Wrestling With Rage, Israelis Question Peace

THE Square of the Cats, normally thronging with costumed children for the annual Jewish festival of Purim, was deserted yesterday and shrouded in the same silence as the rest of downtown Jerusalem.

''I was going to dress up as a flight attendant going to the moon,'' says young Or Ben-Zvi, clearly disappointed that the festivities were canceled.

''It's very, very sad,'' says Zvi Ben-Zvi, Or's mother. ''But we must carry on. We are waiting for the real peace.''

Four suicide bombs, which claimed 61 lives and traumatized Israel over the past 10 days, led to the cancellation of the merrymaking that usually draws crowds of children and their parents to celebrate the Jewish equivalent of Halloween.

The bombs also galvanized Israelis who oppose peace with Palestinians. Those people, nearly half of all Israelis, have grown more vocal in criticizing Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who heads the dovish Labor Party government. Their reaction again puts the peace process into jeopardy.

''We must make a war against [the Arabs],'' says Anat Shabtai, who lives in the sprawling Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem. ''I don't believe there ever will be peace. The Army must go in and destroy them all.

''The only solution is to separate Jews and Arabs from each other. Being in one place together doesn't work. We must be completely separate,'' says Mrs. Shabtai, walking with her husband and two children in a deserted quarter of Jerusalem.

Israel has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel or traveling between Palestinian-controlled enclaves. And on Tuesday, Israel recalled negotiators who were scheduled to resume peace talks with Syria near Washington next Monday.

Armed soldiers in uniform, part of the reinforcements sent to the Holy City following the devastating bomb blasts, seemed to outnumber pedestrians, and buses were almost empty. The flashing blue lights of police vans dominated the streets.

Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of Persian Jews from a plot to slaughter them 2,500 years ago, is the favored holiday of Israeli children, and much work goes into making elaborate costumes and preparing Purim parties.

Instead of children in clown's outfits and teenagers walking high on stilts through the streets of the city yesterday, there was a pall of silence. Few people ventured from their homes, fearing suicide bombers might strike again.

Five of the victims of Tuesday's bombing in Tel Aviv were children between the ages of 12 and 15 celebrating Purim.

''I am a sixth-generation Israeli, and I grew up in the Old City among Arabs,'' says Yitzhak Shalom, a lone jewelry vendor at a flea market that had been preparing for one of its busiest days of the year.

''I support the peace, and I really want peace, but, unfortunately, there is a group within Islam that cannot differentiate between children and women and soldiers ... who have come to the point of murdering children,'' he adds, with an expression of hurt on his face. ''Now the [Israeli] Army will have to take things into their own hands. They will have to go in. There is no choice. I don't know what went wrong.''

''Even in Islam, it is forbidden to do these acts,'' Mr. Shalom explains, referring to the Islamic militants responsible for the suicide bombings. ''According to Islam, you are not even supposed to spoil a flower.''

A lone group of half-a-dozen children hurried through Jerusalem's main Jaffa Road in colorful costumes shouting ''Happy Purim.'' Some astonished passersby broke into smiles as they were touched by the spontaneity of the children's joy.

''They are children from the religious community of Musrara,'' says Hadas Bodenheimer, a member of the Orthodox youth group, Bnei Akiva, who was accompanying them. ''We did not think it was appropriate to go ahead with the Purim party that was planned, so we went to the central bus station and gave the candies to the soldiers.''

Those Israelis who still favor peace talks are worried that the wave of pro-peace sentiment that followed the November assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jew has been destroyed by the recent bombings.

''What worries me is that Jews in Israel are reacting with their emotions and not with their heads,'' says Ilana Ozeransky, a Russian immigrant who ventured to the flea market to buy jewelry. ''When things were calm they were following the ideas of Rabin. Now they are moving behind the [right-wing, anti-peace] Likud Party,'' says Ms. Ozeransky, a college student.

''They think that force is the only way, but I think the only way to peace is through negotiations,'' she says. ''True peace will take a few generations. We will have to be patient. There is no other way.''

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