Counting up the cost of 12 months of Mideast violence

Sunday, September 30, 2001


They were soldiers and schoolboys, farmers in their fields, infants in arms, teen-age girls in skimpy discotheque finery. They were policemen and teachers, doctors and laborers, wrinkled matriarchs and hot-eyed young seekers of martyrdom.

They died for love of homeland, in fulfillment of what they believed to be God's wishes, or entirely by accident. They courted death, or fought it desperately. They had final moments filled with fear and astonishment, or no time even for that. Death seemed preordained for some; it caught others unawares as they talked on the telephone or hurried home to make lunch for the children.

The end of September marks a year of grinding conflict between Israel and the Palestinians -- a milestone all but overshadowed by the catastrophic terror attacks on New York and Washington that are feared to have claimed nearly 6,500 lives.

Even before the setting of this almost incomprehensible benchmark, the death toll among Palestinians and Israelis was not enormous -- not, at least, when viewed against the world's diverse and bloody conflicts.

But these deaths -- more than 640 Palestinians, almost 200 Israelis -- had a seismic impact on the lives of nearly everyone crowded into the small patch of land that is Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Two deaths a day

Over the months, people here lost their lives, on the average, at a rate of more than two a day. Death's pace slowed and quickened. A day -- even two or three -- might pass without anyone being killed. Then would come a spike of fatalities: a dozen, a score dead. Or more.

Throughout the fighting, the apportionment of the dead remained roughly constant: about three in four are Palestinians. In what has evolved into a confrontation with many of the trappings of full warfare, Israel has overwhelming military superiority. But Palestinians have increasingly employed a deadly equalizer, the suicide bomb.

To a watching world, the dead of this conflict are to a degree depersonalized. News headlines, by necessity, assigned them an identity tag, a tribal affiliation: a Jewish settler, a Palestinian gunman, an Israeli military reservist, a Palestinian stone-thrower.

Yet each was a life interrupted, whose artifacts spoke of a full and flawed humanity. The dead left shopping lists and love letters, unpaid bills and unfilled prescriptions, half-written research papers, unclaimed khaki uniforms in the barracks laundry, a just-opened bottle of pink nail polish in the medicine chest.

Because both Judaism and Islam call for burial with whatever haste can be mustered, death's drama often played itself out with abruptness. People might have morning coffee with a loved one, hear terrible news of them at midday, identify a grievously mangled body soon after, and see those remains consigned to the earth -- all in a single dreadful day.

Flag-waving funerals

Funerals, particularly on the Palestinian side, tend to be stridently nationalistic affairs. The flag-draped bodies of even the smallest children were paraded aloft through the streets amid cries for revenge, volleys of gunfire and roars of "Allahu akbar!" -- "God is great!"

Jewish burials were sometimes marked by outpourings of rancor as well. At the December funeral of Binyamin Kahane -- the militant settler son of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane who was slain with his wife, Talia, in a Palestinian roadside ambush -- hundreds of his followers rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem, smashing windows and beating any Arab they could find.

But a quieter, more private grief always found voice, even if all but drowned in the tumult.

"He was my little one," whispered Palestinian mother Fathiyeh Darraj, standing in March by the grave of her 9-year-old son, Obei. He was killed at home in bed -- apparently by a stray bullet fired by Israeli troops in the direction of Palestinian gunmen -- in the West Bank town of El Bireh.

At the graveside of 21-year-old Julie Weiner, her father addressed his lament directly to his slain daughter, a French immigrant-soldier who was one of eight Israelis run down and killed by a Palestinian bus driver as they waited at a bus stop.

"You will always be loved," Richard Weiner said softly in French, weeping.

Strange killing fields

In both Israel and the Palestinian territories, the landscape itself has taken on a haunted aspect as the deaths have mounted. Incongruous locales have become killing fields: a suburban shopping mall, a roadside cafe, a downtown pizzeria, a packed nightclub. Some formerly dangerous places were rendered dramatically more so in recent months: the scrubby sand dunes of Gaza, the lonely roads of the West Bank.

Even in a land long acquainted with the unforgiving biblical themes of revenge and retribution, the sheer constancy of the bloodshed is difficult for both sides to bear.

"We are becoming better all the time at dealing with this," sighed an Israeli doctor, Uri Deviri, 50, as the emergency room of his downtown Jerusalem hospital filled up for the second time in a month with people hurt in a nearby suicide bombing. The nature of such injuries, he said, sometimes reminded him of his army-medic days in Lebanon.

"I am an old man, and it's my job to bury people," said Palestinian gravedigger Salim Abu Majid, a sun-wizened 66-year-old, gesturing with his muddy shovel toward a row of new graves in the sandy earth of Martyrs Cemetery, outside Gaza City. "But in all of my life, I have never seen anything like this year."

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