It's mid-afternoon Tuesday and chaos prevails at the Kalandiya crossing point that separates municipal Jerusalem from the Palestinian Authority-controlled Ramallah area.
Cars and trucks waiting to cross into Ramallah are backed up for about 400 meters. Drivers are trying, impossibly, to overtake each other to steal a few feet forward. Horns are blaring, tempers are fraying. There's a crunch of metal on metal as two fenders come to blows.
When I find Walid Awad amid the tumult he waves an arm at the dispiriting scene. It's bad enough that you Israelis insist on this type of pointless roadblock, which any terrorist would obviously avoid, he tells me. "But at least you could have built it on your land, rather than ours."
Bombers, and explosives, are regularly intercepted at checkpoints like this, I respond, as we walk to my car. "That's why Israel built them and maintains them."
The exchange is the first of many I'll have in the next few hours with Awad, a spokesman at the press office of the Palestinian Authority president - stereotypical battles of blame.
Awad is a good-natured and soft-spoken father of four. He says he strongly advocates co-existence. He hears me out patiently when I detail my "narrative" of what has gone wrong here down the years. We don't only talk politics; the discussion ranges easily everywhere from education to soccer. But on the things that matter most and divide us most, we disagree, calmly and probably pointlessly, over just about everything.
We argue, over knafe at an Arab caf on the Nablus Road, about the causes of the 1967 war. We argue, drinking tea on the site of what he calls illegal Israeli excavations in the Silwan-Ir David neighborhood beneath the Old City walls, over who was responsible for the failure of the Camp David peace talks in summer 2000.
And we argue when he says that although Mahmoud Abbas is anxious to resume substantive contacts with Israel, "the feeling around Abbas is that he should not be meeting with Ehud Olmert in the next few weeks... People don't look kindly on the president meeting Israel's prime minister when Israeli planes are killing children."
I retort that the only reason Israel is engaged in any kind of military action in Gaza is because of the incessant rain of rocket fire from there into Israel.
He hits back that since Hamas declared its hudna 16 months ago, "your forces never stopped going into cities and refugee camps."
Other groups have still been hard at work on terrorism, I tell him. And does he seriously expect Israel to sit back and allow Hamas to build up its forces undisturbed for the next, inevitable onslaught?
Isn't that why you've built the wall, says Awad, to keep yourselves safe?
"If only that was all it took," say I.
"You just want the Palestinian people to surrender."
"That's absurdâ€¦ We pulled out of Gaza, for goodness sake."
"No you didn't. You still control the air space, the sea, crossing points."
"Not as fully as we'd like, but of course we do. We don't trust you."
"And we don't trust you."
Finally, a point of agreement.
ARGUMENT ASIDE, and there was plenty of it, Awad has a message - for Israel's prime minister and its people.
He says that Ehud Olmert's realignment plan, and the strategy of unilateralism that underpins it, is born of the desire to avoid what he sees as Israel's essential retreat to the 1967 borders, give or take some "limited land swaps." And it won't work, he says. "You have to negotiate."
His boss, he says, is ready to do so, on the basis of the "Clinton proposals," the despairing US president's last-ditch attempt at engineering a permanent accord following the failure of Camp David.
Awad asserts, unsurprisingly, that the Hamas-led PA is "an anomaly," and one that won't last. Abbas, however, "is the elected president. He signed the [previous] accords [with Israel]... Talk to him."
Awad says the next few weeks, leading up to the scheduled Palestinian referendum on the so-called "prisoners' document," will be crucial for the region. For the Palestinians' sake, and for Israel's, he says, Abbas has to win - either through the people voting for the document, or via Hamas recognizing reality and endorsing it without a referendum. "Abbas needs support from the Quartet, and indirectly from Israel, to get the referendum through."
But this prisoners' document doesn't recognize Israel, I object. It doesn't contradict the notion of a phased approach to Israel's destruction.
"What do you expect?" he responds. "It's a compromise between those who supported past accords with Israel and those who want to destroy Israel. But it opens the door to a two-state solution."
WALID AWAD'S mistrust of Israel extends to the wide median along the Nablus Road north out of Jerusalem, and the traffic-light timings at French Hill junction.
He tells me, as we drive in the afternoon traffic, that Israel deliberately left broad, gravelly patches all along the center of this main artery, when it could have tarmacked more lanes, to make it less easily traversed by Palestinians. And he swears that the traffic light into the city turns green for only the briefest of spells during morning rush-hour, as a deliberate ploy to prolong the journey and deepen the frustration for Palestinian motorists heading in.
He says "you are very clever people, you Israelis, much more clever than the South Africans."
But realignment? That's not clever at all. You won't fix anything unilaterally, he insists as we head back toward Kalandiya. "You'll relinquish territory, but you won't solve the conflict."
The extent of Eli Moyal's bitterness, thoroughly understandable, is striking nonetheless.
