Thinking of home

In June 1967, Israeli soldiers rolled into Abdul Barghouti’s West Bank home. The Reno resident remembers that fateful June day and talks about the region’s present-day turmoil

Abdul Barghouti hopes his children will look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict differently than this generation.

Abdul Barghouti hopes his children will look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict differently than this generation.

Photo by David Robert

Three Palestinian men drove a car packed with explosives into a barrier outside an Israeli military post Feb. 9. All three Palestinians were killed. Four Israeli soldiers were injured.

Palestinians and Israeli soldiers exchanged firebombs and bullets during an Israeli raid Feb. 11. Nine Palestinians were wounded. An 8-year-old Palestinian boy was killed.

The Palestinian attack and Israeli response are only the latest in a cycle of violence that stretches back decades. For Reno resident Abdul Barghouti, the conflict began on a sunny afternoon in June 1967, when Israeli F-16s roared over his West Bank village, Kufr-Ein. That day marked the beginning of a 36-year Israeli occupation of Palestine. Barghouti was 7 years old.

The events of that June afternoon, as well as the years of occupation that followed, have left Barghouti wondering if people who have endured such a conflict can forge a lasting peace. And, while Barghouti sees hope in a new generation, he also cringes at the thought of another generation of children being swept up in the whirlwind of violence—especially his own children.

“I will do anything,” Barghouti says, “to keep my children from going through what I have endured.”

Barghouti’s life in Reno is comfortable. He has a good job that allows him to provide for his wife, Kim, and his four children: 16-year-old Aisheh, 15-year-old Jinan, 13-year-old Tarek and 10-year-old Jamal. Things are different for Barghouti’s family in Palestine.

“Life under occupation,” Barghouti says, “is a most depressing existence.”

Although the United Nations has condemned the occupation repeatedly, Israel has not only sustained the occupation, it has also built settlements on confiscated Palestinian land.

Barghouti’s azure eyes—a result, he says, of European influence from a century ago—stretch wide when discussing his family’s plight in Palestine.

Barghouti’s father and mother, Ahmad and Aisheh, still live in the three-room house where they raised 10 children. The walls of Ahmad and Aisheh’s modest home are made of neatly carved stones on the outside and smooth cream-colored earth on the inside. Ahmad still owns the nearby grove of olive trees that helped to support his family.

Thousands of Palestinian homes much like Ahmad and Aisheh’s have been razed by Israeli bulldozers in retaliation for suicide bombings. The U.N. News Service reports that an estimated 22 percent of children are suffering from malnutrition. Curfews and closures have cut off refugees from heath care and disrupted schooling.

“You have people living in very miserable conditions,” Barghouti says. “Of course they are going to blow things up.”

Barghouti’s thinning hair and white-streaked goatee hint at his age, and when he discusses suicide bombings, he seems to age further.

“Life is more important to preserve than an olive tree or a piece of land. I despise our kids strapping bombs to themselves and glorifying the action. It’s sickening because I look at my children and wonder what goes through a person’s mind to walk into a restaurant or café and press a button and blow up.”

In 1982, Barghouti was studying computer science at Eastern New Mexico University. Barghouti had left the West Bank just as another grim chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian saga was about to unfold.

Palestinian refugees had been gathering in neighboring countries since the late 1940s. In 1970, an influx of refugees into southern Lebanon destabilized the Lebanese-Israeli border. After a brief occupation in 1978, Israel relinquished control of southern Lebanon to militias. The border remained tense until 1982, when attacks on Israeli diplomats prompted an Israeli invasion of Lebanon that reached the nation’s capital, Beirut. Israeli forces laid siege to the Lebanese capital, eventually forcing a withdrawal of Palestinian forces in early September. On Sept. 15, Israeli forces moved into West Beirut.

On Sept. 17, Israeli-supported Lebanese militias entered Palestinian refugee camps, slaughtering men, women and children in a rampage that lasted three days. Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, was found responsible and forced to resign.

Barghouti sees Sharon’s election as prime minister in 2001 as an indication of the Israeli attitude toward the peace process.

“What does that tell us, the Palestinians, about the Israeli people who would elect someone guilty of such atrocities?”

Barghouti’s question is only part of a macabre trap of self-perpetuation. Frustrated by the peace process’s failures, the Israelis try to attain some measure of security with Sharon’s election. The election in turn begets more violence. The violence in turn prompts the Israelis to re-elect Sharon.

Like men caught in quicksand, the more the two peoples struggle to get out of the conflict, the deeper they are pulled in.

In June 1967, Abdul Barghouti was a 7-year-old boy living on the West Bank. June 6 began like any other day for young Abdul, but it ended differently than most.

In May 1967, a U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in Egypt and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip was withdrawn at Egypt’s request. Less than a month later, hostilities broke out between Israel and Egypt, Sudan and Syria. A cease-fire was secured after six days, but Israel already occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem—Palestinian territories.

June 6 was the second day of the conflict. Aisheh Barghouti was preparing mansaf, a traditional meal of boiled meat, bread and basmati rice.

“I distinctly remember,” Barghouti says, “every time I smell the basmati rice.

“My mother was pouring the soup over the rice, and I could smell it. Then, there was the longest loudest thunder I have ever heard. I didn’t know if the house was being blown up. I just grabbed my mother as tightly as possible.”

Israeli F-16s were flying sorties into Syria and flying low over Abdul’s village. Abdul’s grandmother took him and his siblings to an underground storage. Shortly after sunset, Ahmad Barghouti took his reluctant family home. Sometime in the night, a column of tanks rolled into the village.

“That was the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.”

Memories like these have shaped Barghouti’s perception of Israelis.

“I see the Jews as soldiers because that is what I grew up with. I knew the Jews only from the barrel of an M-16.”

But Barghouti’s children have no such memories.

“My kids have a more peaceful understanding than I do, because they have not been exposed to what I was exposed to. They see the Jews as Jews. They know Jews as sitting next to them in a classroom. They know Jews as neighbors.”

The Barghouti children are part of a burgeoning generation that, not having experienced the horrors of the conflict firsthand, may be able to bring contributions to the peace process that have eluded world leaders and international organizations: goodwill and open minds.

But certainly it will take more than this to resolve a conflict so deeply etched into the psyches of two cultures.

Or will it?