Canadians in the Holy Land Square off

The body count keeps rising, as it has on an almost daily basis since the second Palestinian intifada began on Sept. 28, 2000.

Canadians in the Holy Land Square off

The body count keeps rising, as it has on an almost daily basis since the second Palestinian intifada began on Sept. 28, 2000. As of week's end, some 1,500 people, about 350 Israelis and more than 1,160 Palestinians, had died in the conflict, even as the international community intensified its efforts to find a solution. The UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning terrorism and calling for an immediate ceasefire - while for the first time endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Washington's Mideast peace envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, travelled to the region for his third mission in four months. There were some signs of hope: Israel gave freedom of movement to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had been confined to his compound in Ramallah, and called off a large-scale military operation against that city. But hatred is strong on both sides. And as Maclean's National Affairs Correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse found during a recent Mideast visit, there are Canadians in the Holy Land who find themselves facing each other across the great divide.

There's not supposed to be any sound in a vacuum, but it's hard to know what else to call the heavily fortified room. It's as if the fear, suspicion and barely suppressed rage have sucked out all the air. If people aren't choking it's only because they're holding their breath.

The Palestinian men stand outside, waiting in a long, single-file line that dissolves into the pre-dawn fog and darkness. When the Israeli border guard nods, they pass, one at a time, through the floor-to-ceiling turnstile, then the metal detector. They remove their coats and belts as they enter the room, placing them on the squeaky conveyor of the bomb X-ray machine. Another metal detector, then the final hurdle. Each man inserts his ID card in the scanner while another guard, sitting behind a wall of thick, bulletproof glass, matches the face on the computer screen to the one standing before her.

Five mornings a week, the workers and the guards at this Gaza Strip crossing perform the same security rituals - no greetings, no chatter. Each time a Palestinian extremist tries to breach the defences with a gun, grenade or bomb, the Israelis add more razor wire, metal fences, concrete pillboxes. The lineup in the dark gets longer.

From the back of the room, Arik Hassoun watches his border police colleagues work, his M-16 rifle in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The Erez border crossing is a long way from Calgary, where the 21-year-old grew up, but after 18 months of stone throwers, suicide bombers and the intifada, his mental journey is complete. "You can see they have hate in their eyes, but that's OK because it's mutual," he says.

The night before, in the living room of his mother's small apartment in Karmi'el, in the far north of the country near the Lebanese border, Hassoun proffered an explanation for Palestinian violence that seemed almost too sympathetic. "They don't have their own country, they live by our rules, they're poor because we don't give them nothing," he said. "I'd do the same thing in their shoes." Maybe changing perspectives is as simple as exchanging his baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirt for fatigues and army boots. He's already proven he's a soldier to the core, blissfully snoozing through the photographer's sonic Elvis Costello barrage during our long, middle-of-the-night drive south to Gaza.

We've grown used to news stories about Canadians dispensing foreign aid, brokering compromises or keeping the peace in troubled lands. They reaffirm our vision of ourselves as helpful fixers, the image we like to project to the rest of the world. But in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, things are not so predictable. Canadian JEWS and Palestinians who have returned to the land they both claim as home - the Department of Foreign Affairs says it has registered about 3,600 Canadian citizens living in Israel, and some 250 in the West Bank and Gaza - mostly find themselves on opposite sides of a deepening divide.

Hassoun's not sure how Canadian he is any more. His mother, Mary Hietaharju, moved him and his older brother Benny to Israel 10 years ago, so they could get to know their heritage, and the pull of the Jewish state has always been strong in his family. "We named Arik after Ariel (Arik) Sharon," his mother tells me. "We wanted him to grow up just like Sharon - strong and intelligent." But Hassoun's grandparents still live in Cochrane, Alta., and his dad was in Calgary until a few months ago. Hassoun has grown up never really feeling at home in either country. "When I'm in Canada, I'm an Israeli. When I'm in Israel, I'm a Canadian," he says.

