With neighbors like these

‘They raise their children to hate.’ That’s what we’re told about the Palestinians. Watch the TV news. Listen to the radio. Pick up the dramatic US news magazines. Ask the intellectuals and the political pundits. Palestinian mothers willingly sacrifice their own children to the cause. In school, the teachers reinforce the hatred the children learn at home. How can there be peace in Israel/Palestine if they hate the Jews, the Israelis, and the Zionists so much? How can the lily-white live with such neighbors?

Iyad is four years old. His father doesn’t allow him to play outside. In the streets of Rafah there is too much danger he’ll be shot by Israeli soldiers — like six-year-old Samiah Najih Hussan who dared walk home from school along the border road with her schoolmates. A bullet lodged in her brain and she died shortly thereafter. That was April 6th, 2002. Do you know how many children have died in similar circumstances since then? No. You don’t. Because the news doesn’t report it, just like it didn’t report the death of 11-month-old Huda who died in her bedroom in the middle of the night on May 1st, 2002 when a tank shell blew apart the concrete walls of her home. By the time I got there the next day, all that was left of her was a ring of blood on the floor.

Ramzi laughs cynically after mimicking the poisonous claims of the western media.

—We raise our children to hate, don’t you know?

He says this sarcastically, but gloom soon overtakes him.

—What am I suppose to say when Iyad asks me why he can’t play outside? What am I supposed to tell him when he asks me why there are people shooting guns at us? Why tanks roll into our neighborhoods and fire at anything moving? Why airplanes and tanks destroy our city buildings and his friends‚ houses? What am I supposed to tell him when he wakes up at night because the war is just outside our door? How can I explain to my son why I am home from work for the fifth day in a row? Sixteen hours at the checkpoint on Saturday, 12 on Sunday, 13 on Monday, 10 on Tuesday, and then the rumors that it would soon open just stopped circulating. Don’t make me laugh by asking me why. There is no why. There is only that I am not earning money to feed and clothe my family. I sit in my room and watch TV. I am restless and bored and humiliated. My sister is 7 months pregnant and she can’t return to her husband in the Nuseirat refugee camp 20 minutes north of here. That’s the price she’s paying for daring to visit my wife and me. She was so sick in the taxicab at the checkpoint and I couldn’t do anything to help her. We came back here after 8pm and she went to sleep on the floor.

Some of the camp children come by to see me. Luna and Ahmad, Assiel, Hudiah, and Riham crowd around me in Ramzi’s home. They want to see what’s in my handbag and touch my light, uncovered hair. They’ve brought me gifts to take back with me to America: a child’s notebook with cartoon animals on it, a pencil drawing of a boat, a plastic flower. Riham wants to give me the bright headband that keeps her hair from her eyes. They ask me questions about America and show me how much English they’ve learned. Do I have to leave? I kiss Assiel on both cheeks to say good-bye and the others hang their heads until I do them the same honor, and then they smile with pride.

Assiel‚s grandmother begs to see the ajnabiyah, the foreign woman, before I leave. This 72-year-old peasant woman holds her hands out to me and kisses my face four times. She lives in a single room with a water closet in the corner and an electric burner for coffee and tea.

—This is not my real home, she says after our greetings.

—We had orchards and fields and a house in a village near Ashkelon. All our food came from our own land. I remember; I was 18. Her voice trails off.

—Then the Zionist soldiers forced us to leave. For 54 years they have been eating our oranges and living on our land and look at how we are living here.

So what do you tell Iyad when he asks his constant questions? I ask Ramzi later that evening.

—That they took our land and they don’t want us here; that it is dangerous for him to go too close to their tanks and watch-towers. That they are waiting for us to leave but that we will stay. What else can I tell him? Shall I pretend it’s not really happening? Shall I tell him lies? As it is, he doesn’t understand and the tears come into his eyes whenever I have to leave. Do you know what this does to me?

Iyad and his friends throw a mini-basketball into a mini-basketball hoop stuck to the wall in the windowless room of their cramped, three-room home all day. And his father brings home chips for him and his friends and his little sister: luxury treats for being such good children. His father hugs Iyad close in his big arms at night until they both fall asleep. The image will not leave me: The terrorist man and the terrorist boy.

—Do you like Sharon? Do you like George Bush?

Each of the older children asks me this question sooner or later before I leave, waiting with huge eyes for my response.

Shall I tell them they’re men of peace?