How Fading Mideast Peace Hits Two Homes
The plea of a Palestinian mother who lost her son in the recent violence: 'There are enough victims... let's end this.'
Inside a sandy Palestinian courtyard, on the wall of a nondescript family house, woven green wreaths of mourning have been hung around a metal front door.
They signify the death of one of the latest Palestinian "martyrs," a policeman who died in a gunfight with Israeli soldiers a week ago.
The largest wreath has a photocopied portrait of 20-year-old Qussie Okasha - whose thin moustache and patch of chin hair were too new to have ever been shaved - and reads: "Condolences to the Hero."
It was brought to Qussie's family by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who paid a personal visit to the bleak compound on the edge of one of Gaza's poorest refugee camps.
"He shared my agony at the death of my son," says Qussie's father, Mohammed. "He told me: 'We are going to continue this peace process. Your son died to achieve peace.' "
But so soon after the worst Palestinian-Israeli violence since peace accords were signed in 1993, and the absence of progress at face-to-face talks this week between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the dream of peace for this family is as distant as ever.
There is evident pride in the family that their son has become a "martyr." Mr. Okasha was a member of the Palestinian parliament in exile for years, when the family lived in Yemen, and he matter-of-factly states that he has "seven children, now six."
Sitting in front of their house, with the wreaths of honor brushing in the breeze against the concrete wall, Qussie's mother, Ghalia, is subdued, and holds her head up with hands squeezed together as if in prayer.
This is not the way she wanted her son to die, while policing a peace deal.
"He grew up and I taught him how to act in life," says Mr. Okasha. There are no tears, just surprise and anger.
"He served his people: He was committed to the Palestinian Authority and to the peace process.... But when they see a 12-year-old killed in front of them [by the Israelis], they are going to defend their people."
Did he think that his son would ever be forced into direct confrontation with the Israelis? "No, never," he answered.
Qussie's uncle - dressed in Arab garb, with a thick graying moustache stained yellow from nicotine, and clicking black prayer beads in his hands - adds that everyone was caught off guard by the recent violence.
"No one expected that would happen," says Abdul Salem, whose name means "worshipper of peace."
"Even Qussie, he was always peaceful; he was one of the troops who wouldn't fight, but would have intervened to stop the fighting.
"I hope this will be the end of it," he says. "We do not want anybody killed, even Israeli troops. We want peace."
Similar grieving is taking place across Israel and its occupied territories, where more than 55 Arab families - and some 15 Israeli families - separately mourn the loss of so many fathers and sons.
Qussie's brother Ziad has the same face and thin sprouting moustache and beard. Though he says that he would never wear a soldier's uniform - he is studying accounting at a Gaza university - he remembers his brother's optimism. "He was so happy about it, because it was his honor to be a policeman," he says. "He did not talk about war between the Israelis and Palestinians, because we were under a peace."
That illusion was shattered when Mr. Okasha received a late night call while he was teaching history at a local college.
Does he think his son will be the last martyr in a conflict that has raged nearly half a century? "No," he says, "If Israel's policies continue this way, he will not be the last."
It is this belief that Qussie's death - like thousands of others that have stunted the growth and development of both sides over the years - may yield little in the way of lasting peace that finally impels Ghalia to speak.
Holding her hands tightly together, she tries to use the English that she once taught at school, then reverts to Arabic.
"My son was 20 years old, and like the rest of the young he wanted to build a family, to have peace and to live with stability," she says. "Every mother fears what could happen to her son, of course... [but] all the youngsters in Gaza and the West Bank are psychologically disturbed [by the conflict]."
"I send a message, not only to the families of soldiers, but to all Israelis," she says. "There are enough victims, enough for both sides, who have suffered for years. You're losing, we're losing - let's end this."