Where To Now?

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A young girl washes a work horse in the Mediterranean, near Gaza City

Ata Sarasra crunches slowly over the cracked, gray-marbled tiles and ruptured pipes where his kitchen used to be. A week before, Israeli soldiers came to destroy his seven-bedroom home, a day after his son Hazim, 17, blew himself up in a Jerusalem suicide attack that wounded five Israelis. As the 47-year-old father of five balances himself on the debris of his home, he looks tired. He is worn by a week of mourning for his son, "who died a martyr, thank God," and for his house. What little sleep he got the previous night at his brother's home, where his family now stays, was disturbed by the sound of three powerful explosions as the Israelis blew up more homes near his village, Beit Jala.

Ata Sarasra's house had been born in hope. For two decades, Sarasra, a schoolteacher, worked in the United Arab Emirates, saving his wages to one day build a place in his hometown in the West Bank. Finally, three years ago, encouraged by the prospect of Palestinian self-determination and peace with Israel, Sarasra returned to Beit Jala and built his simple house of cinder block and poured concrete. It was to be a home for his children and the families they would raise in the independent Palestinian state Sarasra thought would come soon. But in one night that idea turned into broken slabs of concrete and contorted rebar strewn through the steep olive groves.

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Destroying the homes of Palestinian assailants is Israel's latest contribution to the escalating battle between the two sides over who can hurt whom more. Actually, it's an old technique, from the time of the previous Palestinian intifadeh, or uprising, from 1987 to 1993. Israel abandoned the tactic, decried by human-rights groups because it punishes those not involved in violence, after signing the Oslo accords. The return of house demolitions is the latest measure of how, in the 22 months since the Palestinians launched their new intifadeh, the two societies have set back time, erasing the progress of seven years of peacemaking.

That is not to say, though, that the Israelis and Palestinians are back to where they were before Oslo. The last two years of fighting have warped both sides, exacting tolls that go beyond the monstrous body count of 607 Israelis and 1,702 Palestinians dead. For the Palestinians, even before Oslo, there was at least the faith that if they stayed true to their cause, if they refused to bend to Israel's dictate, they would one day have the elemental right to rule themselves. If they did not know precisely how they would be delivered, they at least knew by whom: Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Although they were trampled as a people, the Palestinians continued to function as families, clans and towns, held together by old traditions.

But the Aqsa intifadeh, as the new uprising is called, has crushed those certainties. No longer do Palestinians trust that history will redeem them. They no longer regard Arafat as their savior. Their understanding of who they are is lost. The old paths have come to a dead end, and no one knows which way now to turn.

Like most Palestinians, Sarasra sees only Israel's part in the destruction of Palestinian property and aspirations; he cannot or will not examine the role his people have played in laying waste to their community. Though it was Israeli ordnance that destroyed his house, the vicious action of his son Hazim lit the fuse. In fighting the intifadeh, the Palestinians have pulled the walls of their society down on themselves. Like Sarasra, they sit helpless and angry in the detritus of what was, wondering how it will ever be possible to rebuild. "Our problem is so huge," says Sarasra, "how can anyone even imagine a solution?"

Master No More
If anyone thought he could protect his children, it was Asad Abu Shouqa, a former Palestinian karate champion and an officer in Arafat's General Intelligence. But Abu Shouqa could not shield his son Haitham, 14, from his own choices, and the boy chose death. Abu Shouqa's hands, honed as hard as stone by martial arts, now are knotted into big, clumsy fists, pressing hard against each other. He sweats with the difficulty of controlling his rage as he talks about Haitham. He will not say what he would have told his son, had the boy confessed his plans to his father. "Some feelings I keep to myself," he growls. His son-in-law whispers later that Abu Shouqa is furious with Haitham for the mission he undertook, but the father, he adds, can't admit it now that people acclaim the boy as a shahid, a martyr.

Two days before, Haitham had left his home in Sheik Radwan, a neighborhood of Gaza City in which the Islamist militants of Hamas reign, and walked with his friends along the beach. When they reached the edge of the city, near the three Israeli settlements at the north of the Gaza Strip, Haitham produced a knife and a small pipe bomb from his pockets. "I invite you to join me in martyrdom," he told his companions. His friends declined and watched him continue. He was shot by an Israeli soldier guarding the settlement of Dugit. It is a testament to the popularity of efforts such as Haitham's that 6,000 people came to the funeral of an otherwise unknown boy to celebrate the 14-year-old as a hero.

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