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Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice

Seek peace...and pursue it : Psalm 34:15

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The Jewish Week
"The Hatred Does Not Take Over Our Lives"

Despite the pain, widow of slain IDF major still carries on Arab ties forged by her late husband

By Matthew A. Gutman
Israel Corresondent

SEPT 21, 2001

Jerusalem - Holding her squirming Chihuahua, Orly Zohar stares out from the window of her apartment at the panoramic view of the Knesset and the twinkling lights of villages scattered on the distant hills.

"This view sustains me sometimes when it is hard to go on," said the 34-year-old widow of Maj. Amir Zohar, who was killed almost a year ago in a gun battle in Nahal Elisha near Jericho. At the time, he was the highest-ranking Israeli soldier to be killed in the intifada, which then had been raging for about a month. On Nov. 1, as Zohar leaned forward over a concrete barricade in an attempt to detect the source of fire on the company he was commanding, a single sniperís bullet entered just below his left armpit and exited through his rib cage killing him almost instantly. He gasped "I am hit," then collapsed.

Zohar was the quintessential Israeli: a kibbutznik, a soldier, a nature lover, a sabra: tough on the outside, but tender inside. Nature lovers, who met in the army when Orly was 18 and Amir was 19, the two did practically everything together. "There was no Ďguy-time,í - we were partners in all activities and especially in bringing up our children," said the mother of Assaf, 8, and 4-year-old twins, Alon and Tamar. Amir and Orly were such an undivided unit that they even shared the same clothes from jeans to T-shirts.

But the bullet that so quickly ended Amirís life did not succeed in killing his lifeís work of community building, both within the Jewish community and fostering coexistence between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis.

Zohar was the director of the East Talpiot Community Center, in charge of treating minorsí social ailments, the dissemination of community funds, community development and social activities for kids. His municipality-funded community center, like the Arab-Israeli village of Zur Bahir, is situated on the invisible Green Line, which separates Israel from the West Bank.

Zohar grew up on a kibbutz that his grandfather founded just after the Holocaust. "We grew up sustained by the love of this country, with its unique smells and sounds. We also grew up with the Arabs and knew that we had to get along with them, to treat them as any human should be treated, with respect," said Orly Zohar.

At a time when a wave of bitterness and fear of Arabs engulfs even many left-wing Israelis, Zohar remains committed to the ideals of respect and humanity her husband coveted. "The hatred does not take over our lives. I do not reinforce in my children that it was Arabs who killed their father. We cannot make generalizations, that would be a negation of everything that Amir believed in," she says.

"No," adds Zohar stoically, listening to the rustling of bed coverings from her childrenísí rooms, "the solution cannot be military. Only negotiation can pull us out of this mess, but this path is very dangerous and painful, this is a war about our very existence and the price for victory will continue to be very expensive."

With this in mind Zohar set out to re-establish contact with Zoher Hamda. Hamda is the mukhtar of Zur Bahir - a town of 15,000 people which sits on the hilltop facing Har Homa and is adjacent to East Talpiot - with whom Amir Zohar began to work in earnest before he died.

Already in the intifadaís bloody infancy, a group of delegates from the southern Jerusalem settlements and villages met in an effort to talk about coexistence and prevent violence from engulfing their villages and homes. It was there that Amir Zohar met Hamda. Despite the gap in age, culture and position, the two hit it off, and decided on a wide range of projects. "That project is still in process today," said Hamda, who had just returned from a meeting with delegates from the nearby Jewish village of Harmon Hanatziv.

But even the infinite distance between Zohar and Hamda created by Zoharís death has not prevented Hamda from continuing the relationship of reconciliation with Orly Zohar. "I call her, we talk about the kids and we meet regularly to talk about bettering the joint services we provide our children," said Hamda. The two have been working on acquiring enough funds to build a park or a pool where the children of the two villages could play together.

At the mention of the children of his village, Hamda broke into a tirade accusing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat of being little more than a criminal.

"Under the present circumstances of bombings and death and murder we cannot get anything started," said Hamda, his voice laced with anger, speaking shortly after a suicide bomber dressed as a chasidic Jew blew himself up just yards from the site of the Aug. 9 bombing of the Sbarro restaurant. "This situation will only get worse because murder is Arafatís profession. I was in Force 17, I know him and his cronies personally, and know he has no respect for our people, for our children."

Yet Hamdaís moderate voice is often drowned out by the diatribes of the more extreme elements in this almost year-old round of conflict. And despite the reconciliation espoused by Orly Zohar and Zoher Hamda, the casualties continue to mount.

In response to the death of reserve officers like Zohar, numerous reservistsí advocacy groups have sprung up demanding better insurance policies and benefits for combat reservists who give a month a year - sometimes their life - for their country.

Zohar is fortunate. Her two brothers are lawyers, and have taken it upon themselves to care for her financial state of affairs. She has no complaints about the government compensation plans, which promise to provide her with financial compensation and psychological assistance for as long as she needs it.

While the IDF is conducting an investigation into his death - Amirís unit was slated to patrol the Bethlehem area not Jericho on that day - Zohar is not interested. Surprisingly, she is also not angry. "Getting mired in a long investigation will not bring him back. Of course I want the necessary precautions to be taken in the future, but my primary concern now is my children," she said.

Contact with Amirís unit is also important to her and his fellow officers are always popping in to chat and offer their help, even now, almost a year after his death. "Amirís death certified the reality of his friendsí and colleaguesí vulnerability in this conflict. Once everybody thought: Ďit will never happen to meí now that mindset has changed."

Amir was the combat soldier, but Zohar displays identical steeliness. Asked if threats by terrorist groups of attacks on schools frightened her, she answered flatly, "No. After Amir, what more can happen? We canít live in fear. Amir was optimistic and so I know, the only thing to do is to keep going forward."

After a year of mourning, the pain of loss is still almost suffocating. What Zohar laments most is that her children will not benefit from the informal education their father, "the worldly man who knew everything," would have bestowed on them.

Marveling that the one-year anniversary of the event that seems like it occurred generations ago is approaching, Orly Zohar noted that the summer before her husband was killed "it was a time of peace process euphoria. We had a dream of taking a van through Syria to Europe. But now there is no solution in sight, no way out, and we will have to start the process anew.

"But despite the hardships, and despite the fact that so many are leaving here," she says, "I will never leave Israel."

Copyright © 2001 The Jewish Week- All rights reserved.