Out of Mideast rubble - friends

For Gazan Jawad al-Durah, the second intifada was inaugurated by the death of one of the conflict's first and most famous victims - his young cousin Mohammad al-Durah was the 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians on Sept. 30, 2000. Jawad al-Durah has had only one job in his life: working since he was a teenager for the same building contractor in central Israel. But the intifada catapulted him into the ranks of the 67 percent of Gazans who are unemployed.

In the '80s and '90s, Mr. al-Durah was one of the crew who worked from time to time at my house, along with Jamal al-Durah, who himself was injured when his son Mohammad was slain in his arms before the eyes of the world.

These Arab workers were for a time the only Palestinians I had ever met. I had known them for years, and they were never anything but polite, hardworking, and kind to my child. They put a human face on that great unknown "the Palestinian," so that when I heard that word mentioned, these men were the ones who came to mind.

Entry restrictions for Palestinian workers into Israel have recently been eased, and I heard al-Durah is back on the job. Last week, I went to visit him at his work site in an upscale Tel-Aviv suburb.

As I drove up the quiet street lined with white houses and palm trees, I wondered what kind of man would greet me. Would I find him sullen, angry, embittered? And I worried that perhaps he would not have been allowed through Israeli checkpoints the day after a Palestinian attack had claimed 14 lives in a burning inferno in Israel.

The contractor has purposely assigned his Gazan workers to jobs in unoccupied houses. Israelis, he is sure, would be too nervous to have Palestinians around. And surprised friends warned the contractor himself, "Be careful, you may end up with a knife in your back."

So it wasn't without some trepidation that I walked into the garden of the old house surrounded by scaffolding. Skirting construction debris, I walked to the back, tentatively calling out "Shalom!" Finally from the gutted living room, a "Shalom" answered back. The al-Durah I came upon was the same man I remembered - chubby and squat, his moon face lit up with a smile when he saw me. On the job with him was his brother-in-law Zaki Gasen.

They offered me one of the broken chairs and we talked for half an hour, a three-way conversation in accented Hebrew. They'd been back on the job for eight days. Years ago, they had to rise at 3 a.m. to get to work by 6. Now, they told me matter of factly, their day starts at half past midnight: an hour and a half to the checkpoint by local taxi, then lining up to cross the stages of security checks, revolving doors, body scans, and document verifications. By 3:45, they're on the Israeli side where a bus carries them to a main intersection in the heart of the country. At 5 a.m. they alight, and walk the 3 kilometers through the dark to the work site where they await the arrival of the boss at dawn. Then, five hours after waking up, they start work.

When I ask about whether their children also throw stones, they protest animatedly, "Our sons? If we hear they went to throw stones we would beat them! The fathers who don't care, their sons go stone throwing. But we are worried so we hit our sons!"

Every day after school, they say, boys divide into two groups: those who sneak out to throw stones through cuts in the barbed wire dividing refugee camps from Israeli settlements, and the others who are afraid of their parents and go straight home to study. Their boys are the cousins of Mohammed al-Durah. But his tragic example and the continuing stream of killed and wounded children haven't made them want to miss the action. When the Israeli planes roar overhead, the children run to look out the windows.

For the past two years, the contractor has hired Romanians to fill the Palestinians' jobs. His avowed politics are to the right, yet he says he "gave in" and rehired the workers because he couldn't bear their phone calls begging for work, their pleas that they have no money to feed their kids. "A man has a sense of responsibility," he says, "to people who have spent their lives working for him."

But not all the men are back. Another old-timer isn't entitled to a work permit because he's childless. And what about Jamal al-Durah? He will never be allowed back in Israel, his cousins say. And besides, he is not fit for work anymore.

What will he do for the rest of his life? "The rest of his life?" they repeat, as if the future is a foreign concept. And they shrug.

Looking at al-Durah with hammer in hand straddling the scaffolding, feeling so fortunate to be back at work, an onlooker might be fooled into thinking things hadn't changed. But nothing is the same, not for him, not for anybody.

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and columnist living in Israel. She won the 2001 Common Ground Award for Journalism in the Middle East for a column on the father of the slain Palestinian boy mentioned in this article.

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