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Saturday, March 30, 2002

Families concerned for Mideast relatives


As Israeli troops stormed Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat's compound in Ramallah, a Millbrae family was among many in the Bay Area listening intently to news reports. For them, the struggle touches home.

Basem Totah grew up in Ramallah and his mother-in-law lives less than a mile from Arafat's besieged compound there.

He said Friday his mother-in-law can hear shots as Israeli soldiers and tanks pound Arafat's headquarters. He said the mood of Ramallah is gloomy.

"My wife's family is virtually locked in their home," he said. "They are scrambling for bread."

Across the Bay, Hanan Rasheed's two daughters were headed to San Diego this weekend for a spring break soccer tournament.

Their cousins live eight miles from Ramallah in the West Bank, a focal point of escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I feel so guilty about being here (in the U.S.)," said Rasheed, who is executive secretary of the Palestinian-American Congress. "My daughters are enjoying the beauty and the feeling of this country, and their cousins cannot even stick their heads out of the window out of fear for their lives."

Like many other Bay Area families, the Rasheeds have been scrutinizing news coverage, not only of the conflict, but of its surrounding politics.

"In all the Palestinian people in America, there's disappointment in the Bush administration and the way they're handling the situation," Rasheed said.

"They're standing by and watching massacres, occupation and mass destruction. And they're not saying anything.

"And when you're not saying anything, we're saying you're agreeing with (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's tactics."

Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro's Temble Beth Sholom also was hanging on news reports.

Manhoff has participated in a dialogue group of the East Bay Alliance for Middle Eastern Peace, but says in the past 18 months, he usually needs to force himself to attend the talks.

"When there was a possible goal in sight, it was a lot easier to learn and listen and to imagine a possible future in which both narratives -- the Israeli and Palestinian narratives -- could be heard by the other side," Manhoff said.

But as violence increases, seeing eye to eye becomes more difficult.

"I don't know that non-Jews understand that the passover seder meal is not just a holiday meal for families, but a religious service that happens to take place at home. Blowing up the Park Hotel was like walking into the synagogue on one of the holiest days of year."

The suicide bombing at an Israeli hotel killed 22 people and hurt 130 others during a Passover feast on Wednesday.

"That this is a religious service that somebody went into is doubly painful," Manhoff said.

Totah, too, is discouraged, seeing the region tilting toward all-out war. "I think things have to get worse before they get better," he said. "It's always an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth between the Jews and Palestinians. I can't see any type of peace right now."

Palestinian Americans said the key to peace in the Middle East is the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other territories.

After 69-year-old Elias Botto left Palestine in 1954, he said, his family's home was taken by the Israelis. He said his mother packed suitcases thinking they would only be gone for a few weeks, but 48 years later, he's still waiting to return.

"What we are witnessing (in the Middle East) is the result of occupation," he said. "For the sake of peace, I'm willing to give Israelis part of my body," referring to the Palestinian land taken to form Israel.

"In fact, we've given them 78 percent of our land. But we can't give them our hearts too, we need our independence and we need the occupation to end."

Reporters Justin Jouvenal, Jason Bono and correspondent Jason Kinsella contributed to this story.

Botto, a San Mateo resident, said he is cynical about both leaders.

"We need new blood," he concluded, saying Sharon and Arafat have become too entrenched in their respective positions to be effective peacemakers.

That was a view echoed by others who have participated in a Peninsula dialogue group that long has provided a forum for discussing Israeli and Arab perspectives.

"(Sharon and Arafat) are blood hungry," said Salem. "They want to kill people."

Still, despite stern criticism of Arafat in recent months from many quarters, Totah said Arafat remains the Palestinians' most effective leader and if he is toppled more extreme elements could take control of the Palestinian Authority.

"Who's the alternative, Hamas? Arafat is a moderate voice," Totah said.

Eric Gattmann, who teaches current world affairs at the College of San Mateo, also is a participant in the Peninsula group.

"My view is that violence never makes anything better," Gattmann said Friday, discussing the possible outcome of Israeli soldiers entering Arafat's office.

"The only solution to this problem is negotiation [between Israelis and Palestinians]."

We believe that peace can come only through justice for both sides," Gattmann said. He explained that "justice for both sides" would mean a Palestinian state as well as security for Israel.

Gattmann also said that the recent peace proposal by Saudi Prince Abdullah could be a good jumping off point for Israel and Palestine to solve the conflict.

Totah agreed, expressing high hopes for the plan.

"I thought the peace plan was very good," he said.

But Salem was suspicious of Saudi motives.

"We've been occupied for the last 37 years, why do they offer the plan now?"

Salem agreed with the Saudi Prince Abdullah's characterization of Sharon as a "criminal."

If you ask any Palestinian, they will tell you Ariel Sharon is a criminal," she said.

Palestinian-Americans bristled at Ariel Sharon's position that Arafat is responsible for the suicide bombings in recent weeks.

"How can you control people that do suicide bombings, when you're trapped in Ramallah?" Salem said.

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