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Mideast Peace Failures Affect Ordinary Arabs and Jews - 2003-10-16

Three women from the Jerusalem area - a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim - are reaching across their own physical and psychological barriers to speak out about the impact of the collapsed peace talks on ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. Their U.S. tour - the sixth of its kind since 1998 - is organized by an American non-government organization, Partners for Peace, that promotes a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

English teacher Mai Nassar, who is a Palestinian Christian, lives in the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, which is normally about a 15 minute drive from Jerusalem. She works at nearby Bethlehem University. Life these days, she says, is like living in a prison without cells.

"We can't go anywhere," she said. "We're locked inside. If we want to go to visit a relative on the other side of the town, we have to cross a checkpoint or go another route. To move from Beit Jala to Jerusalem you need a permit. So I haven't entered Jerusalem for three years."

A network of Israeli military checkpoints, curfews and a controversial security wall have been established to try to prevent Palestinian terrorist attacks aimed at sabotaging the peace process.

Most Israelis have welcomed the added security measures. The indiscriminate Palestinian suicide bombings on their streets, in city buses and crowded restaurants have traumatized them.

But Ms. Nassar says it has a numbing effect on Palestinian social and cultural life. "The university is just for classes," she pointed out. "Students come to the classes, rush to go home before a curfew is imposed because they have to cross a checkpoint. So there is no cultural activity on campus. There is nothing outside the campus."

She asks how Israelis who want peace can build a wall and ignore the plight of ordinary Palestinians on the other side.

Israeli anthropologist Yehudit Keshet says there are many Israelis who choose to deny Palestinian suffering but she adds there are many who do not. "People know. As I said, their sons, their brothers, their fathers, my son serve in the army. They're doctors in hospitals where the wounded are brought sometimes," she said.

Ms. Keshet says her work with Checkpoint Watch also has opened her eyes to the daily plight of ordinary Palestinians. Ms. Keshet helped establish the non-government group that monitors the actions of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints around Jerusalem and the West Bank.

She sees her work as a contribution to the peace process. "We may be powerless to change the big picture," she said, "but at least we're trying to do something for the small picture."

Both women acknowledge that continued Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military operations against suspected Palestinian radicals have weakened the voice of the peace camps on both sides.

Mai Nassar says the dream of a Palestinian state as outlined in the U.S.-sponsored road map for peace seems more elusive than ever.

"I'm talking about average Palestinians," she said, "not the leaders. ... We just want now to get rid of the occupation."

Ms. Keshet and Ms. Nassar had never met before arriving in Washington earlier this week. They will spend the next 18 days together visiting nine American cities to talk about their aspirations for peace.

A Muslim Palestinian woman from the West Bank town of Hebron was due to join them but she was turned back at the Jordanian border because of bureaucratic snags. Another Palestinian woman has arrived from Ramallah to take her place.