Dozens of Kassams have fallen on his city in the past few days. The ministry directors-general with whom the Sderot mayor has been pleading for meetings for months have just descended on him en masse, bringing sympathy but little, he says, of practical consequence. (He sums up their bottom line: "Don't ****ing call us, we'll call you.") The next day a sizable delegation of politicians from across the spectrum will motor in to debate Sderot's fate. Some of his locals are on hunger-strike. A handful of others have put hand-written "For Sale" signs up outside their homes, although talk of even a small exodus is widely dismissed.
And in a corner chair on the third floor of the municipal building, his constant cigarette smoke drifting out through the open window to his side, Moyal is in full, often expletive-packed flow.
Like Walid Awad, he has a message for Olmert. Actually not at all like Walid Awad. Moyal's message can be summarized up in three words: Hit back hard.
The lean and charismatic mayor of Sderot is not a heartless man, even though he sometimes chooses to sound like one. He says he used to have contact with the residents of Beit Hanun, the too-adjacent prime Kassam launch area, before the intifada years. "The Beit Hanun farmers do want peace, they do want quiet," he says, adding rather unexpectedly, "So do Abbas and [the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh. But the thugs are running the show."
And the thugs, he goes on, "are at war with Israel. Unfortunately our government doesn't understand this."
The only way to win the war, in Moyal's book, is to fire on the neighborhoods from where the Kassams are being launched.
And kill civilians? "If there are going to be civilians killed, I'd rather it was theirs, not ours. I have no reservations about saying that."
These civilians may themselves be opposed to the Kassam fire. "Then they should come out and protest against it."
Wouldn't they be risking their lives? Moyal pauses. "If they don't come out and stop the rockets, then we'll have to. I'll let them make the choice."
So you'd go neighborhood by neighborhood until the Kassams stop. Would you give a warning? "I'd give them the 15 seconds they give me."
Are the rockets getting more accurate, more dangerous? "Six years, same dreck," he says dismissively.
In his younger, wilder days, Moyal spent time in the US - "It's the old story: I followed a girl there," he once told this newspaper. Today, he invokes America approvingly in the war on terror, in dismal contrast to the government here. "My problem isn't with the Palestinians. They hate us. My problem is with the government. They're idiots. Sixty Kassams fly in three days and we do nothing," he protests. "Where's our dignity? The US destroyed half of Afghanistan after two buildings were felled, looking for bin Laden and he wasn't even there. That's a state with dignity."
Nothing? I quote a comment from Chief of Staff Dan Halutz's recent interview with the Post about the IDF's ongoing activity in Gaza, detailing the numerous terrorists killed. "Halutz says it's 100 to nil?" he positively snorts. "It's not a tennis match. What matters is whether there's quiet. Is there quiet?" he challenges.
Unwittingly giving short-shrift to Awad's "let's talk" appeal, Moyal declares that "we don't want war... but there's no one to talk to on the Palestinian side. There's no Ben-Gurion. This won't end soon. And we have to fight. We have to create an equation where it's just not worth them fighting us. We should have cleaned out Gaza before we left, killed the 1,200 terrorists there."
Wouldn't 1,200 more quickly have replaced them? "Kill them too. That'll be that."
He fumes that government ministers don't heed him, but perhaps the harshness of his rhetoric angers them? "They don't get annoyed with me," he says. "Anger would be an improvement. I just get apathy."
Maybe it's because you're a political rival? (Moyal ran on the Likud list in the last elections.) He snorts again. "Until recently, we were in the same party."
I'D ASKED Moyal what Sderot residents are told to do in the few panicked seconds when the Kassam alarm sounds. "Not my ****ing business," he answered, helpfully. "Ask the [national] government."
Surely, some kind of information sheet has been distributed? I persisted. "Surely? No," he said.
Not far from Moyal's office, in a small park near the home of mayoral predecessor Amir Peretz, the cluster of Sderot hunger-strikers confirm this.
"If you're outside, you dash to a wall," says Shlomo Suissa. "That's what we've been doing the last few days."
"And if you're inside, they say you should go under a doorway, as though that would make a difference," chimes in the lady at his side, Rina Mor-Yosef.
To highlight the absurdity of it all, Suissa tells a long story about a friend, living nearby, whose elderly neighbor went into shock after a Kassam near-miss. His friend called an ambulance, which arrived quickly. The medical team gave the elderly lady a quick check-over, pronounced her unscathed, and determined that the call-out had been unnecessary. "They left her with a bill for 150 shekels," he marvels. "I'm trying to get them to cancel it. But meantime, they keep adding late-payment fines. Unbelievable."
What, specifically, are they hunger-striking for? "For the government of Israel to make it secure for me to live in Sderot," answer Suissa (a Kadima supporter) and Mor-Yosef (Likud) in unison.
They've been waiting for this one. "We don't know," says Mor-Yosef almost triumphantly. "That's why we voted for them."
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