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Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Leaving the Middle East
Al-Aqsa mosque
Jerusalem was often a frightening place to work
By Jeremy Bowen

I heard a rustling in my garden the other morning. Was it just the breeze in the palm trees? I listened again. No, something - somebody - was moving around. So I investigated.

If the people here want peace, they must not try to unpick history

My visitor was an old lady, bent almost double, wearing a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress. She was working hard, harvesting prickly pears from the great bush of cactus down by the wall at the bottom of the garden. She did not stop when she saw me.

The prickly pear, the fruit of the cactus, is a delicacy here at this time of year. Israelis call them sabras. They like them so much that they have adopted the name sabra as the nickname for native-born Israelis - because like the fruit, they say they are prickly on the outside and soft and sweet inside. Palestinians never really get the joke.

Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen is to become the new face of Breakfast news
"I planted this cactus," the old Palestinian lady said. "I always come to take the fruit".

She pulled up handfuls of grass, which is long and dry and yellow like straw at this time of the summer. She rubbed the sabras with the dry grass and packed them in an old milk crate. Still bent double, she tied string around the milk crate when it was full and dragged it away.

Legacy of history

This was not just a chance encounter with a neighbour. To start with, Palestinians do not live here anymore.

Our village is called Ein Karem. It is built around two wadis, river valleys which are wet in winter and dry in summer. There are beautiful old houses made of white and pink Jerusalem stone, fig and cypress trees, Moroccan synagogues, church bells and quiet lanes. Christians believe it is the birthplace of John the Baptist. For more than five years now, it has been my haven in what has quite often been a tense, violent and exhausting city.

Until July 1948, two months after Israel declared itself independent, Ein Karem was a Palestinian village. It still has a mosque - disused now, of course, because the Palestinians who lived here ran away - or were driven out - by the advancing Israeli army.

When I signed a contract to rent a house in Ein Karem in March of 1995, I felt slightly uncomfortable about the history of the place. I used to say, look the house is great, the village is lovely and this is not my war.

In the end I think it is going to be some sort of accommodation, maybe even peace

It always sounded a bit hollow, to my ears at least. Once a Palestinian colleague, who was eating dinner in our house, offered, somewhat acidly, to take me to Balata refugee camp on the West Bank to see some of Ein Karem's original residents.

But now I do not feel at all defensive about living here. If the people here want peace, they must not try to unpick history. You cannot change what has happened. Instead, you have to find a way to live with it.

Everybody who lives between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, on the land that contains both Israel and what, one day soon, will be an independent Palestinian state, lives with the consequences of a single historical fact - Israel was created by war.

In 1948, Zionists took the territory they needed to found their state by force. The only chance for peace is to come to terms with that, to realise that the land must be divided between the Arabs and the Jews. That, really, is what the peace process is all about.

More and more people here, I think the great majority on both sides, realise they are travelling down a one-way street, away from endless confrontation, and towards what? Well, in the end I think it is going to be some sort of accommodation, maybe even peace. There will be more bloodshed along the way - but afterwards, they are going to settle it around a conference table - and that is what has changed.

Key moment

The man who gave Israelis the decisive push that set them on their journey was the former general, Yitzhak Rabin. On Saturday 4 November 1995, he was Israel's prime minister.

That night we had our first dinner party at our house in Ein Karem. Rabin was attending a peace rally in Tel Aviv. I did not think it would make a story for the evening news. Anyway, my competition, the ITN correspondent, was among our dinner guests.

We were tucking into the main course when the bleepers and phones around the table erupted. Rabin had been shot. The dinner party broke up in about 10 seconds. He died later that night, killed by a Jewish extremist. When we got home about three days later, the food was still on the table. The ITN fork, loaded with the next mouthful was lying there abandoned.

I started to feel very nervous when buses surrounded my car in a traffic jam

In many ways, everything that has happened between the Israelis and the Arabs ever since has come from that night. Rabin's assassination was a seismic event in Israel's history. Rabin was able to make the Israeli people feel safe in a way that nobody else could. He had had the guts to take difficult decisions and the vision to see that they were necessary.

Making peace would still have been slow and difficult. But I think that had Rabin lived they would have got further, faster.

Dangerous times

We had some tough times here after that night. Mistakes by his successor Shimon Peres helped to provoke a series of suicide attacks on buses and crowds of people that killed dozens of Israelis. Like everyone in Jerusalem, I started to feel very nervous when buses surrounded my car in a traffic jam.

Yitzhak Rabin
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin caused shockwaves
You could see people twitch visibly when they heard an ambulance siren. Had there been another attack? Two sirens would get people ringing home to check their families were safe. I met a friend, a colonel in the Israeli army, for lunch in Jerusalem. He told me that, even though he was carrying a gun, he would cross the street if he saw a group of young Palestinian men.

