A widower offers forgiveness in a land of vengeance
AIDA REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK — Israeli soldiers blew open the Hawajas' metal front door, spraying the interior with its jagged fragments.
Huda Hawaja had chosen the very same moment to step across the hallway that leads away from the front of the house. Shrapnel gouged her right arm and left thigh.
A young mother with a strong nose and dark eyes, she screamed and fell at the feet of her husband Ismail.
As the soldiers stepped into the Hawajas' modest concrete house in this Palestinian refugee camp, Ismail bent over his unconscious wife, took the scarf from her head and wound it around her arm as a tourniquet.
"Get up," a soldier said, according to Hawaja. "Get out."
He refused, went to the phone, and called for an ambulance. One of the soldiers, a medic, began to work on Huda, applying a large bandage to her hip.
The ambulance was delayed. The medic's efforts failed. Huda bled to death an hour after she was wounded.
But three days later Ismail - widower and father of five, square-faced and fine-featured, wearing a business shirt and pressed trousers - vows never to waver from his commitment to peace. "I have no grudges," he says. " I'm willing to have Israelis come to my house."
In a sea of Palestinian bitterness, amid a growing conviction that the only way to fight Israeli occupation is to cause Israel to suffer, Hawaja seems an island unto himself. After a year and a half of violence that has killed more than 1,150 Palestinians and nearly 350 Israelis, the voices of Palestinian pacifists are rare. But Hawaja is eloquent, unstinting: "The most important point is that my wife has been killed in front of her five children. I don't want this to happen to an Israeli."
Palestinians in Hawaja's position often hope aloud for retribution. On Monday, the same day Hawaja spoke of peace, Ibrahim Abayat, the head of a Palestinian militia in Bethlehem, talked of war.
In recent days Israeli forces have combed through two Bethlehem refugee camps - first Aida, where Huda died on Friday, and then a second, larger camp called Deheisheh.
In both cases the Israelis moved from house to house, often cutting through walls to avoid Palestinian snipers, in efforts to arrest men such as Mr. Abayat and seize their weapons.
Bethlehem's famed Manger Square would have been an excellent place to find both, at least on Monday. Militant Palestinians of many persuasions - Islamist and secular, uniformed and ragtag - lounged about the square, many of them toting assault rifles, machine guns, and pistols, sometimes several at once.
Israel says its recent raids have led to the arrest of militants, the seizure of weapons, and the uncovering of bomb-making labs. (Under similar pretexts, Israeli forces mounted major incursions yesterday into a large refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank City of Ramallah, killing 28 Palestinians. Seven Israeli motorists were killed yesterday in two shooting incidents.)
But in Bethlehem, Abayat dismissed Israeli claims of success. With a sharp nose and a closely cropped beard, a rolled-up black cap on his head, he fingered the ridged barrel-grip of his M-16 and exuded an edgy, anxious determination.
Last October, Israeli forces assassinated his cousin Atef, an event that Ibrahim says propelled him into armed struggle.
"In the following days we will hit them very hard and it will be very painful," he warned.
There is no indication that Huda Hawaja felt much pain. After the explosion and her collapse, which occurred at 10 a.m., she never regained consciousness.
Even though the hospital nearest the Hawaja home is just minutes away, help did not arrive quickly. Ismail phoned again and again and learned that Israeli soldiers, in the midst of their search-and-seize operation, were preventing its entry to the camp.
He began calling local television stations, asking them to report Huda's condition and to implore the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to intercede with the Israelis.
A quarter of an hour ticked by. His three youngest children were crying in the family's bedroom. He told his eldest, a 12-year-old, not to worry and to watch her siblings. Huda lay just outside the bedroom door, her gray dress and the floor around her increasingly stained with blood. The Israeli medic continued to do what he could.
Ismail began to worry intensely about his children, since he knew he couldn't take them all to the hospital with Huda and he didn't want to leave them alone in his home with the soldiers. They refused to let him call in his sister-in-law or his mother as a babysitter.
Twice Ismail jogged out to a nearby mosque, the point-of-entry for vehicles entering his part of the camp and the site of an impromptu Israeli checkpoint. There was no ambulance. The minutes kept passing.
At about 11 a.m., the ambulance reached the Hawaja house, but Huda's skin was yellow and clammy. "I think she died in the ambulance," Ismail says.
Ismail is a science teacher turned school administrator - he helps run an Islamic orphanage in Jerusalem's Old City - and his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is cooly rational. "I believe," he says, "that the struggle with Israel is not between people but between leaderships.... The Israeli people have the right to live in peace just as we Palestinians have that right."
Although he blames Israeli and Palestinian leaders first and foremost, he says the ultimate responsibility for empowering them comes from below. He credits the Israeli public for electing the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who shook hands with Palestininian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993, inaugurating the peace process.
"When one mad guy killed Rabin," Ismail says, referring to the Israeli leader's assassination in 1995, "he killed the whole thing."
Today the answer, he says, lies with peace-minded people on both sides. "When Palestinian people cooperate with Israeli people, they will be able to change their leaderships," although he says he believes that "Arafat wants peace."
Ismail is no book-trained pacifist. "I was born under occupation," he observes, reflecting on a lifetime spent in a refugee camp. He says his parents fled homes in what is now Israel proper in 1948, when they came to Aida. Seeing "a lot of misery," he says, brought him to the conclusion "that peace is the only solution" and that violence can never be a means to peace. The death of innocents seems hardest to bear.
"What has a mother done to be killed in front of her five children?" he says. "And what is the crime of a child to be killed in front of his mother at a synagogue," he adds, referring to one of the victims of a Palestinian suicide bomber who struck an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem two weeks ago.
Ismail ended up leaving his children at home during the hours he spent at the hospital. The Israeli soldiers had moved them from one room to another, but they were unharmed. His youngest, 3-year-old Afnan, asked him when her mother would return. "She's with God," Ismail told his children. "She's a martyr and she's happy."