I left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv on the night of 12 October, as events in Ramallah threatened to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of control. The lynching of two army reservists had deeply shaken Jewish confidence in any chance for peace, while the Palestinians seemed only to gain in strength as helicopter gunships launched reprisal attacks. As I walked through Jewish west Jerusalem, the atmosphere was one of numbed apprehension.
Tense teenage Israeli soldiers checked the IDs of tense teenage Arabs. Ultra-orthodox Jews hurried home silently to prepare for the Sukkot festival in their ghetto white and black dress. A man with a banjo twanged out “Spread a Little Happiness” across the quiet pedestrian precincts and empty restaurant tables. The passengers on the coach listened, the irony of the lyrics lost on them.
When I reached the bright, futuristic spires of high-rise Tel Aviv, the city’s celebrated cafes had been silenced by the day’s events. Everywhere, the strict diet of big-screen MTV had been replaced by CNN, flashing up giant images of Palestinian hatred.
I was in Tel Aviv to visit Israeli friends. Ori Saly, a journalist for the daily Ma’ariv newspaper, and his flatmates, Ehud and Edit, would be considered by most Israelis as members of the liberal elite – diehard supporters of the peace process.
For the past four years Ori has been in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), completing his national service, as almost all young men in Israel must. Unusually for a pro-peace iconoclast, he chose to serve as an officer, commanding one of four defence posts on the Israeli-Lebanese border. “I was in charge of 80 men and it was very tough,” he told me when we met. “Some of my friends were killed in action, but I still felt I was doing the right thing.”
As we sat in the living-room of their arty flat in central Tel Aviv, the pictures from Ramallah were crushing any hope for a dialogue between Arab and Jew. Edit, a staunch reader of Ha’aretz – the Guardian of the Holy Land – seemed devastated. “I actually used to be pro-Arab, I really did. I could understand exactly what they’d been through. But now I hate them,” she says.
Ehud shook his head. “It’ll go on for years now,” he sighed. “You make all these plans and then you discover you have no control. No control at all.”
Soon the endless tension of the Israeli news channels proved too much, and we tried to talk about something else. In the early hours of the morning, we went out for some ice cream to lighten the mood. Everyone started giggling, they couldn’t believe it was all happening. “I’m sorry, we’re hysterical, this is all too bad,” said Edit. In Tel Aviv, a city in which, as Ori put it, “no one really cool goes out before 2am”, the streets were deserted.
Two days later I was in Ramallah itself. Its central streets, swarming with business signs like some sort of Palestinian Hong Kong, were doing a brisk but anxious trade. The streams of traffic, including expensive 4x4s and saloon cars, were directed by smartly uniformed Palestinian traffic police: this is one of the few West Bank towns entirely under Palestinian control. There was no air of unreality here, just a grim determination to pull together.
For lunch, I was meeting Fouad Najjab, a 24-year-old advertising executive who also happens to be the son of the Palestinian Communist Party leader. Bright and liberal, he is representative of many young Palestinian professionals who now take a cautious approach towards the peace process. “I’m not optimistic, any more. To be honest, I lost confidence in Barak three months after he was elected [in May 1999], when he continued building the settlements. But I totally have confidence in Yasser Arafat. Most people now are really proud of him, especially after he took his firm stand at Camp David.”
Fouad sees a new spirit of national solidarity emerging between the Palestinians, their once-hated police force and the Palestinian leadership. He rejects the constant claims that Arafat is inciting the violence as a bargaining position: “Young people don’t listen to presidents. Their anger is genuine.” Fouad himself attends the regular peaceful demonstrations that keep away from Israeli positions, and he is still convinced that the great majority of his compatriots are pro-peace: “What shocks me most right now is when I hear the Israelis say that they don’t have a partner. Sure, it is going to be very hard to sit down again whenever this ends, but it won’t be impossible.”
As we talked, Fouad appeared confident and relaxed. The brutal killings of the reservists aside, he was proud of the way Palestinian society was acquitting itself in the crisis. Pride was not an emotion I had encountered among Israelis, pro-peace or otherwise. He added that, for all the show of unity, there were differences of opinion ignored by the Israeli and the western media alike.
“There absolutely is a debate among the Palestinians about what to do. I argue with people at work all the time. Yes, there are people who have given up on the peace process and who are saying we have nothing to lose. But to lose hope is a very dangerous thing. There is a real spirit of Palestinian democracy and education which has developed, in part, as a result of wanting to organise ourselves as well as the Israelis do. After Arafat, we’ll elect the right person. The Palestinians are civilised, they know their rights.” That remains to be seen, but it was impressively positive for a member of a people some would say are under siege.
Reuben is a yeshiva student. We were sitting in a square in the Jewish Quarter. I had returned to the heart of the matter, the great walled Old City of Jerusalem, where countless mosques, churches and synagogues are held in a suffocating embrace of antagonism and common foundation. “No!” shouted Reuben over his coffee. “No, I can’t believe it will happen!”With its perfect limestone masonry and spotless boutiques, the quarter hums and sparkles with all the efficiency of a Levantine Switzerland. “Every year for 2,000 years, we celebrated our festivals by saying ‘next year in Jerusalem’. So, now we’re here, we’re not giving it away, and that means the whole city. Who founded this city anyway?” Founders keepers, huh? “Even if we have to fight for it again!”
There appeared to be plenty of people with just that thought in mind, as the Jewish Quarter had steadily filled during the previous days with armed Israelis. Bookish-looking teenagers carried Uzis slung over their shoulders, uniformed and plain-clothes police had taken up positions around the squares and alleyways.
The yeshiva students were in no doubt that such protection was necessary. A terrible fear of what the Arabs might do haunts them all. “They’re a violent people – they’re capable of anything,” asserted 18-year-old Erica.
Those Jews who venture out of their quarter into the rest of the Old City might find they are overreacting, but few venture through the Arab souks and winding passages without an armed escort these days. This despite the thousands of grumpy, baseball-capped tourists who still surge through the already teeming streets, many loitering long after dark when the streets empty. Jerusalem, despite the protestations of some of its residents and many imaginative correspondents, is far from a war zone. Demonstrations happen, certainly, but in the Holy City, at least, they are localised and easily avoided. And, to talk to their participants, there are few better ways than to go and shoot some pool.
My partner was Khader, a friendly 17-year-old Palestinian. We met by the pool rooms in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, a large, rather battered establishment with a clutch of dated video games at the entrance, six American pool tables and a qahwa, or coffee house, at the back. An identical scene could be played out at any number of inner-city locations in Britain. I started to play according to the standard pattern, but Khader quickly stopped me. “We don’t play by American rules,” he said, in a masterstroke of political double entendre.
As we played, Khader told me about his part in the demonstrations: “We will fight for our nation, with our blood.” It was a learnt phrase, but it looked like he meant it. Do you always go? “How could you stay at home?” Do your parents like you going? “No,” he smiled, “not at all.” Not much chance of Arafat stopping him, then.
Fouad had explained it to me more vividly the previous day: “You feel anger and the anger of those around you. You shout slogans. You feel proud and frightened.” These are the riots and demonstrations that have changed the lives of young Israelis and Palestinians throughout the country. While it has reaffirmed the identity and pride of many Arabs, it has scared and demoralised Israeli youth of both the left and right.
People have stopped watching CNN in the bars now. Fear still haunts the streets of West Jerusalem, and they don’t need to be reminded why.