his son's birth on his return to the village June 6. But on June 5, Israel launched a preemptive air strike against Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Israel acted after Egypt ordered UN troops to leave the Sinai Peninsula and the four Arab states had joined forces with the announced intent of ``liberating Palestine.'' On June 6, Israel crossed into the West Bank.]

Abd, Najeh's father: We knew from reports on the radio, for a month ahead of time, that there would be war. There were Jordanian soldiers in our village before the war started, but when it started. . . . They dropped their weapons and said, ``Leave now, the country is with the Jews.'' A few men of the village picked up some guns and fought. There are six who were killed by the Israeli soldiers and are buried in the cemetery. But almost all the people left the village and fled to Tana [an old village near the Jordan River].

Najeh's mother: My neighbors came to the house and said, ``You must come, all the people are leaving.'' I carried my baby in my arms and a few things that we needed on my head . . . I, my baby, and my two daughters walked to Tana.

Najeh's father: I first saw my son in Tana, and I thought then that he would not have long to live, that we would all die in the war. Tana is in the mountains, and there are caves there. We went to a cave and spent the night. . . . the next day, the Jews came with loudspeakers and told the people, ``Come back to your village. There is no war now. You will not be harmed. Come back.'' So we returned. . . . I thought it was better to go back to my village than to be in some other country. The story of Yaacov, the Israeli:

Yaacov, born June 21, is also the third child in his family. His mother is the daughter of Yugoslav immigrants; his father is a second-generation Jerusalemite. Shlomo Leviatan has fought in five Arab-Israeli wars, and was with his infantry unit when his son was born.

Esther, Yaacov's mother: I was crazy with worry for Shlomo. It's terrible to sit and wait and not to know what's happening with your husband. All the women were in the same situation. We prayed.

Shlomo, Yaacov's father: On the 21st of June, I was on patrol in Jerusalem. Yaacov was born at midnight and the next morning, at 10 a.m., I heard an announcement on Army Radio: ``Shlomo Leviatan from Jerusalem, you have a baby boy. Call your family.''

I didn't think, when he was born, that we would still have the West Bank when he was 19. We thought we would give it back, right after the war. We hoped the '67 war would be the last war, that the West Bank would be a good bargaining chip to come to the peace table.

Najeh, the Palestinian: In 1973, when I was in the first grade, the soldiers came to my village and entered my school. It was the first time I remember seeing Israelis. They entered some houses and they took some persons to prison. So from the very first time, I saw Israelis as soldiers. I saw the Israeli soldiers entering the people's houses. So I think there is nothing good to be said about them.

I met some Israelis who were not soldiers when I went to work in a factory near the ``green line'' in 1984. . . . [Some] were normal, decent people. But some dislike the Palestinian people and they would say things to me like: ``You Palestinians must go. This land is not for Palestinians, it is for Jews. You must go to Jordan.'' When I see an Israeli soldier, I think: ``That is the enemy.'' When I see any soldiers, I think that those soldiers will be killed some day.

Yaacov, the Israeli: I don't have any Arab friends and I don't often see Arabs. . . . I can't say that I know an Arab. My image of Palestinians on the West Bank is that when they think of Israelis they only see fear . . . and people with weapons. A Jew is the one with an Uzi [submachine gun] in his hands. A soldier is the representative of authority . . . A Jew becomes the representative of fear.

When I think of a Palestinian, I think of workers. I have an image of someone who is somewhat poor, weak physically and mentally. I don't mean stupid, but I wouldn't say brilliant, either.

When I am on the West Bank, in a certain way it frightens me. All the time you read in the newspapers, hear on the radio, that a Jew was stabbed, that buses were stoned. . . . You get a negative impression of it as a dangerous place.

Najeh: Under the occupation, I feel that I don't have my freedom. They took my place in my country -- the soldiers -- and they must be killed. I have never been arrested, but we young people believe that eventually every Palestinian must go to the Israeli prison for something. I was called by the security forces once, when I finished high school. . . . They said I had a relationship with the youth movement in the East Bank that supports Fatah [the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization]. Everybody is involved with the youth movement, but it is for sport and culture. [It] can't do anything against Israel, because we don't have weapons. If I had a weapon, I probably would kill a soldier if I could. It is not something I think about all the time.

[When Najeh spoke of taking action against Israelis, both his parents interrupted vehemently. They know that the routine for the Israeli Army is to blow up homes of boys caught attacking Israelis.]

Rahmah, Najeh's mother: We do not want him to get into any trouble. We want him to study and work to help the family. He has to help the family.

Najeh: It is true . . . if I did anything, the Israelis would punish my family.

Shlomo, Yaacov's father: I can't tell what will happen in another 10 years, but I think it will get worse. You will see only soldiers on the West Bank. No one else will go without a military escort. . . .

Yaacov: It is hard to imagine Israel without the West Bank. I feel so free to travel there. . . . I understand the spirit of trading land for peace. I understand the thinking behind it, but it would be a bad dream. I would prefer not to give it back, but I think I will have no choice. . . .

Abd, Najeh's father: I don't think there will be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. I hope that the Israelis will leave the West Bank, and the Jordanians and Palestinians will be together. If we believe in God and we work with one hand, God will help us return to the land.

Shlomo, Yaacov's father: I do not believe Hussein will make peace with us. But even if he did . . . somebody after him would begin the fighting again. . . . It is a conflict of interest between the Palestinians and us [because] what is good for them is bad for us, and what is good for us is bad for them. They want all of the West Bank and Jerusalem. They will begin the war again someday. . . .

Yaacov, the Israeli: In my lifetime, peace will be possible. It must because it is impossible to carry on like this. Sooner or later, there will have to be a compromise. I would prefer to give the territories back with peace. . . . I believe, though, that first I will pass one or two wars -- probably with Syria -- at least.

Najeh, the Palestinian: There will be no peace. Someday there will be another war, and the Arabs will be successful. We will take back all of Palestine.

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