A border police corporal, he has been posted at this crossing, just north of Gaza City, for the past six months, acting as a driver and bodyguard for the detachment commanders. As we tour the zone in his armoured jeep with the pine-tree air freshener on the rear-view mirror, he maps out the geography of violence - his barracks where the mortar shells landed, the pillbox where a soldier lost his leg to a Palestinian grenade, the fence that stopped the latest suicide bomber, the settlement on the nearby hilltop where two Israelis were killed and 14 - seven of them soldiers - wounded in an October attack. He talks about the first weeks of the uprising, when he and his buddies, fresh out of basic training, huddled in the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem as rioting Arabs hurled stones, concrete blocks, even refrigerators from the rooftops above. The friends he left behind in Calgary, he says, can't really comprehend: "It's not worth even explaining to teenagers in Canada. They don't watch the news. They don't know what's going on."

His world hasn't changed since Sept. 11, but maybe the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have made North Americans more sympathetic toward Israel, he says. Maybe he'll feel more at home next time he visits Canada. "People used to look at us and say we're the bad guys, no matter what we do. Now they know what the bombings are like," says Hassoun. "When we kill their children it's an accident. When they kill ours, it's on purpose."

A decade as a real estate agent in Calgary gave Malik Shawwa plenty of time to absorb the hoary mantra of the business: location, location, location. So it's not surprising that his family's home in Gaza City is in what was considered a good neighbourhood, not far from the shores of the Mediterranean, a couple of kilometres from Yasser Arafat's compound, right next door to a school and the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority Preventative Security Services. But in the past six months, Israeli warplanes and helicopters have launched dozens of air strikes against that part of town. In early December, they flattened the security services office, killing two people and injuring dozens of bystanders, mostly children. That strike - a retaliation for suicide bomb attacks in Haifa and Jerusalem that killed 25 Israelis - shattered every window in Shawwa's house. "Welcome to Gaza, the most peaceful area of the world," he says ruefully.

It's not what the 50-year-old thought he was getting into when he returned in 1996, after 20 years of living in Calgary. He was curious to see how things had changed and eager to help build a new country; for a time, Shawwa worked as chief of staff for the Palestinian Authority's minister of finance. He had missed the orange groves that surround the city. Now he misses the snow, hockey, and the peace and quiet. He's smoking more than two packs a day. "It's a very hard place to live for everyone. Who enjoys air strikes and shelling?" he asks. "Any time an Israeli plane comes and strikes, it creates fear. Are you the next target? How do you know if a Hamas or a Fatah member is living in the building next door?"

Shawwa doesn't work for the Palestinian Authority any more. He's gone back to selling real estate, and runs a side business helping Palestinians get foreign study and work visas. He also acts as Canada's volunteer diplomatic warden for the Gaza Strip. A photo of Shawwa shaking hands with John Manley hangs proudly on the wall of his office, next to a picture of him embracing Arafat, and his multiple top-seller awards from his Calgary days. The Canadian passport Shawwa still carries sets him apart from almost all the other 1.2 million residents of the Gaza Strip; he can leave any time he wants, and frequently does, whisking his wife and two children through the VIP terminal at Erez for a movie and a nice meal in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. "I can't live in a jail," he says. "I'm not used to sitting home Friday and Saturday nights."

He takes me on the abbreviated intifada tour of the city. The Jebaliya refugee camp, a Hamas stronghold, where all the schoolgirls wear hijabs, and the walls of the apartment blocks are covered with defiant slogans, spray-painted in Islamic green. The main police station downtown, now pancaked after five air strikes over the past months. Arafat's seaside compound and helicopter landing pads - a high-profile target that has been virtually destroyed in a series of raids since December, the latest on March 11. The streets are dirty and the stores deserted, but even after 17 months of severe economic hardship, there are still shiny, new Mercedes cruising the boulevards near the Palestinian legislature, beeping their horns as they pass horse-drawn wagons. "Everybody is sad, everybody has lost a son, a daughter, a neighbour or a friend," Shawwa says as he lights yet another smoke. "On the Palestinian TV you see nothing but funerals. I don't hate Jews, but I hate the way they think about Palestinians - that we are all animals who have to be destroyed."

I ask about the violence that flows in the other direction, the shootings, the mortar attacks, the suicide bombers who blow up women and children. Shawwa deplores the killings, and he believes most other Palestinians share his view that the violence "distorts the real face of the revolution." But at the same time, he says he can understand the frustration that breathes life into the movements that wage war against Israel and its civilian population. "The Palestinian people have lost hope. They have no hope that someday, someone will be on their side to help get their rights back," says Shawwa. Homeland is everything for the Palestinians, he adds, something people back in Canada, a country of vast spaces and abundant resources, can't even begin to grasp. No amount of force or outside pressure is going to stop the struggle. "This violence is nothing - it's going to get worse and worse," Shawwa predicts.

