MAXWELL:  Palestinian hatred wells in the eyes of children

3/31/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When a Jewish friend in Chicago wrote a few days ago asking me to identify the group of people I remember most from my February trip to Israel, I had no trouble responding.

“The Palestinian and Arab Muslim children,” I responded. “Even after all of these weeks, I am haunted by the look on their faces. I have seen that look before, in the neighborhoods where I grew up, in ghettos and migrant labor camps.”

It is the look of the dispossessed.

And in light of the recent bombings in Israel that claimed 58 lives and Israeli government closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip putting tens of thousands of Palestinians out of work and costing the impoverished Palestinian economy millions of dollars daily, the images of these young people stay in my thoughts.

I was in Israel with seven other U.S. journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The window I sat next to on our tour bus became my private portal to life outside. As we queued among other vehicles at various checkpoints along the borders of the “territories” and of the gates of the major cities, I would study the expressions of the children staring through the windshields of their family jalopies.

As for the younger ones, some of their eyes held a flicker of light, a budding, subconscious hope born of innocence. But as I watched stern Israeli soldiers methodically inspect the documents and belongings of the Palestinian adults, I knew that time and experience would extinguish the light in the eyes of the children.

They, too, would inherit the hatred of generations and would, in their turn, pass it along to future generations.

I especially recall the eyes of a small boy at a checkpoint north of Tel Aviv. As he stared at me, I waved and smiled. He shut his eyes for a second, reopened them and revealed coal-black pupils that pulled me into them. Had I detected the birth of a smile? My excitement disappeared as the barrel of an automatic rifle passed between the boy and me. As the car drove from sight, I wondered if I had imagined the softening of the boy’s expression.

In Jericho, which the Palestinian Authority controls, I entertained no such hope. I saw neither smiles nor light in the eyes of the children, as diesel fumes filled the air, as horns honked, as men flailed their arms in conversation, as debris and trash lay everywhere, as children moved under the weight of an abstract burden.

When a traffic light stopped our bus near a building that flew a Palestinian flag, I noticed two teenage boys leaning against a wall decorated with graffiti. I looked into the eyes of the one smoking a cigarette and detected what I was sure was contempt for our driver and our guide, both Israeli Jews, and for my colleagues and me, all American tourists. The other teenager had the eyes of a joyless old man, reflecting the knowledge of one who has seen the future and fears the specter of what awaits him.

Bethlehem was more of the same _ dust, gridlock, noise, children’s forlorn expressions. The fact that Jesus Christ was born here does nothing to lighten the general sense of oppressiveness. I saw few happy eyes, even at the booths that sold sweets and other junk food. A group of uniformed young children, members of an Islamic sports club, as I learned later, walked past while I waited in line to buy a soft drink. Grim and purposeful, they stared ahead as they moved among the crowd. One boy, who had the bill of his cap turned up, kicked rocks. He looked at me, his wide, round eyes mature beyond their years.

Farther north in the West Bank, in villages so poor that as many as 20 people live in one small shelter, I saw despondent Arab boys _ having spent their entire lives under Israeli occupation _ milling at storefronts or in junk-strewed parking lots. From their ranks, Hamas and other radical Islamic groups recruit suicide bombers. These are the unsmiling children who see no hope in the future, whose ultimate dream is to kill Jews and destroy the state of Israel.

These are the kids whose relatives _ uncles, brothers and fathers _ have been locked up, beaten or killed by Israeli soldiers. These are the offspring of the Intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in 1987. The hatred _ etched in these young faces _ governs their lives, causing many to dream of revenge, of going to heaven in a blaze of glory and TNT.

Humiliated and frustrated, they feel like strangers in a land they consider their own. Some can stand in the doorways of their squalid homes and, looking to next hill, see beautiful Jewish structures built on land once owned by their families. Desperate and dispossessed, these young children are prime candidates for the extremists’ vision of martyrdom.

I left the Holy Land amazed that so few ordinary Israeli Jews _ victims of the suicide bombers _ take time to comprehend the depth of the pain in the faces of these children.

Israeli Jews, of course, must protect themselves. They must feel secure, and they have real, historical reasons to be fearful. But if they intend to live in peace, they must teach their own children to look into the eyes of Palestinian children and see fellow human beings. Until the dehumanization stops, until Palestinian children begin to feel good about themselves and until they feel hopeful, the bloodletting will continue.