Fear fuels exodus by both sides in the Holy Land

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Fear fuels exodus by both sides in the Holy Land

Jews and Palestinians are queuing up to secure their escape as the bloody cycle of violence shows no sign of ending

Special report: Israel and the Middle East

Suzanne Goldenberg in Jerusalem Sunday August 26, 2001 The Observer

In the crowded waiting room of the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Julia K brandishes a sheaf of documents, the ticket to a better life. 'Of course, it's because of the security situation,' she says. 'We are afraid of bombs, and we are afraid of war.' In another office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Helen Khalaf has come to collect the high-school transcripts of her twin sons, Omar and Haytham, who are off to university in the US.

'I am torn between here and there. It was not easy to send them away,' says Khalaf, who spent 17 years in Florida. 'They were my babies, but I just cannot allow them to stay here. It's not safe and I'm always afraid for them.'

Eleven months into the latest bloody conflict, which has land and demographics at its heart, the thoughts of many Israelis and Palestinians are turning away from home, and to the notion that the only secure future lies abroad.

For Julia K - she will not reveal her last name before she acquires a precious Canadian immigration visa - a spate of suicide bombing attacks ended the idea that she and her husband, Michael, could make a life and raise a family in the central Israeli town of Rishon LeZion. 'We don't go out to pubs, we stay stuck in our home,' she said. 'We don't go on buses, but use taxis. We do go to movies, but not to the malls - it's too dangerous.'

It is an extraordinary surrender for a young woman who became an immigrant success story after arriving here from Moscow as a 15- year-old. After serving in the army, Julia, 26, works as an accountant for a multinational firm. Her husband, Israeli-born though of Russian origin, is a lawyer.

In Ramallah, Khalaf is undergoing her own struggles. Though her sons were born in the US, they have lived in the West Bank since they were a year old and feel entirely Palestinian. A few days after their departure, she was busy stitching wall hangings for them in traditional Palestinian embroidery.

'They wanted so much to stay here and to go to university here,' she says. 'I am afraid of sending them away. A lot of boys go there and start taking drugs. But here, when I see what Israel is doing, I am afraid for my sons' lives.'

As yet, there is no suggestion of a wholesale exodus from Israel, or from the West Bank and Gaza. The high birth rates among Israelis and Palestinians, and the steady flow of immigration to the Jewish state prevent any radical alteration in the demographics of the Holy Land.

But a generation raised on dreams of peace, coming of age in the 1990s, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders were moving towards an agreement to end decades of conflict, appears to have decided that the violence is not going to end soon and that life may be safer, and more economically viable, elsewhere.

Israelis Sharon Hoffman and Edan Esher are already on their way and their home in a farming community in central Israel is nearly emptied out. The couple had been intending to move to San Francisco for some time. The intifada made it easier.

'You can see that reasonable people probably from both sides feel completely stuck,' said Hoffman, 36, a filmmaker who spent much of her childhood in the US. 'Are there still reasonable people left?' asks Esher, 31, a serious crimes investigator for the Israeli police. 'At work, and even in the army reserves, when I tell people I am married to an American, they say what are you still doing here?'

Despairing at Israel's lurch towards the right, and frustrated by a culture of aggression that is one of the byproducts of Israel's 33-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the couple want a home where governments pay more attention to education and the environment, and where religion does not intrude so much on private life.

For Esher, also an intelligence officer in the Israeli army reserves, the Palestinian uprising brought additional soul-searching. 'I served in the occupied territories earlier, but today I do not feel there is a good reason to be there any more,' he said. 'In some places, and in some functions, I would have to refuse to serve.'

A survey for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found 14 per cent of Israelis had considered leaving the country in the past few months. For those aged 28 to 34, the figure rose to 28 per cent.

The Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv has registered a 50 per cent increase in applications for permanent residence from Israelis - overwhelmingly from people from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Israel in the last decade. The British Embassy has registered a 25 per cent rise in passport applications, largely from dual citizens seeking an insurance policy, officials say.

Among Palestinians, who are ground down by Israel's economic siege of the West Bank and by army road blocks which that have turned the simplest journey into a nightmare, the rate of departure is higher. Although Israelis worry about being caught in a terrorist attack or losing their jobs in the recession, their freedom of movement is unrestricted and they are better off economically than their Palestinian neighbours.

Since the start of the uprising, the Palestinian economy has collapsed and unemployment touches 70 per cent. Moshe Karif, a spokesman for the Israeli government department that oversees the West Bank and Gaza, said 10,000 more Palestinians had left than had arrived in the occupied territories during the past six months.

Many Palestinians with foreign passports or the right of abode elsewhere have picked packed up and left during the long school holidays, heading for the US, Europe, or Chile, where there is a sizeable Arab population.

At the Quaker-run Friends School in Ramallah, attended by children of affluent English-speaking Palestinian families, only 320 pupils have registered for the coming school year; last year there were 400. 'At the end of the school year, they started to leave the country,' said Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a member of the town council.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 26, 2001

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