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On Israel-Gaza border, teens learn legacy of hate

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — As the rockets fly, it is 15 seconds between the Gaza Strip and the Israeli town of Sderot.

There, 14-year-old Yosef Sarah has grown up playing in concrete tunnels with foot-thick walls. When the sirens blare, he and his family have a quarter of a minute to crowd into a downstairs bathroom and hope the rockets fall somewhere else.

As the F-16s fly, it is a split second between Israel and Gaza. And on Jan. 10, 14-year-old Talat Lawah and his family had 15 minutes to get out before an Israeli bomb reduced their two-story home to an unrecognizable pile of rubble.

Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, are observing a shaky cease-fire after a three-week war that killed 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians.

Each side claims victory. Israel, for eliminating hundreds of Hamas fighters and destroying dozens of tunnels used to smuggle rockets and other weapons from Egypt. Hamas, for carrying on the "resistance" against what Palestinians call the illegal Israeli occupation of Arab territory.

But a major result of the war appears to be this: It has hardened yet another generation of children, making peace ever more elusive.

"We hope all Israelis die because Israel destroys everything for us," Talat says.

"They got what they deserved," Yosef says.

Scars, old and new

Though far more deadly than usual, the January war was a continuation of the same hostilities that have traumatized people on both sides of the border for the past eight years.

In 2003, Talat Lawah and his brothers were playing in the sandy street outside their house when an Israeli missile, apparently intended for a Hamas leader, struck nearby and showered all four children with shrapnel. Talat lost part of one toe; his older brother was so badly hurt in the leg he had to be evacuated to Egypt for surgery.

The boys' mother comes from a large Palestinian clan that has lived for generations in a semi-rural area just two miles from Israel. Their father is a nurse at a hospital in Gaza City. Neither parent supports Hamas.

"All of the family is Fatah," Mrs. Lawah says, kissing her fingers in tribute to the party that ran Gaza until Hamas seized control in June 2007.

So the Lawahs say they were stunned on Jan. 10 when an Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier smashed in the door at 4 a.m. and ordered them to leave immediately. Mrs. Lawah fled into the cold without shoes or head scarf.

The family spent several days in a refugee camp, returning periodically to stare at the ruins of their house and the body of Talat's 20-year-old cousin, run over by an Israeli tank, as it lay decomposing in the street.

Israeli F-16s also bombed the nearby home of Talat's aunt. Remarkably, amid huge slabs of concrete jutting out at crazy angles, one room survived nearly intact. Now the two families — 13 people in all — are living there with no gas, electricity or running water. The entrance is reached by a steep climb up makeshift stairs of concrete blocks. Meals are cooked on a stove made from a rusted wheel.

Wearing the same donated sweat suit day after day, Talat spends his time wandering his wrecked neighborhood. More than two weeks after the cease fire, he had yet to return to classes at the Jabalia Martyrs Combined Basic School because his textbooks and school uniform were buried beneath his house.

Like all government-run schools in Gaza, Jabalia Martyrs reflects the view that Palestinians are the victims and Israelis the terrorists. A mural depicts masked children breaking the bonds of Israeli oppression. Maps show "Palestine" stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River; there is no Israel. Soon after classes resumed in January, a poster appeared in the sports room with photos of slain Hamas fighters, several of them recent graduates of the school.

Talat, who has never been out of Gaza, holds a narrow world view. The two countries he would most like to visit are Saudi Arabia, which helped finance the school's construction in 1998, and Egypt "because Egypt supports us," he says. He considers America an enemy "because America supports Israel."

Since the war, Talat has insisted on staying close to his mother at night. He dreams of blood and his cousin's body, and seems unusually distracted, Mrs. Lawah says. "When I send him to get something, he returns and says, 'What did you ask of me?' "

One day, Talat says, he might be a nurse like his father. Or perhaps a martyr.

How does one become a martyr?

"When we defend our country and our home and our land."

Life ruled by fear

By Israel's count, Gaza militants have fired more than 9,400 rockets and mortars into Sderot and other Israeli cities since 2003, killing 28 people. An especially active spurt of rocketing last year threatened Yosef Sarah's bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age celebration for Jewish boys when they turn 13.

As guests canceled in droves, Yosef got so worried no one would come that his father called TV and radio stations. The resulting stories led to such a show of support that the bar mitzvah drew 600 people from all over Israel, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We are a very strong nation," Netanyahu told Yosef, "and even at your age you must be strong."

Now home to 22,000, Sderot was built by working-class immigrants like Yosef's grandparents, who came from Iraq in the 1950s and opened the town's first grocery store.

His father was in the store that day in 2001 when the first rocket from Gaza thudded to earth a few dozen yards way. It was so small it left only a two-foot-wide hole; one man who fled quickly returned to reclaim his beer.

As the rockets got bigger, the government began building public shelters and giving homeowners $20,000 to add secure rooms. Sderot also boasts the world's only "missile-protected playground," with concrete tunnels painted to look like caterpillars.

Despite an intense public relations campaign, Israel struggles to convince the outside world that Palestinian rockets cause anything like the devastation inflicted by Israeli missiles, bombs and tank shells. A "media resource" book distributed by one of Sderot's two centers for visiting journalists includes a photo of a house that took a direct hit — the roof is partly torn up, but the rest of the house appears largely unscathed.

Yet the psychological strain from years of indiscriminate rocket fire can be great, Yosef's family says.

His father insists that all five children carry cell phones and let him know their whereabouts at all times. When going to a friend's house, Yosef plans his route so he is never more than 15 seconds from a shelter. He sometimes dreams he has been hit by a Qassam rocket.

Unlike children in Gaza, though, children in Sderot can escape harm's way. Last year, a Jewish organization treated Yosef and others to a month in Los Angeles, where they went to Disneyland and Sea World. During the January war, he stayed with relatives in northern Israel.

No place for debate

Yosef is the same age as Talat, but a year ahead of him in school. His eighth-grade class is studying the Holocaust; he has never had a lesson about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor do he and his friends ever discuss it "because it is not a good situation."

When he turns 18, Yosef will begin his three years of mandatory Army service. Thousands of other young Israelis just returned from Gaza.

"I don't care about the Palestinians because they don't like us and don't think of us," he says. "When people are killed here, they have parties over there, so I don't like them."

Last Tuesday, Talat finally returned to his Gaza school. He was still wearing the same blue sweat suit, but he had new textbooks, which he carried in a pink plastic bag.

Promptly at 11:30 a.m., he and hundreds of other boys lined up in the courtyard. Led by a teacher, they loudly chanted:

"ALL PALESTINE!" —- clap, clap — "PALESTINE FOR US!" —clap, clap.

High overhead, a pair of Israeli F-16s etched thin white contrails in the brilliant blue sky.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

On Israel-Gaza border, teens learn legacy of hate 02/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 8:45pm]
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