THEY SAID:
"A voluntary reconciliation with the Arabs is out of the question either now or in the future. If you wish to colonize a land in which people are already living, you must provide a garrison for the land, or find some rich man or benefactor who will provide a garrison on your behalf. Or else-or else, give up your colonization, for without an armed force which will render physically impossible any attempt to destroy or prevent this colonization, colonization is impossible, not difficult, not dangerous, but IMPOSSIBLE!... Zionism is a colonization adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important... to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot - or else I am through with playing at colonizing."
-- Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism (precursor of Likud), The Iron Wall, 1923.



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Wednesday, June 7, 2000, Ha'aretz

I wanted to touch him before he dies

For 10 days there were emotional scenes at the Lebanon border fence as Israeli Arabs flocked to see their relatives on the Lebanese side. Most had never met before.

By Danny Rubinstein

The extraordinary flood of people to the Israel-Lebanon border, next to the Bedouin town of Arab al-Aramshe, lasted for 10 days.Residents of refugee camps came to the edge of the Lebanese village of Dahira to see their Israeli Arab relatives. From both sides they flocked to a remote hill named Jorda, on which stand isolated houses belonging to a Bedouin family which lives on the Israeli side, exactly on the border.

Without planning or organization, in a place with no road other than an IDF security path closed to traffic, families met again that had fallen apart and separated in 1948 - more than two generations ago. Almost none who met knew each other, they had only heard family tales and rumors. On both sides they had to travel on rough dirt tracks, park vehicles in the fields some distance from the border, and climb up the mountain paths to Jorda hill.

It began a day or two after the IDF pulled out of southern Lebanon. Residents of the Lebanese village of Dahira approached the border fence to see and speak to Israeli Bedouin from Arab al-Aramshe. They are members of the same Bedouin clans and live on opposite sides of the border, several hundred meters apart.

Word spread like wildfire that no one was blocking the roads on either side. First to arrive at the fence were residents of Sheikh Danon, an Arab village east of Nahariya, who have family connections with Arab al-Aramshe. Soon hundreds, then thousands, of people started to flow from all the Arab villages in the north. Those who were at the fence reported who was searching for whom, and set up rendezvous times.

To get to the hill one must climb the narrow, steep road which leads from the edge of the Israeli town of Shlomi to Kibbutz Admit, and from there to the nearby village of Arab al-Aramshe. Many Israeli Arabs were at first afraid to go there.

Some of the young men of Arab al-Aramshe serve in the IDF and it was not clear how they would feel about these meetings. A member of the Mahamid family from Arab al-Aramshe says however that this is a very important humanitarian issue, and no problems arose. He himself has many relatives in Lebanon whom he had never met but now has seen for the first time

.

This Sunday there was great commotion at the site. Convoys of cars moved slowly along the winding road to Kibbutz Admit, and tried to get as close as possible to the spot at the fence where the Lebanese refugees were. The few IDF soldiers who were there directed those who arrived to the dirt road along which the meetings took place. Along an 800-meter strip, crowds from both sides had gathered.

Abdullah Suetas, aged about 55, who worked for many years as a nurse in the hospital in Kiryat Yam, came with one of his brothers. He wanted to see relatives who moved in 1948 to a place called Jil al-Bahar, near Tyre. He was very excited. He had just asked IDF soldiers to allow him to enter between the fences to hug and kiss his eldest brother from Lebanon. The brother is very ill. "I wanted only to touch him before he dies," says the red-eyed Abdullah.

The soldiers are very polite and helpful. But it's not really working. In the first days it was possible to shake hands between the barbed wire. Then they made a partition between the two fences, a distance of a few meters, and the soldiers pass between the two rows. They pass over candy, baked goods, and family souvenirs - pictures, letters, rings and jewelry.

Some Israelis also wanted to give some money to their families across the border. Soldiers handed over a baby from Israel to Lebanon - for its grandmother's sister to kiss - and then they handed him back again.

There are some differences between those who come from Lebanon and from Israel. The Israelis are dressed in modern styles - young men wear jeans, girls wear short skirts and fashionable hairdos. The Lebanese are in traditional dress. On the Israeli side there are many regular and video cameras, on the Lebanese side, none. But on both sides the excitement is the same.


