Compassion From the Middle East for Strangers in a Strange LandTIRANA, Albania -- With tears in his eyes, Avi Pazner, 60, who was the first Israeli Ambassador to Albania, surveyed the tent city of Kosovo refugees that rings an empty swimming pool in the heart of this city. Dropping to his knees, he extended a plump green apple to a miserable little boy who hugged the cane of his elderly grandfather.
"Please," Pazner said Tuesday, during an Israeli relief mission. "Please, take this little bit of kindness."
Pazner, a worldly Israeli in a dapper business suit, stared into the old man's eyes and lost his bearings a little. A Holocaust survivor, Pazner said he felt dizzied by the echo of his own history in the plight of the man, Haser Shala, an ethnic Albanian refugee wearing muddy shoes with no laces.
"I feel like I'm going back in time," Pazner said. "I feel so close to these people. I don't speak their language, and they are Muslim. But I have the impression I visit my people here. I think all the time about these people as Jews."
Israelis and Palestinians alike have been mesmerized by the images of the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo trekking across borders, stripped of their belongings, their homes and the documents that confirm their identity.
Glued to television news accounts, the Israelis and Palestinians have watched with bounding empathy what both groups, in different ways, see as a late 20th-century replay of their own horrors -- for the Israelis the Holocaust and for the Palestinians the flight into exile in 1948, when the Jewish country was founded.
Even if their governments have not been as quick as they would like to condemn the Serbs and spring into action, many Palestinians and Israelis have felt personally compelled to help. The Israelis are setting up a field hospital in Macedonia, while the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group, flew in the first of what will be three planeloads this week of relief supplies to Albania.
And the Palestinians, who are usually the recipients of aid, began planning a relief lift of their own.
For some, emotional reactions are overshadowed by complicated political realities. Some Israelis believe, for instance, that they should remain loyal to the Serbs, who defended Jews during World War II. But for many the identification with Kosovo refugees is so undeniable that it is painful, like a bitter reminder that the lessons of history are not always learned.
"When I see the people in Kosovo fleeing, I can only hope that their destiny will not be like our destiny and that they will not live in refugee camps for 50 years," Samir Abughazaleh, a Palestinian accountant in Jerusalem, said on Monday.
Salai Meridor, the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel, said the sight of trains loaded with ethnic Albanian refugees was so chillingly evocative of the Holocaust that he felt compelled last week to organize a relief effort.
In several days the agency raised $375,000 in donations, set up a radio telethon and a rock concert fund-raiser to be held on Thursday and, with the help of the United Jewish Appeal in the United States, organized the relief planes.
At 5 A.M. Tuesday Meridor stood between cartons of blankets, tents and baby formula buckled like passengers into a charter flight from Tel Aviv. "I feel proud," he said.
When the small Israeli plane landed in Albania, though, it was immediately shown up by a Saudi Arabian jumbo jet filled with blankets and carpets. The Israelis were made to feel the measure of their small country's effort, which they quickly pointed out could never compare in size but was a genuine and heartfelt grass-roots effort.
"We come in the name of the Jewish people," Meridor told the Albanian Foreign Minister, Paskal Milo, who relayed horror stories that the refugees were telling, like those of children forced to watch the beheading of their parents.
The Israelis left Milo's office feeling another connection, this one to the Albanians, who they said were a scattered people, just like the Jews, with most of the population living in a diaspora.
While their donations traveled to a warehouse to be sorted for distribution, the Israelis drove empty-handed to the tent city by the cracked, weed-infested swimming pool in downtown Tirana.
Again, what they saw first was jarringly familiar: refugees poring over posted lists of the camp's refugees, running their fingers down the inky pages, searching for the names of relatives from whom they had been separated.
"We had this in Israel after the Holocaust for years," said Pazner, a former Israeli diplomat in France and Italy and a member of today's aid delegation. "Lists on walls, lists in newspapers, lists on the radio."
Pazner is a native of Danzig, a target of Hitler's aggression that later became Gdansk, Poland. When he approached Shala, he found that the elderly man had been a German prisoner of war during World War II. They chatted in German, the Jewish man in a natty business suit, the Muslim refugee in a tattered pinstriped one, confessing that he felt old, "kaput."
Shala and his family fled their village of Zoqishti at the gunpoint of masked Serbian policemen who told them to go to Albania, or America, or NATO, they said. They wore a dazed, exhausted look, squatting on the concrete outside their tent in a refugee camp that was surreally erected beside a small amusement park.
Told that their visitors were Israelis, Shala's niece smiled faintly. "That's nice," she said. "They know what it's like."
In Israel, Shlomo Arad, a photographer who lost his parents in the Holocaust, said Monday that he felt obliged to follow the Kosovo crisis.
"How well we know the feeling of leaving everything behind and in five minutes you're nobody," he said. "Nothing we can do is enough: a field hospital with 50 soldiers, a donation into a bank account. But we must be witnesses. We must not turn away, like most of the world did in World War II."
For some right-wing Israelis the matter is not so simple. Many identify with the Serbs, respect what they see as their right to Kosovo -- "their Jerusalem" -- and resent what they see as pro-Muslim world news media.
"We will be alert and attentive to what is happening in Kosovo, as it may be a general rehearsal for what could happen here if we don't give the Palestinian terrorists a state with Jerusalem as its capital," said Elyakim Haetzni, a lawyer, in an opinion piece last week for Channel 7, the radio station of the Jewish settler movement.
And, with a different lens, the Palestinians are watching closely too. "Unfortunately when we faced our tragic situation in 1948, nobody was paying attention to us," Abughazaleh said. "But now the whole world is following these events. So we hope that NATO will be able to let these people return back to their homes and properties."
In Tirana, Shala's family expressed that wish too. And his grandson, with tears streaming down his face, took a timid bite of the green apple that an Israeli well-wisher had left behind.