DEATH missed me by a few moments on Sunday, when a bomb killed six people in the Gaza Strip.
I had come to Israel for a few days. Having some free time, I headed south to visit old friends in Neveh Dekalim, a settlement in Gush Katif, not far from Kfar Darom. I was anticipating a pleasant afternoon of reminiscences, and maybe some sun at the local beach.
The inspiration to visit Gaza had come from Meretz's Yossi Sarid. On Friday, he had called for the dismantling of Gaza settlements. I decided that, as a personal protest, I would visit my friends and give them some moral support.
Arriving at the Kissufim military checkpoint at the entrance to the Strip, I asked for an escort. The officer in charge told me that the group of soldiers standing by was waiting to accompany the bus that was due to arrive at any moment.
Suddenly, a local settler drove up and offered to guide me into the Strip. Following him in my rented car, we turned left onto the main Gaza artery. The bus arrived minutes later, and turned right toward Kfar Darom. A suicide bomber was waiting for it.
I drove on to Neveh Dekalim. After I had greeted my friends, we began to hear ambulance sirens. Slowly, news of the bombing trickled in. My friend's eight-year-old son remarked: "What a shame that the explosion has ruined your visit."
I was taken aback by his matter-of-fact tone. Then I realized that, for him, death is very much a part of everyday life. His father killed a terrorist in the midst of an attack on their settlement last year. His grandfather fell on the Suez front just after the Six Day War.
I DROVE back to the site of the tragedy, and spent many hours there. I witnessed the pandemonium, the pain and sorrow. Soldiers stood guard, bewildered at the knowledge that their friends lay dead and wounded.
Most striking of all was the reaction of Arabs. Some hours after the bombing, buses began to be routed around the site, passing a military checkpoint just down the road.
As the buses, filled with Arab passengers, went by, they shouted enthusiastically from the windows. They held up fingers in a V sign. Not 100 meters from the bus filled with death, local Arabs gathered behind a fence celebrating.
The day of the bombing, the prime minister reiterated the government line, that there are two kinds of Palestinians: the extremists who want to "derail" the peace process, and the others, who want to turn over a new page in relations with Israel.
For those of us who stood at that scene of death and injury, there was only one kind of Arab, the kind that turned a day of murder into a festival.
This reaction poses a serious question about peace with the Palestinians.
It isn't just the PLO's failure to control terrorism, or the mini-police state that has been created in Gaza and Jericho. Nor is it Yasser Arafat's terrorist background.
The real question is: Are the Palestinians seriously ready for peace? Have they abandoned their old agenda, or have they just changed their tactics? Is their step-by-step plan as firm as ever, with Gaza and Jericho first, then the rest of the West Bank serving as a springboard for further confrontation with Israel?
Had the reaction of the Arabs I saw in Gaza on Sunday been one of regret and sorrow, I might have thought that we have entered a new era.
But the open joy on their faces told me otherwise. It told me that Arab tactics may have changed, but their goals remain the same.
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