Smelling Palestine

Sana Musa, a young Israeli woman from Tarshiha, is waiting for her relatives, members of the Sami family from the Rashidiyeh refugee camp on the outskirts of Tyre. Neighbors came to her on Saturday. They told her they had been to the fence and someone from Lebanon had asked about her.

But the family from Rashidiyeh did not come. This is her mother's family, which left in 1948, and she has never seen them. Ali Kial, a metal worker from Acre, managed to meet cousins from Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp in the suburbs of Sidon. They spoke on the telephone and arranged to meet.

A young man from the village of Yasif says that even in our era of cellular phones, faxes, and e-mails with pictures and sounds - nothing can compare with personal contact. He points toward 80-year-old Haja Aisha from the village of Jdaideh, who can barely walk, but has come to lean on the fence. "Do you want expect her to send e-mail by computer?" he asks with a laugh.

On the Lebanese side, Jemal Saridi, a member of a refugee family from Safed, is supporting his elderly aunt, who has been standing there for hours. "All she wants to do is to smell Palestine," he says. They all have personal stories of longing and heartbreak, and they ask the few reporters on both sides of the fence to write them down.

Mahmoud Abu-Hasan was born 70 years ago in the village of Sasa, and has been living for 25 years in Bourj el-Barajneh camp in southern Beirut. He asked his relatives who remained in Israel if they could bring him an olive sapling from the backyard of his home. He wants to plant it in Bourj el-Barajneh in order to be able to see something from Sasa every day.

Others on the Lebanese side wave their deeds for houses in Acre and Haifa, and keys to homes destroyed and lost in Kuwekat (Beit Haemek), Cabri and Birweh (Ahihud). Mahmoud Abu Shiba of Safed was 15 when his family moved to Ain el-Hilweh camp and this is his third visit to the fence. Since he found out that it's possible to see Palestine, he can't do anything else.


Dancing a debka

There are happy stories, too. Alia, a 17-year-old girl from Nazareth, came to take a look at a young man from the Miyeh Miyeh camp in Sidon, whom her family had chosen for her. They have already spoken on the phone, exchanged gifts, and now she will actually see him, and then the engagement arrangements will be made. Somebody says that yesterday, after the excitement of one meeting, they danced a debka on both sides of the fence.

There were some incidents. On Saturday a young man from Arab al-Aramshe was wounded by a bullet ejected during an argument with a soldier. On Sunday, at about three o'clock, stones began to fly from Israel to Lebanon. On both sides there was great confusion, and people started to flee.

It transpired that a few members of the South Lebanese Army, who are now in Nahariya, came to the meeting point and began to curse and swear. These happy family reunions were at the expense of their lost world which has been destroyed, they said. It was they who began to throw stones in all directions. Later they left. Young men from the village of Makar (near Acre) shouted at them, "Now we can see what crazy people you are."

To an onlooker, the strength and importance of the traditional Arab family connections, and the power of memories that do not fade away, are remarkable and amazing. All of this power was there to be seen for nearly two weeks at the border near Arab al-Aramshe.

The Palestinian press described what happened there as proof that the problems of refugees and divided families, scattered in all directions, will give the politicians no rest. And the heart of the problem is, of course, Lebanon, "where many hate the Palestinians even more than they are hated in Israel," as someone who was once a close advisor of Yasser Arafat said.

At about four o'clock on Sunday, the soldiers began to ask those gathered on the Israeli side to start evacuating the place. Convoys of hundreds of cars traveled slowly on the way down to Shlomi. On the way to Nahariya and to the village of Yasif, they parked their cars at the side of the road and exchanged stories.

Anyone coming from the Israeli side on Monday morning could no longer reach the fence. On the way up to Arab al-Aramshe police had put up blockades, and crowds of disappointed Arabs reacted angrily and started to fight with the police. They explained that the site had been declared a closed military area, and was now off-limits.

The reason given for halting the reunions was a fear of disorder or riots because of the delicate situation in Lebanon.

A well-run state must ensure that such meetings are held in an organized and orderly fashion. And so one more small episode in the long and painful chronicle of the conflict and its refugees has drawn to a close.

© copyright 2000   Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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