It's a busy day - for visa applications, not real estate - so Shawwa has to cut short our meeting. On the way out I ask how his children are adapting to life in Gaza. Rami, his 15-year-old son, is becoming a bit of a worry, he says. Before the intifada, he was like his schoolmates back in Calgary, obsessed with bikes and sports. "Now he just plays computer war games, and builds settlements in the backyard, and has his toy soldiers destroy them," says Shawwa. "I worry. If this is what happens to a peaceful boy living in a good home, what happens to someone who grows up in a refugee camp?"

It's the scale of the place that is hard to comprehend if you haven't been here. The great Sea of Galilee is a decent-sized, cottage-country lake. The Jordan River might be deep, but it's certainly not wide. Ramallah is 20 minutes from the heart of Jerusalem, Bethlehem just 10. Ariel Sharon's recent pledge to achieve "security separation" from the Palestinians, creating buffer zones with fences and military patrols, would appear to be an impossible dream. The two peoples are cheek by jowl; turn left at an intersection and you're in an Arab neighbourhood, turn right, you're in a Jewish one.

As small as the country is, a lot of Israelis would be willing to trade parts of it for peace. Sari Klaff is not among them. She is emphatic as she sits in a café in Jerusalem's busy German Colony - busy because it was then one of the few neighbourhoods yet to be attacked. (On March 7, alert restaurant staff disarmed a suicide bomber at the café's door and the neighbourhood - named after a group of German Christians who settled there at the turn of the last century - was added to the lengthening list of "no-go areas" for many Israelis.) The settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are part of Israel, and they should stay that way, says Klaff. "They took it. They won it. The land is theirs. Why is Israel always held to a different standard than anyone else?" she asks, voice rising, her eyes flashing. "This is a conflict that has been going on for thousands of years. This is not, 'You took my piece of land.' This is a historical conflict."

The 33-year-old from Vancouver has been in Israel for the past eight years, and has lived in the country for 12 years in total. Her two-year-old son was born here. Her brother, who lives in Toronto, is one of the creators of the "I Am Canadian" beer commercials, but Klaff says her heart is in a different place. "Above any nationality or passport I always consider myself first and foremost a Jew," she says.

The last few years have been hard, Klaff admits. Both she and her husband Brian lost their high-tech jobs when the dot-com bubble burst. The bombs and attacks are wearing her down emotionally. When she leaves the house in the morning to travel downtown to the school where she's training to be a chef, Klaff wonders if she'll ever see her husband and son again. On the city bus, her thoughts always seem to drift to worst-case scenarios. She looks at the people she passes on the street differently. "I don't feel scared. I feel caged in," says Klaff. "If I was scared I would have left a long time ago." She wants peace, but not at any price. The Israelis have bent over backwards to accommodate the Palestinians, she says - now they have to stand firm.

Friends and family back in Canada may not understand, says Klaff, but for all its troubles, Israel is a special place. The people are filled with a passion, patriotism and purpose she finds lacking in her homeland. "This is where I want to be," she says. "This is where I can be the kind of Jew I want to be."

Anis Anani is no less committed to his country, even if it doesn't officially exist. The 27-year-old graduated from McGill University's political science program in 1999, and subsequently took a job with a group of lawyers advising the Palestinian Authority on its negotiations with Israel. His father is Palestinian, but Anani had little first-hand knowledge of the territories. He arrived in Ramallah two weeks before the intifada began in September, 2000. "I consider that I am part and parcel of this society somehow," he says. "I felt that I was needed here, that I had a part to play, even under these hot conditions, these critical conditions. That's the time you want to stay here and make sure you're doing your part." The night we talk, Israeli planes, tanks and helicopters are pounding Palestinian positions in the city and the rest of the West Bank, in retaliation for a spate of suicide bombs and shootings.

I ask Anani if he ever uses his Canadian passport to travel into Israel. "No, why should I?" he shoots back. He's spent the past 18 months in Ramallah but never goes to Jerusalem? "Oh, I go to Jerusalem every week," says Anani. "East Jerusalem. But for us that's not part of Israel, that's occupied territory."

