Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Arabic voices, and the faces of Ma'alot

It is memorial day, and we are waiting for the start of a ceremony for the war dead in Ma'alot, a small Israeli city near the Lebanon border. We already know more or less what the speakers will say. They talk every year about the heartrending loss of young soldiers' lives as the price of protecting the country.

While we wait, people sitting behind me are chatting in Arabic. Three of the four local people killed in the Second Lebanon War were young Arab civilians. They were Shanati Shanati, 18, Amir Naeem, 18, and Muhammed Fa'ur, 17. A direct hit by a Hezbollah katyusha rocket killed them Aug. 3, 2006. They had been riding together in a jeep and got out to take cover.

The fourth local victim was Sgt. Maj. Moti Abutbul, 28, a member of Flotilla 13, an elite unit that is sometimes likened to the U.S. Navy SEALS. A katyusha killed Abutbul and 11 other Israeli soldiers Aug. 7, 2006, near Kfar Giladi.

We saw the faces of the local dead last night. On every memorial eve Ma'alot shows the faces of its dozens of fallen soldiers and terror victims, displaying them one by one on a big outdoor projection screen. Brief narration accompanies each photograph, telling when and how the person died. As each face appears, a family representative mounts the stage and lights a memorial candle.

Arab family members showed up last night to light candles for the recent victims. They chose again today to take part in a program in memory of the Israel war dead. A Jewish high school put together the program today.

Whatever meaning you may read into this, it is something to set alongside current media reports which suggest that Arabs have nothing on their minds except the notion of the Nakba, the disaster which some say resulted from the birth of the state of Israel. In Ma'alot, life is much more complicated than that, and coexistence is a daily event.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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