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Mideast Friendship Defied the Odds

January 16, 2002

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BEIT JALLA, West Bank (AP) _ It was a friendship that defied Mideast odds _ between a Brooklyn-born architect who came to Israel in the 1960s, led by Zionist convictions, and a Palestinian hotel owner in the West Bank whose brother was a hijacker killed by Israel in the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation.

But Avi Boaz and Jamal al-Arja remained close through decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sharing meals, vacationing together and attending the weddings of each others’ children _ until the 71-year-old Boaz was killed Tuesday by Palestinian militants.

``If we were born as a family, we couldn’t have loved each other more,″ the 65-year-old al-Arja said Wednesday, his eyes red-rimmed from crying.

Only a day earlier, the two men had shared lunch at al-Arja’s Everest hotel and restaurant on a hill in the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla _ as they had for most days in the past 33 years.

Sometime after the meal, Boaz, who was building a home in the nearby Jewish West Bank settlement of Har Gilo, drove off with al-Arja’s son Bashir to shop for building supplies and furniture.

During the trip, the two encountered a Palestinian police checkpoint. Four armed Palestinian civilians stopped Boaz’s silver Rover convertible, dragged Bashir out of the car and took off with Boaz. The police did not intervene, and the journey ended at a soccer field in nearby Beit Sahour, where the gunmen pumped 20 bullets into the windshield of the Rover, killing Boaz.

Boaz had unknowingly gotten caught up in one of the many unexpected twists of the conflict _ a day earlier, a local militia leader elsewhere in the West Bank had been killed by a bomb widely attributed to Israel, and Palestinian gunmen clamored for revenge. The Al Aqsa Brigades, to which the militia leader belonged, announced in a leaflet Tuesday that it killed Boaz in a revenge attack.

Boaz’ son-in-law, Evyatar Cohen, said Boaz never cared about politics.

``For him, there weren’t any borders. He would just go (to the West Bank) and come back. He was always sure that because he was an American citizen, he was safe in every place,″ he said.

Boaz moved to Israel in 1961 from Manhattan. Edit Cohen said her father came to Israel because he was a Zionist, but never accepted Israeli citizenship even though as a Jew he was eligible.

A year after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, Boaz for the first time walked into the Everest hotel. Soon he had his own room as a long-term rental and his own table in the terrace restaurant, said Makram, one of Jamal al-Arja’s sons.

``Every day he would take lunch with my father,″ said Makram al-Arja, as his 2-year-old nephew Ramez went around the empty restaurant on a tricycle, singing ``Uncle Avi, Uncle Avi″ when asked by Makram who his favorite was.

Over the years, the friendship grew _ a rarity in the tortured relationship between the two peoples. It survived the 1976 killing of Jamal’s brother Jayel, a member of a radical PLO faction, by Israeli commandos who rescued Israeli hostages held by Palestinian hijackers at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda.

Two years ago, Boaz and his U.S.-born wife Eve, who died this month of cancer, went on a 15-day trip to Egypt with Jamal al-Arja and his wife, Nawal. There were also trips to Jordan and picnics in the West Bank hills.

When Boaz’ daughter got married two years ago, the al-Arja clan filled an entire table in the reception hall. Boaz was a regular at Beit Jalla weddings, often driving the newlyweds to church in his Rover, Makram said.

Even after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in September 2000, the ties remained strong. Boaz, who lived in the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim near Jerusalem, would still make daily trips to Beit Jalla, using his American passport to get past Israeli military checkpoints ringing Palestinian towns; since the start of the fighting, Israel has barred its citizens from Palestinian areas for fear they will be targeted by militants.

Edit Cohen, who has a photograph of herself and Bashir sitting on Jamal al-Arja’s lap as children, said she tried to persuade her father not to go. ``I told him I was very worried, but he just said nothing will happen to me,″ Cohen said, nervously dragging on a cigarette.

Boaz was buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday. The al-Arjas said they didn’t attend the funeral because they were afraid of the reception they might receive and because they didn’t want to disrupt the service by drawing unnecessary attention.

Edit Cohen called the al-Arjas on Wednesday to check on Bashir, who was held overnight by Palestinian police.

The two families said they would stay in touch.

However, Cohen and her husband said they would never set foot in the West Bank again. ``If they (the Palestinians) killed him, there’s no chance for normal relations between us. We need to separate and that’s it,″ said Evyatar Cohen.

Makram al-Arja, 30, said he believed peace would come one day.

``How much longer can they (Israelis and Palestinians) shoot at each other?″ he wondered.

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