Anani, who is careful to underline that he speaks for himself, not his bosses, says he believe the Israelis bear much of the responsibility for the violent confrontations. Even after signing the Oslo Accord in 1993, they continued to build settlements, erected more checkpoints, made it harder for Palestinians to earn a living. "Violence is never justified, but the Israelis created a situation on the ground that is conducive to something like this happening," he says.

Does being a Canadian change the way he looks at the conflict? Can he offer a different perspective, a different vision of the future? "I lived in Montreal," Anani says. "It's a multi-ethnic city - people of different cultures and religions live in peace, and find a way of dealing with each other." Here, things are different. "It's sad that two peoples who live side by side should not be able to coexist in peace," he says. "But peace cannot come without justice."

Sharon Roling, another Vancouverite, has spent the last six years trying to build peace from the ground up instead of the top down. As a project director for the Economic Cooperation Foundation, she has been trying to get Palestinians, and the Israelis who live next to them, talking about the myriad of small day-to-day cross-border problems they share - garbage, sewage treatment, water supplies. "We're promoting a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side," says the 33-year-old. "They don't have to be in each other's laps, just live with each other."

Roling has anticipated the navel-gazing Canadian questions and has her answers ready. Yes, she firmly believes her nationality helps her do her job: "It's easier for Palestinians to stomach me and it's easier for Israelis to accept me as a liaison." But the stress of the last year and a half is starting to chip away at the optimism she cites as another positive Canadian attribute. Early on in the intifada, Israeli forces flattened the office building in the West Bank town of Jenin that had been the Palestinian base for the project. Sitting at a beach café in Tel Aviv as the sun goes down - next door to a now-closed nightclub where 21 Israelis died in a June, 2001, bomb attack - Roling says neither side has a monopoly on misery. "We live in fear. I don't take buses any more. But I can still sit on a beach by the Mediterranean and drink beer," she says. "In Jenin, people can't go to the next village to visit relatives, women can't get to their doctors or do their shopping. It's a different reality."

Whoever has it worse, there is no denying that after 18 months of attacks, reprisals, more attacks, more reprisals, the abnormal has become routine for most Israelis and Palestinians. People have adjusted their daily lives to the cycle of violence, and calculate the risk associated with every errand, shopping trip or commute to work. A Canadian journalist living in Jerusalem makes dinner reservations for us at a restaurant in the eastern part of the city. The food's pretty good, he says, and the risk of getting blown up is a lot less in an Arab neighbourhood. Over the meal, he enthuses about life in Israel, but says his job is starting to get him down. The story is the same, day after day after day. "I'm tired of Palestinian kids coming up to me with pieces of their friend's brains in their hands," he says. "I'm tired of watching policemen comb through bits and pieces of people after a bomb goes off. Sometimes you just want to throw your hands in the air and scream, 'A pox on both your houses!' "

Arik Hassoun waits sullenly outside the VIP lounge at the Erez crossing, scuffing the toe of his boot across the tarmac. He knows I'm setting him up, making him meet someone he's not particularly interested in talking to. We've been standing there for about a half-hour when Malik Shawwa finally strides into view - he's left his car on the Gaza side of the crossing, not wanting the hassle. The two Calgarians shake hands as the photographer clicks away. Shawwa has a real estate agent's knack for small talk. They chat about the neighbourhoods they used to live in, and the fortunes of the Flames. "I hear Jarome Iginla is doing well this year," says Shawwa. It's definitely not the beginning of a new back channel between Israel and the Palestinians; the conversation is deliberately kept polite and cautious. "I was surprised to hear that there are Canadians living in Gaza," says Hassoun.

The stilted meeting lasts less than 15 minutes. The only agreement they strike is over a faraway city in a country that has ceased to be home. "I'd like to go back to Calgary someday," the Palestinian confides. "Me too," says the border guard. "After all this shit is over."

Shawwa reaches into his pocket for his cigarettes and offers one to Hassoun. Arik declines, pulling out his own pack and a lighter. They both smoke the same brand. It's a windy day. They draw close to shelter the flickering flame. Hassoun lights Shawwa's cigarette, then his own. A small act of politeness in a place where kindness is at a premium.

See also MUSLIMS, ARABS.

Maclean's March 25, 2002