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Mideast should heed the spirit of Christmas

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I learned a lesson a few years ago in Jerusalem. As I think about it, it could be a Christmas lesson, especially in light of what is happening in Israel right now.

I had flagged down a cab to take me from a Palestinian section of the city back to my hotel. The driver was Palestinian. He was talkative and gregarious. During the course of our conversation, I happened to mention that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not quite certain what kind of reaction I would get, if any at all.

To my surprise, he immediately became emotional and said he had a great regard for the church. We had been talking earlier about the Arab writing he had on his dashboard and how it meant something religious and deeply significant to him. Now he began to thump the dashboard with his hand as he spoke.

A few years ago, he said, a gunman had opened fire at the Dome of the Rock, killing and wounding many Palestinians. The students at the BYU Jerusalem Center had voluntarily donated blood to help the wounded. It was an act, he said, he would never forget.

Again he started pounding the dashboard. "Mormon blood is Palestinian blood, and Palestinian blood is Mormon blood!" he said.

I thought about that this week as violence once again raged out of control in Israel. Last weekend, Islamic militants staged suicide attacks that killed 25 people in both Jerusalem and Haifa. Hundreds more were wounded. The Israelis responded by launching missile attacks that killed two Palestinians and injured more than 100. They came close to destroying the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In response to this, another suicide bomber blew himself up outside a hotel in Jerusalem during rush hour, injuring two people.

What will be the response? When will it end? And isn't it ironic that the man whose birth many will celebrate this month taught the way out of this dilemma thousands of years ago, and yet his homeland continues to be among the most violent places on earth? Kindness and charity can change hearts, as my Palestinian driver could attest. That is a theme most religions share in common.

Frequently, a representative from the Israeli consul general's office will visit the Deseret News editorial board. I always enjoy the visits. These are intelligent, friendly people who seem to genuinely want peace and security. When the discussion turns to terrorism within Israel, however, they are resolute. Violence must be met with violence, and the quicker the better.

"We live in a tough neighborhood," one of them told me recently, explaining why this was the only workable policy.

I can understand that. Certainly, there are times when a tough response is necessary; when national security demands it. Sept. 11 presented such a situation. Outsiders were trying to violently overthrow this nation's peace and security.

One could easily argue that both Israelis and the Palestinians feel likewise — that they are in a struggle for ultimate survival. But violence has been tried there, again and again. And yet the problem, like a huge rock that is impervious to bombs, remains just as big and as heavy as ever. Having seen the power of kindness, I wonder. What would happen, just once, if one side or the other decided to stop the cycle?

In their nationally syndicated column last week, Cokie and Steven Roberts quote John Zogby, a pollster who has specialized in tracking attitudes among Arabs, both here in the United States and abroad. His latest findings among Palestinians is that the latest attacks have hardened militant feelings, particularly among men under 30.

Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas, understand this, which is why they continue to provoke the Israelis, and the Israelis continue to give them what they want, which is more violence in return. But it is clear that the ultimate by-product of violence is more violence still. It never will lead to a peaceful resolution of the question of how two peoples should co-exist on the same narrow strip of land.

But this isn't necessarily a Christmas lesson about a land far away. The sad thing is that the same drama plays itself out over and again in many lives around us every day. The violence may not be as stark or direct, but the ultimate effects can be devastating. People refuse to forgive harsh words. Relatives are ostracized or never spoken to. Courtrooms overflow with the latest escalation in the battle to show one side or the other won't be intimidated.

Even my gregarious cab driver hadn't truly learned the lesson. He admitted with a laugh to throwing rocks at Jewish cab drivers who ventured into his territory.

Always, the situation seems terribly complicated and messy, and yet it is quite simple.

What does it take to stop the cycle? True courage, and the spirit of Christmas.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com