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Clueless in Gaza

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are facing a formidable psychological challenge as they give up their dream of returning home in exchange for genuine peace. Psychologists' use of intervention techniques to relieve pain and anger.

Palestinians are facing a formidable psychological challenge in exchangefor peace -- to give up the dream of "home" while reclaiming their sons. It's not at all clear what the outcome will be.

I'm sitting with 44-year-old Leila Susi in her sunless hovel of a home in the gaza strip. Susi--a Palestinian Refugee who has seen two of her five children killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers--is crouched barefoot in the corner o fthis shanty straight out of Dickens, with sewage running out the front door, a concrete floor, no furniture, and a few kitchen utensils stacked in a corner. She's talking about the new peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis. "I don't want to live in peace with Israel. I'm willing to commit suicide just to kill Israelis."

The helpless fury that Susi voices is common company among many of the 2 million refugee Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. After 27 years of Israeli military occupation and seven years of uprisings marked by violence, bloodshed, unthinkable poverty and squalor, hatred, and, ultimately, hopelessness, Israelis and once-and-future Palestinians are faced with an incredible choice: give up the dream of returning home in exchange for genuine peace. Last September, the two sides signed an interim peace agreement that began in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho in May and will be extended to the rest of the West Bank in the coming months. Now the fate of one of the most politically important regions in the world hangs in the balance. And the stunning complexities of these two intertwined enemies makes the outcome all the more riveting--not to mention uncertain.

For Israel, the land of the West Bank and Gaza--seized from Jordan and Egypt in 1967's Middle East War--is God-given territory, the land of their ancestors, and should be the one safe place in the world for Jews. To relinquish that heritage is painful and frightening; the Holocaust still dominates the Israeli mental landscape.

For Palestinians who were ousted from their ancestral homes when Israel was carved out of Palestine back in 1948, the map of their hearts has never been redrawn. A whole generation has survived in camps in Israel's "occupied territories" by telling themselves they will one day return home. Most Palestinian refugees still carry the keys to their old houses. Making peace with Israel means they will never again go home.

The new agreement allows Palestinians self-rule for five years, during which the two sides must negotiate final terms. Palestinians want the dignity of an independent state; Israel, justifiably afraid of Palestinian extremists belonging to rejectionist fronts and radical Islamic organizations, wants some measure of control. Susi's vow is testimony--as if any were needed--to the psychological challenge ahead for two societies deeply suspicious of each other.

Signing the agreement, for all its difficulties, was the easy part. Changing the heart and soul of two populations will be difficult. "The Palestinians are conditioned after 27 years of military occupation to obey orders. They've been conditioned for far too long with no sense of hope," says Jamilah Mina-Samaan, a psychologist at Abu Raya Rehabilitation Center in the West Bank. The transition from ruled to ruler, from dictatorship to democracy, is always a challenge, and for the Palestinians it has come in the form of a test: If they can organize themselves peacefully, they might achieve statehood. If not, they will once again be occupied by an Israeli army that thus far has functioned like a dictatorship. Palestinians could not vote, pass their own laws, decide where to build new towns, travel freely, choose which flowers to grow, read books such as Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or United Nations resolutions pertaining to their plight, or avoid night raids.

To succeed, Palestinians will have to reweave the very fabric of their society, which over the last seven years of resistance--known as the intifada (Arabic for "shaking off")---has become lawless, unstructured, violent, and yet deeply religious, self-analytical, and intellectual--the typical plight of the proud refugee.

The intifada originated in one watershed moment six years ago, when an Israeli was in a road accident that killed four Palestinians. Rumor spread that it was murder, and Gaza exploded in a violent uprising that spread to the West Bank and still occasionally flares. Despite the initial euphoria after the peace agreement, more than 50 Israelis have since been killed by radical Palestinians. In one widely publicized episode, an American-born Israeli settler walked inside a mosque in the West Bank--the Judea and Samaria of the Old Testament--and machine-gunned 29 Palestinians praying toward Mecca.

Led by gangs of men in their teens and twenties, the intifada dragged on, leaving 1,500 killed by Israeli soldiers, 123,000 injured, and 250,000 imprisoned and shattering Palestinian society. The locus of power shifted dramatically, overnight, from revered parents to their outraged sons. Palestinian boys as young as 12 and 13 joined the shabiba--the young men in the street--forming the front lines in confrontations with Israeli soldiers, whom they pelted with stones. "The parents lost control of their children. Children had no respect for their fathers after watching Israeli soldiers beat them," explains psychologist George Abdo of the Abu Raya Center. The power shift from parents to children undermined the family-based social structure that had long held the society intact.

Yet Israelis, too, were unstrung. Israelis lived with the uneasy feeling that they could be attacked at any moment. "I lived knowing I could be stabbed any time on the streets just because I am Jewish," David Shem-Tov, 23, told me.

The intifada made daily life unbearable; continuous riots and demonstrations, strikes, and imprisonment ground the Palestinian economy to a halt. Before the intifada, 120,000 Palestinians were employed in Israel; now about 4,000 work there.

Living in an emotional war zone for the last seven years, Palestinian children have been goaded to carry stones the way other children carry dolls or toy cars. With eyes trained to spot the color-coded signs of Israel--yellow license plates, red buses--children as young as three or four become little warriors, hurling stones in an ironic echo of Biblical tradition.

Even children's games reflect how deeply violence has penetrated both societies. Palestinian children play a game called Arab and Jew: "Jews" get plastic guns, chase "Arabs," blindfold, and beat them. Israeli children play a video game called Intifada: players choose rubber or plastic bullets, live fire, or tear gas, and kill Palestinians.

