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For Whom Does the Bell Toll? The Children of the West Bank

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Where shepherds watched their flocks by night, Jihad Ghalan is struggling to put back together a life all but ruined by a single act of hostility. Two years ago, the 23-year-old Palestinian was a carpenter in Hebron, in the West Bank. He was sitting at home one day, he says, when an Israeli Army patrol came by, forced him from the house and gestured at a Palestinian flag fluttering from a utility pole. “They pointed guns at me and ordered me to climb the pole to take the flag down,” he says.

Today, Ghalan’s ravaged body exhibits the results of that order. Where his hands once were, two flesh-colored rubber prostheses protrude from his shirt cuffs. Huge swaths of gnarled, scarred flesh run through his hair like firebreaks in a forest. His torso is plaited with welts and scars. “I was electrocuted when I climbed the pole,” he says. “The soldiers got nervous and ran away. My neighbors took me to a hospital. My wife has had a great deal of difficulty dealing with this; she could not believe it had happened.” Ghalan holds out the mechanized forearms, connected to his body near the elbows. “This surgery was done in Germany, in a clinic near Cologne. I cannot pick up anything more than about two pounds with these.”

Last week, Jihad moved from Hebron to Beit Sahur—the Field of Shepherds—about two miles from Manger Square in Bethlehem. There, where tradition says that simple herdsmen saw the star that led them to the birthplace of Christ, the YMCA has opened a rehabilitation and training center for injured teenagers and young adults. “I was a carpenter before this happened; now I have come here to learn a trade,” Ghalan says. Close to desperation, he adds, “I hope I can learn a trade.”

Three years have now passed since the beginning of the intifada—the rebellion by Palestinians against Israel’s 23-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It has been a bloody and deadly time for Arab and Israeli alike. With Jewish settlements in areas the Palestinians consider their land, dozens of Israelis have been killed by Palestinians throwing rocks, stones or Molotov cocktails. But, as YMCA officials and Israeli human rights activists point out, the government has exacted a terrible revenge. In three years, they estimate that 50,000 to 90,000 Palestinians have been injured, most of them children, teenagers or young adults, which is no surprise since it is the young who serve as the intifada’s frontline troops against the Israelis. More than 700 Palestinians have died at the hands of soldiers or settlers (as well as at least 230 Palestinians killed by other Palestinians). And now, as the Persian Gulf crisis rivets the attention of the world, anger and fear have driven many Palestinians to embrace a dangerous new champion. As one young man, paralyzed on one side of his body by an Israeli Army bullet, exclaims: “Saddam Hussein is the greatest Arab! He will help us.”

The calculus of the Arab-Israeli conflict is never simple—and the fear that many Israelis feel is real. Just last week, three Palestinians stabbed six Israeli civilians traveling on a bus near Tel Aviv. Many Israelis grew up listening to Arab heads of state threatening their country—and their lives. “Many Arab leaders used to say they wanted to push the Jews into the sea,” says Yuval Ginbar, a spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “When I was a kid, I remember hearing Ramallah Radio, which was in Jordan at the time, saying, ‘The fish in the blue Mediterranean are getting ready for the big feast.’ For Jews who came back from the Holocaust, this was a real threat.”

Even so, some Israeli activists argue that the government’s policy of using armed force to stifle dissent in the West Bank has now gone too far. “My father was in Dachau,” Ginbar says. “I know that in the aftermath of the Holocaust many people feel we are constantly threatened with annihilation. But that doesn’t justify everything we do. We don’t need to kill 5-year-old children to survive.”

The occupied territories have been at a political flash point for years, and Saddam Hussein has made a blatant bid for Palestinian support by demanding that Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza be discussed in any negotiations over Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. But while adults wage their deadly political feuds, the children of the intifada continue to suffer.

Now that the cold winter winds have begun to blow in the hills of Samaria, Abbas Hamid shelters close to his siblings for warmth in the tent that he shares with his parents and six brothers and sisters. Some nights, if he is lucky, he may even find a place to sleep on the floor of one of the storerooms of a nearby house. “[The Israelis] destroyed my house,” the 7-year-old says angrily. “I saw them do it. I hate them for that.” According to Abbas’s mother, Nazreh, 29, the family’s trouble began during a demonstration earlier this year in their village of Silwad. Her brother-in-law threw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli jeep; her husband, the children’s father, was present. She claims that no one was injured, although the jeep was destroyed. She admits that the men were guilty; her brother-in-law is now serving a prison term for his actions, and her husband has done his time and been released. But not only the criminals were punished.

“The soldiers came here by surprise, about one o’clock in the afternoon, one day in September,” Nazreh Hamid says. “They took the children aside and held them away from the house. Then they dynamited it.” Nazreh’s brother-in-law’s house, a few feet away, was also blown up. The children, ages 1 through 12, live in a tent provided by the Red Cross. As he surveys the ruins of his family’s life with his 7-year-old eyes, Abbas expresses a sentiment all too common among the children of the West Bank. “I wish I were older,” he says. “Then I could fight them.”

