Can Israelis and Palestinians ever learn to live together? Just as the two parties edged toward a cease-fire last week, three Palestinian suicide bombings in three days put that tentative progress in peril. While the bodies pile up and the diplomats scramble to find a breakthrough, it is people like the Simons and the Zeidans who have to make the most difficult choices. If the initiative is to be taken away from zealots on both sides, politicians will need a shove from those with the greatest stake in achieving a placid life. The Simons and the Zeidans ache for normality. They are exhausted by war, depressed, often bitter. They do not yet see a way to bridge the gulf between them.
Every day Fayez Zeidan, 36, wanders around Bethlehem looking for work. He seldom finds it. Before the intifadeh, which began in September 2000, he was a construction worker in Israel and labored side by side with Israelis. "In those days the mutual confidence was so great," he says. "We used to go to Israeli restaurants and cities and take weekend picnics without being questioned." No longer. Once the intifadeh put a stop to easy transit from the West Bank into Israel, Fayez lost his job. "To be honest with you, we live on charity," he says. His small two-bedroom apartment, with used furniture and mattresses on the floor, costs $300 a month, paid by the local municipality.
Fayez's greatest pride was a comfortable three-story villa sporting a big veranda overlooking Gilo, located in Beit Jala near the Greek Orthodox church his family attends. He built the house, mostly with his own hands, during the four years that he and Jacqueline lived with his parents. Israeli forces shelled it last May. They claimed snipers had been using the roof. The Zeidans' 9-year-old daughter Mariana remembers the day: "We ran away from the house, and we saw it burning behind us when we reached safety." Nothing remained of their possessions. "All my hard work and earnings in two minutes were gone," says Fayez. He had no insurance, and Israel did not compensate him. "I'm not against struggling and building the Palestinian state," he says. "But I have my doubts about the benefits of shooting at Israeli targets when we are not in a position to defend ourselves."
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The family fled to a refugee camp, but that too came under Israeli attack. So the Zeidans moved to Bethlehem. Narmin, their 7-year-old, still cries for her bed; it was destroyed in the shelling. Mishlin, 5, wakes up at night screaming: "Oh, Jesus Christ, take me with you to protect me!" Mariana still attends school in Beit Jala. "I'm Greek Orthodox, but my two best friends are Amal and Muna, who are Muslims," she says. "I don't have Israeli friends, but when I used to go to the shopping mall in Jerusalem, I played with Israeli girls. When I finish school, I want to be a secretary. Secretaries can put things in order. I like to put things in order."
I'm a natural optimist," says Yoav Simon, 40, "but the lack of certainty is exhausting." He teaches at a high school for gifted children in Jerusalem. He and his wife Orly, 35, doggedly tried to continue their normal life in the face of the intifadeh. Despite the threat of suicide bombs, "we went to the market," says Orly, who heads the information-technology department of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. "We rode in buses. We went to cafes. People criticized this, but it was done in full conscience, to cope with the situation, to preserve my sanity. And I didn't want the children to be affected. They should grow up with a sense that we are not breaking down."
At least their daughters are educated not in Gilo, where schools have taken mortar fire and bullets, but in a less exposed part of Jerusalem. But the city center is also becoming a source of fear. "Everything is empty. It's like a ghost town," says Orly. "It reflects the tension and lack of security. Suddenly I don't want to go downtown and confront this emptiness."
The pressure is also getting to Yoav: "We feel the exhaustion. We are hostages in the hands of two foolish leaderships that think you can achieve something just by hurting the other side." Orly feels oppressed by the carnage of arbitrary terror: "I'm much more afraid to go on a bus. When I leave the house, I'm not sure I'll come back." Lately she has been picturing her death. "I'm very afraid that our children will become orphans," she says. "I'm very afraid to be hurt and crippled. Sometimes I imagine my funeral, even the eulogies--where I'll be buried. I find myself hoping that I will have a beautiful funeral."