Almost every adult Palestinian male under 40 has spent time in jail. And they become adults at a very early age: "I gave up playing, I'm old now," said one 13-year-old who has had two brothers killed in clashes, when I asked if he liked playing in the streets now that there were no Israeli soldiers.

Along with the daily violence--almost every family I know has had at least one member shot at, wounded, or imprisoned--this society contains nearly 850,000 Palestinians, about 500,000 of whom are refugees, packed into squalor in Gaza---one of the most crowded strips of land on earth. Preferring to dwell in the dream of returning home, Palestinian refugees make do with shanties lacking any sewage system. This Third World zone festers only a 90-minute drive from First World Jerusalem.

As happens when a social structure frays, Palestinians have often become each other's worst enemy. The intifada deepened the rifts among assorted political factions, and Israel's use of Palestinian collaborators to capture and interrogate other Palestinians fractured Palestinian unity. Over 1,000 Palestinians have been killed by other Palestinians since the uprising began, according to the Israeli army. The people are still politically divided, with almost half belonging to groups that refuse to participate in any way with the new government.

"A major psychological obstacle to peace is that Palestinians are suspicious of other Palestinians," says Ahmed Abu Tawahina, a psychologist at the Gaza Mental Health Center, which treats 6,000 patients, many of them ex-prisoners who experienced some physical or psychological torture in prison.

The crisis is so severe that, according to psychologist Osama Hamdona, "Every person in Gaza is in need of some kind of psychological intervention. But we don't have the resources to do it."

Yet what is extraordinary about this society--and gives many hope for a peaceful and fruitful resolution--is the resilience and pride of the Palestinians. Twenty percent of those in Gaza have a high-school education. Though many Palestinians have worked in Israel as menial laborers, they have continued to pursue higher education. I've walked into shanties where children are running barefoot through sewage, but the parents have masters' and bachelors' degrees gained on scholarships provided by various Arab and European countries.

"Palestinians have lost everything," notes Dr. Nadim Mseis, an Oxford-trained Palestinian political scientist at Bethlehem University. "And they came to the conclusion that their investment has to be in education. That education will help them organize themselves better. They believe now that it's time they lived in peace, that they had a moment of reprieve."

Perhaps because family order has unraveled, Palestinians have attempted to hold themselves together through religion. As the intifada wore on, a desperate Gaza Strip became even more deeply religious. Now all women in Gaza cover their heads in fundamentalist tradition, and those who don't are stoned by boys. The life of the mind and the soul remains intact--a form of resilience and resistance to Israeli occupation.

Cause for hope can also be found in the grass-roots dialogues now beginning between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the fact that the West Bank contains a large Palestinian middle class, many of whom were refugees who have a great deal of money, earned in the Gulf states, Europe, or America, to funnel into building a new infrastructure of peace.

"We set up outings to try to get Arab and Jewish students to meet," explains Eligar Sadeh, a 29-year-old Israeli student at Hebrew University. "With these dialogues we try to understand each other's culture and perspective better."' Palestinian Iyad Qumsieh, a 20-year-old organizer of peace dialogues, comments that "the youth of Israel are human beings. Our struggle is with the government, with the Israeli army who is trying to kill us. But we are human too and we want the same rights they have."

Still, both Israelis and Palestinians feel the residue of bitterness and fear. Shaban Ghaban, a 19-year-old Gaza Palestinian, lost a leg to shots fired by Israeli soldiers and is partially paralyzed. "When Arafat and Rabin shook hands," he said, "in our hearts and minds it was difficult to accept. I am still here in bed and I will not be able to walk in the future."

Psychologists here are trying intervention techniques to help relieve pain and anger. Children are given play-therapy sessions, and are monitored to observe violence. Therapists talk in workplaces and schools.

It is still too early to know whether self-rule will take hold here. For now, Palestinians are still accommodating themselves to their new-found freedom. For the last six and a half years, every Palestinian in Gaza was under a nightly 9 P.M. curfew. When the Israeli army left, a caged population exploded into the streets, staying in cafes all night. Palestinians ushered in the peace agreement and its implementation with euphoria and celebrations.

But after the music died down and the world's cameras were shut off, Palestinians were left with the same garbage-infested streets and shantytowns. Groups of unemployed men still loiter in shops and cafes, drinking Arabic coffee and playing cards, and children still run barefoot in the streets.

A population in shock is left with the task of building what they hope will be an independent state, but most Palestinians are still trying to survive. "When Palestinians in Gaza wake up in the mornings," says Hamdona, "they don't think about organizing themselves but about how they are going to get food for the day."

Trading real land for the intangible of peace is difficult for both sides. Perhaps it is a shade easier for many Israelis, simply because "the majority of Israelis have already renounced the territories. They don't seem like a place where we can safely go," says Israeli psychiatrist Menachem Carmi. But getting used to avoiding a place and relinquishing military control over it are two different things, and that loss of control has plenty of Isrealis worried. Yet for many Palestinian refugees, home is still something they can't "shake free" of. When I went to interview Hamdona, who seems to understand the issues at stake, even he told me that he is from Majdal---now the city of Ashkelon in Israel, although he was born in Gaza. "But you aren't from Majdal," I said, "you were born in Gaza City."

"I know this;' he answered. "The majority of Palestinians know it inside, but you can't say it to them aloud. You can't tell them to throw their keys away." The Palestinians are still, metaphorically and literally, a homeless nation of people carrying keys they may not be ready to relinquish for peace.

PHOTO: Leila Susi holds photos of her dead sons.

PHOTO: Palestinian wooman holding the key to her home.

PHOTO: Children playing with rocks and guns in the street.