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World News
West Bank's agony reaches into local family

Monday, April 15, 2002

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Keren Wheeler arrived in Ramallah on March 28 as part of an international delegation, intending to meet with Palestinian civilian groups and observe the situation inside occupied territories. The next day, Israeli tanks laid siege to the West Bank city.

Keren Wheeler at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London last week. (Alistair Fuller, Associated Press)

Now Wheeler is giving interviews about what she saw -- namely, a host of actions she considers egregious human rights violations by Israel -- and how the experience strengthened her convictions that Israeli aggression is driving Palestinians to commit suicide bombings, and not the other way around.

Wheeler, 23, was not the only foreigner to participate in the events of those 10 days inside the occupied territories. But she was likely the only Jewish woman from Pittsburgh holding dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship to do so.

It's not the distinction her parents would have hoped for. Ross and Naomi Wheeler have lived in Mt. Lebanon since 1985; they're also dual U.S.-Israeli citizens with deep ties to the Jewish state.

Naomi's family arrived there in the late 1930s and early '40s, before statehood, having escaped eastern Europe one step ahead of the Nazis.

"My father lost both his parents and his brother in a concentration camp," Naomi Wheeler said. He was only 13 at the time, and would have died with them if a Zionist youth leader hadn't arranged to smuggle him into British-mandate Palestine.

Ross Wheeler emigrated to Israel from the United States in 1969. He and Naomi met on a kibbutz near Haifa, where they married and where Keren was born. The couple are both veterans of the Israel Defense Forces, and the whole family, including another daughter, returns often to visit a raft of relatives.

With the death toll on both sides mounting daily along with the level of frustration and rage, and the future of the region and their own family in mortal peril, seeing their daughter disseminate the Palestinian perspective on the war is causing the Wheelers a lot of anguish.

"This is very painful for us," said Naomi Wheeler, a nursery school teacher, after a deep sigh.

"What's going on in our family is the same thing that's going on in Israel, with people coming from opposite ends of the same conflict and not being able to communicate.

"I believe that Keren saw what she saw, I know she's not making it up. But she is looking at a fragment of the picture, not seeing the whole history or the root cause of the conflict, which leads her to have an extreme, one-sided view."

What Keren Wheeler saw was Israeli forces destroying streets, houses, water and electrical lines with tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gun ships. She felt the anxiety of being trapped inside for three days while food was running out, heard the shelling, the sniper fire and the children of the family upstairs crying in fear.

"We were 50 meters from Arafat's compound," she said. "We could see it out our window. We had tanks in our back yard and war planes overhead."

At one point, she said, Israeli soldiers forced their way into the house where Wheeler and two other young women in her group were staying. The soldiers, she said, went room to room in search of terrorists, ransacking drawers and closets, breaking dishes and furniture, punching holes in walls and, at one point, flirting with the young women even as they trained their weapons on them.

"When they found out I was an Israeli citizen, it really seemed to aggravate them," Wheeler said by phone from London. "They tried to convince us that we were being used, but we wanted to be there."

On the fourth day, Wheeler said, her group was able to move around. She volunteered to ride in an ambulance with a medical relief group, delivering food, water and medicine to trapped civilians.

"People would call in orders, and we'd pack them up and try to deliver them. We had plenty of supplies donated by Israeli civil and human rights groups, but the problem was getting them through. We kept being stopped and searched.

"Ambulances, according to international law, are supposed to be able to move freely in a war zone, but we experienced severe restrictions. Three times we were shot at by snipers on the rooftops, even though the ambulances were clearly marked."

Israeli officials say they have no choice but to stop and search Palestinian ambulances because some have been caught transporting weapons and ammunition. Wheeler acknowledged one instance of a bomber riding inside a marked ambulance and called it "a terrible abuse." But, she added, "ambulances in general are there to do relief work.

"I said to one Israeli soldier that we were bringing food and water to civilians and they shot at us. He said to me, 'An ambulance is not an ambulance; an ambulance is terror.'"

Wheeler called civilian deaths on both sides "disgusting and tragic," but added, "We have to ask what makes a person want to lose their life in a way that kills other people. There has to be nothing left for them. I hold the Israeli government directly responsible for the deaths of its citizens because of the way it is treating the Palestinians."

Her mother, meanwhile, is undergoing her own political evolution -- in the opposite direction.

"Ross and I were always on opposite sides of map, until recently," Naomi Wheeler said. "He was on the right while I was to the left.

"But with the continuing suicide bombings killing so many innocent Israeli civilians, I'm finding myself like the rest of the Israeli people, re-examining my beliefs.

"We are all asking the question: Who is there to make peace with?"

Keren Wheeler arrived in Ramallah by way of Brown University, where she joined an activist student organization while majoring in Africana studies, and a semester abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, where she got involved with the Palestine Solidarity Society. It was from England that she traveled to the West Bank with a group of Europeans leftists. She returned there afterwards and remains there now, working on her senior thesis on nationalism in South Africa and Israel.

Lest anyone doubt her Jewish credentials, Wheeler noted that she went to Hebrew school and had her Bat Mitzvah at Beth El Congregation of South Hills and attended the School of Advanced Jewish Studies in Squirrel Hill. She does not consider any of this to be in conflict with her current politics.

"I'm 100 percent Jewish, culturally and religiously," she said. "It's how I grew up, it's my belief system and how I live. I've always had certain principles of democracy and human rights, but I didn't go just anywhere to pursue them. I went where I have a stake and a responsibility.

"Jews do not all have to hold the same political opinions," she added. "We have to be able to differ without being termed un-Jewish or, God forbid, anti-Semitic."

Naomi Wheeler said that however much she despairs of her daughter's politics, she loves her as much as ever and continues to stay in close touch.

"I have to respect the strength of her convictions," she said, "even though I don't like the substance of them."

Keren Wheeler is on the same page as her mother in one regard. "It's painful when you disagree with your family, but we love each other enough that having different opinions will never get in our way."

"We stick together in spite of our differences," echoed her mother. "I'm hopeful the same will be true in Israel one day, that people who disagree can still find a way to co-exist."

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