Memories from a region rocked by terror, struggling for peace

Updated
Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the top Hamas political leader, speaks to the press in front of the morgue containing the body of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza city...
Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the top Hamas political leader, speaks to the press in front of the morgue containing the body of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza city...
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

There was a time after 9/11 when I found myself often reporting from the Middle East, frequently in Israel, where 40 suicide bombers attacked in 2001, another 47 in 2002. It was that year, on  July 31, 2002, during one of those trips, that Hebrew University was bombed. Seven died immediately, including five Americans. That bomb, packed with shrapnel, would later claim two more victims among the 85 injured. It happened on the same day I was scheduled to interview a co-founder of Hamas. Almost immediately, Hamas had claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Although now more than a decade ago, I will never forget the way Hamas’ leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi looked at me when I arrived to interview him. He was, I believe, expecting “this Chris” to be a man.

We had traveled by van to an undisclosed location, climbing stairs in an oppressive heat to an apartment teeming with armed guards, sweating in their uniforms as fans blew around hot air. Rantissi, I guessed, both needed these guards and wanted to project this show of force. He could barely disguise his disgust for me, and my western (though modest) clothes.  And it wasn’t far into the questioning when he made clear his disgust for Americans everywhere, and his total disregard for the young lives the Hamas’ attack had cut short just hours earlier. I knew he was against any negotiation or concessions to bring about peace. He was smug and defiant while talking about slaughtered students with impunity, collateral damage to a higher cause. It was hard not to shudder.

I remember, too, the anger of Benjamin Netanyahu (then Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and now prime minister) when I drove across Israel with my crew to interview him at midnight. His was the face of both anger and determination. He said that Americans were the ultimate target for Hamas. “They attack us,” he told me, “because they see us. It’s not that they hate America because of Israel; they hate Israel because of America.”

Those back-to-back encounters were, for me, just a microcosmic snapshot in the long and bloody war, as well as insight into a peace process that has confounded so many determined men and women.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now trying to climb this seemingly insurmountable summit to Middle East peace and even making it the target of his legacy. It is a noble, but some would argue, doomed quest. We can only hope the skeptics–realists?–are wrong.

I hold another memory of that time–a searing memory of a beautiful young Palestinian boy, ruddy-cheeked and full of life and laughter and dressed as a suicide bomber. I expressed horror to his grandmother who seemed perplexed by my concern. There was nothing that could make her prouder, she told me, than for her grandson to someday give his life to the cause. I was less than 24 hours removed from rushing to the scene of a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem street. Teams of volunteers–ultra Orthodox Jews–rushed there, too, the walkie-talkies that summoned them still dangling from their belts. While police investigated, they meticulously and respectfully collected body parts, since Jewish law required burial of the whole body on the day of death.

On other trips, there would be visits to the homes of welcoming Palestinians who abhorred violence but believed in their right to a state of their own. They were frustrated by roadblocks that kept them from their jobs and robbed them of the ability to support their families. All of them–Palestinian and Israelis–are the faces of a complex intellectual and political challenge that can be hard, from a distance, to fully comprehend.

When I was leaving the Hamas hideout after the Rantissi interview back in 2002, only then did a member of my crew express fear that Israel would target Rantissi, and that in getting this interview, we could have been collateral damage. Instead, the Israeli Air Force killed him almost two years later, firing Hellfire missles from a helicopter at his car. He was replaced almost immediately.

Memories from a region rocked by terror, struggling for peace

Updated