Outside her home in East Jerusalem, Arine Dweikat cringes at the approach of strangers. As her mouth trembles and she bursts into tears, one can see more clearly the concave depression in her cheek, spreading down from the ugly purple scar that cuts across the flesh. She is just 18 months old, but she already knows how violent life can be. “She was outside, playing with the other children in the neighborhood,” her father, Awami, 26, explains. “Some police went by; they said later that they were chasing demonstrators. Suddenly she was hit with a plastic bullet.

“I am a nurse at Al-Makassed Hospital, on the Mount of Olives; the neighbors brought the child there, and I was there when she came in. The bullet had gone through her cheek and come to rest in her mouth. It made a hole about three-quarters of an inch long and an inch and one-quarter wide.” Plastic surgeons worked to repair the damage; with luck, they say, the child may grow to have a near-normal smile and a scar that will be hardly noticeable. But her inner wounds, and her nervousness around strangers, may take longer to heal. “After a while,” Awami says, “an officer came by, and the neighbors said to him, ‘This is terrible. You’re shooting children.’ He said, ‘What can we do? We have to protect ourselves.’ ”

Like most professional military and police organizations, the Israeli Defense Forces and police have strict rules against using weapons when innocent bystanders might be injured. The number of Palestinian fatalities in the occupied territories has dropped significantly—from about 40 a month last year to around five per month this year. But Palestinians in the West Bank argue that soldiers tend to shoot first and ask questions later where Arab lives are concerned. Investigations into shootings of Palestinians are not common, and punishment of soldiers is rare. “There are regulations against shooting at children under 14, practically at all costs,” says Ginbar, himself a reserve sergeant in the IDF. “But we have heard of very many cases where children were shot. It is not enough to say that it was not done intentionally. We must see to it that it is intentionally not done.”

For generations, some West Bank Palestinians have cultivated a family connection with the U.S. They come to this country, find jobs or set up shops, and send money back to support their families. Many of them are U.S. citizens who commute between their new homes and their old ones.

Nasser Salah is 15. In the normal course of events, he might have been expected to go to the U.S. someday, like his father, who has a grocery store in Miami, or his grandfather, who was a grocer in Brooklyn. But on May 15, 1989, Nasser was standing just outside his house in the village of El-Bireh. Some of the local children, as they often did, had started an anti-Israeli demonstration in the neighborhood. They chanted and waved Palestinian flags—both illegal activities under the occupation. An Israeli patrol appeared, and Nasser ran toward his home. He was shot in the back.

“They didn’t speak, they just began firing,” he says. “I was hit twice. One bullet was removed, but the other is still in my spine. Some people took me to the hospital in Ramallah.” The results of the shooting are evident: the muscle of the boy’s right thigh has atrophied to about half the size of the left. Nasser uses crutches and his good left leg to move; the right scuffs, heavy and useless, against the floor. He has been to specialists in Miami and Columbus, Ohio; they hold out little hope that he will ever regain the use of his leg. “One of them said that he could operate, and there was some chance of improvement, but the bullet was so close to the spine that the other leg might end up paralyzed,” Nasser explains. He and his family decided not to risk it.

As he tells his story, Nasser sits inside his parents’ house; it is illegal for him or any other resident of this section of El-Bireh to go outside, since the village is under curfew. A week before, an Israeli settler was stoned and seriously injured by youths from the village. Now only soldiers are allowed in the area.

Many of the Palestinian teenagers who are wounded have indeed been involved in antigovernment demonstrations. But being maimed or paralyzed for life is a high price to pay for raising a flag or even throwing a rock. It is a yet higher price to pay for simply going about the normal business of living. “I was 15 years old in 1988,” Samar Barsar says. “I went to the town of Bethlehem with my father to shop for vegetables. A demonstration broke out, and the soldiers started shooting sporadically. I didn’t expect to be hit.” But a plastic bullet smashed into Samar’s right eye, destroying it. She still lives near Bethlehem, but given the chance, she would leave. “I would like to go abroad to have my eye looked at, and maybe have surgery,” she says—although doctors removed her shattered eyeball two years ago and replaced it with a glass eye. “And I’d like to continue my studies.”

Like Nasser and Jihad, Samar is receiving psychological counseling through the YMCA at its center at Beit Sahur. She is enrolled in a high school; the two young men have begun vocational training. “We are able to take 120 people at a time, in our vocational training programs, our outreach program and our counseling program,” says Maida Habash, a YMCA official. “The need is much greater than that, but we must make a start.” The young people who pass through the center—all aged 15 and up—have already lost limbs, eyes, hands or mobility; the challenge now is to make sure they do not lose hope as well. “For most of them, we can find some trade they can do well, despite their handicaps,” Habash says. “Carpentry, upholstery, computers. The important thing is to prepare them for the future.”

That is a daunting proposition in a place where the future brings dread more often than hope, and the past is a wound that will not be healed.