"After all," he said, "What if they blow themselves up?"

Israel put the West Bank and Gaza under closure for months at a time, and Palestinians suffered real hardship. At times Israeli soldiers would stop them travelling from village to village, let alone to their jobs in Israel. The Palestinian economy was devastated. More and more children in Gaza's refugee camps started suffering from malnutrition.

I thought one moment in that crisis said everything about Israel, about the insecurity that lies close to the surface in this country even though, in the Middle East, it is a superpower. One Monday afternoon in the spring of 1996 there was a suicide bomb attack in the centre of Tel Aviv. It was the fourth Israel had suffered in eight days.

Bomb scene
Israel suffered a series of suicide bomb attacks
As I drove into Tel Aviv, still a couple of miles from the bomb, I saw men yelling and sprinting down the road. Cars raced around sounding their horns. People had started to panic. The cabinet met in emergency session and came very close to sending the army to re-occupy areas of the West Bank, which would have made matters much worse. But Israelis pulled themselves together quickly and got back on buses to go to work. This country can lurch from panic to resolve in a day.

I think Israeli insecurity comes from two main sources. First, from the fact that they took their land by force and have had to fight to keep it. That will not go away until they make peace with the Arabs. More deeply, insecurity comes from Jewish history.

Haunted by 1948

Most mornings when I am in Jerusalem I go running in the forest near Ein Karem. I always pass the iron gates of Yad Vashem, Israel's monument to the six million Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust. When the survivors came here, they were not treated very well by the Zionists, who had been fighting the Arabs and the British and occasionally each other. The Zionists saw themselves as strong, virile, independent - and too many of them thought that holocaust survivors were just the opposite. Some of the traumatised new immigrants were even taunted with the nickname "soapy" because of the Nazis attempts to turn their victims into soap.

It is different now. The whole country comes to a halt when the sirens sound on holocaust day. People get out of their cars and stand to attention in the street. Buses pull over and the passengers get out of their seats. The noisiest people in the world fall silent for two minutes.

When the sirens stop, Israelis drive off and resume their incessant mobile phone conversations as if they had never stopped.

Palestinians say they suffered their own holocaust in 1948, when nearly a million of them lost their homes to the advancing Israelis. To my mind, losing a home, even losing a land is not the same as genocide. But this should not be about comparing tragedies. Palestinians are still haunted by 1948 - and they are still losing their land and their homes to Israel's territorial ambitions.

The first Christmas I was here we filmed a Palestinian farmer near Bethlehem. It was a perfect winter's day - which around Jerusalem means a deep blue sky and temperature people in the UK dream of in June. The farmer's lambs leapt around a rocky landscape of pure, biblical beauty.

Two Christmases later I went back. The farmer was still there, but he had given up keeping sheep. A new Israeli road had been cut through his quiet valley. Earthmovers were tearing at a landscape that had not changed in 3,000 years to build houses for Jews. In classic Jerusalem fashion, Israel was putting more facts on the ground.

Israeli informality

Israelis dream of being accepted in the Middle East. Slowly, it is happening. The process would go faster if they were better neighbours. They need to learn that Arab lives are as precious as Jewish lives.

Israeli PM Ehud Barak, US President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - at Camp David peace talks
Middle East peace is possible, Bowen believes
I was in Qana in south Lebanon the day that Israeli gunners shelled a United Nations camp, killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians. Israel never apologised. They claimed that Hezbollah guerrillas had entered the camp and were threatening Israeli commandos who were in the area. Even if that was true - and it has never been proved - it is no excuse for killing 100 defenceless people. That day I asked an Irish UN officer what would have happened if Hezbollah had killed 100 Israeli civilians.

"Simple," he said. "Clinton would be at the funeral, we'd be in our bunkers and the Israelis would be in Beirut."

Will I miss this place? Of course. I will miss the sunshine, the fiery sunsets that cover Jerusalem's hills with dazzling gold. I will miss the majesty of the Dome of the Rock, the shining mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. I will miss walking through Damascus Gate in the city walls and smelling the herbs sold by Palestinian women - mint, basil and zatar, which is thyme that grows wild in the hills of the West Bank.

I will miss Israeli informality. When Yitzak Rabin, as a young man, first went to armistice talks, someone had to show him how to knot a tie. This is a country where you can go to a funeral in a T-shirt.

I will miss everything. But I know Jerusalem will always be here - and with apologies to my successor as BBC Middle East correspondent, I will be back.

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See also:

11 Sep 00 | Middle East
Clinton's elusive Mid-East dream
11 Sep 00 | Middle East
Arafat applauded for statehood delay
20 Jul 00 | Mideast Peace Process
Jerusalem: Eternal, intractable
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