Six years after bombing, I still have hope for peace

My friends and I sometimes reminisce about when we were 9. Nine was when we all lost our last baby teeth, when we stopped playing dress-up, but still played with Barbies.

But there was one big difference between my 9 and my friends’. When I was 9, living in Jerusalem at the climax of the second intifada, a man blew himself up outside my school.

I went to the International School of Jerusalem, the only English-language school in town. The imposing stone building used to be a hospital, where my grandmother gave birth to my father.

The building sits on HaNevi’im (the Prophets) Street, which serves as a corridor connecting East and West Jerusalem. Six years ago, macabre Jerusalemites dubbed it “Suicider Alley” because many bombers used it to cross from the east side to the west and sometimes exploded en route to their target.

East and west. Black and white. That was the mindset during my two-year stay in Israel.

Before going to the International School, I went to my neighborhood school, near the German Colony. Before class, the rough kids would stand on their chairs screaming, “Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!” Everyone joined in. My British friend Leah and I sat apart from the other children, reading English books.

When I moved to the International School, I thought of it as a safe zone — until the suicide bomber walked down the street. His head landed in the playground of the French school next door.

Six years have passed since my family left Jerusalem and moved to Arlington, Va. When my father and I walked through downtown Jerusalem recently, it was hard to comprehend how much the atmosphere has changed.

Life seemed — dare I say it? — normal. People were rushing into the narrow alleyways of the predominantly Arab Old City instead of out. The King David Hotel, so empty in 2002 when we left that they once upgraded us to the presidential suite, was now full.

When we lived in Jerusalem six years ago, “the situation” was the dominant topic of conversation. Now, my grandparents and their friends — all members of the intellectual elite — rarely speak of it.

In just six years, the violent, terrifying city I left has rebounded into a booming tourist attraction that it once was.

Yet during the meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that I recently attended in the six days of Americans for Peace Now’s fact-finding mission, the activists we spoke to warned that time is running out for both people.

Why? I wondered. Outside, couples strolled along the sidewalks with their young children. Arabs sat in the same cafés as Jews, and sold Israel Defense Forces halter tops in Jerusalem’s Old City shuk.

But the people we met with said that Israel needs to change now to preserve its identity as a democratic Jewish state. Building a wall between the West Bank and Israel, and the Gaza Strip and Israel has improved security — for now — but it hasn’t brought lasting peace.

True, reaching a peace accord now seems all but impossible. Unpopular governments led by weak politicians on both sides lack the public support they need to sign an agreement.

But the Israelis and Palestinians who spoke to us agreed that a new U.S. administration can help break the deadlock and make progress if it acts resolutely to bring the sides to final-status negotiations.

It will take effort, of course, from Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Both sides need to get re-engaged, and to learn to hope again. Six years ago, Israelis were obsessed with politics. Now, they avoid it.

Israelis, of course, have many reasons to dislike politicians and politics. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, is under investigation for corruption. Other politicians — even former President Moshe Katsav — have been involved in scandals. Of course, Israelis also have reasons to fear the Palestinians’ intentions too.

As we left Israel this time, I wondered: What will it be like during our next visit? Will Israelis, Palestinians and the next American administration take action, or will I get caught up in a third intifada?

My hope is that people on both sides will stop viewing Israeli-Palestinian relations in black and white, and realize that the “peace” they have now is false and temporary.

Eventually, each side will have to make hard sacrifices to achieve peace with its neighbor.

I’m back in Arlington now, and Israel feels far away. But no matter where I am, the problems of that tiny, complicated country will continue to touch my life.

Noa Nir, 15, interns at Americans for Peace Now. She used to live in San Francisco and attended Brandeis Hillel Day School.