THE REFUSAL of the Bush administration to involve itself in resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been one of the worst consequences of the 9/11 terror attacks. Here's hoping that President Bush's meeting tomorrow with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan marks a change in the attitudes not only of the two antagonists but of Washington as well. When Americans felt vulnerable to the devastation wrought by suicidal terrorists, we found a new way of identifying with citizens of Israel, where suicide bombers wreak such havoc. Washington's hyper-belligerent reaction to terrorists reinforced the Sharon government's response. A traditional alliance between the United States and the Jewish state was intensified. After Sept. 11, an Israeli friend told me, ''Now you know what it feels like,'' and it was true. But another question arises: Having empathized with Israeli feelings of vulnerability, do Americans have any real idea of what Palestinians have been experiencing? Leave aside the complexities of the political dispute to focus on its less well known human consequences. The character of Palestinians has been perceived stereotypically, as if every citizen of East Jerusalem or Ramallah were ready to murder innocents or dispatch their children to do so. The terrorists have clouded Palestinian claims, but they and their supporters represent a mere fraction of the Palestinian population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Suicide murder represents a horror to those millions, too. It is to them Americans must now turn in empathy. Their experience must be acknowledged. If Americans grasped the full dimensions of Palestinian suffering, we would insist on our government's effort to end it by renewing the work of peace.
The still point around which a compassionate American imagination might most productively turn is the plight of Palestinian children. Americans read news reports of the widespread malnutrition that has come to plague a significant proportion of the babies and youngsters of the West Bank and Gaza, but do we really take in what that word defines? The severely underweight child. The tortured mother. The doctor at a loss to help. The teacher aware of the impossibility of the child's learning. The father driven to depths of shame and despair. Relief workers unable to deliver what is needed. All of this multiplied by thousands. More than a million people in the West Bank and Gaza, including hundreds of thousands in refugee camps, depend on agencies for food, but need outpaces aid. Levels of destitution among some Palestinians have begun to approach those of the world's poorest nations.
All of this follows the border closings and restrictions on movement that have cut off Palestinians from their work, leading to a collapse of the economy. Unemployed young men abound, a recruiting pool for Hamas. But clampdowns have other effects, too. Curfews imposed by the occupying Israelis routinely subject great numbers of Palestinians to an effective house arrest, leading to a culture of claustrophobia. Gaza in particular can seem the site of a vast incarceration. Children bear the brunt of this as families and communities fracture under such inhuman stresses. Meanwhile, violence flares around even the most innocent, with all too many children becoming collateral casualties of the conflict. They have seen their fathers, brothers, uncles, and sometimes mothers killed - often up close, for the battle zones of this war are neighborhoods. Its weapons, in addition to guns, aircraft, and tanks, are bulldozers, which have demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes. How many of those demolitions included the precious corners in which children had until then felt safe? War is a realm in which brutality becomes mundane, but a simple destruction of trees can be almost as shocking as assaults on human life. When ancient olive groves are bulldozed, with the loss of noble stands of trees that have borne fruit for generations and should have continued to do so for generations to come, the Palestinian heart can be pierced to the pulse. And when equally ancient claims of proud families to land and homes are dismissed with the wave of an eviction notice, the blow goes far deeper than the words ''real estate'' imply. What is at stake for men and women whose histories are denied and whose place in the world is taken away is nothing less than the order of existence itself. In addition to all else, this harried people lives on an enforced edge of meaninglessness.
Most Palestinians refuse to define themselves by enmity. They reject the temptation to shape nationhood only from revenge. That is what it means that their leaders take places at a table of peace tomorrow. Will they be understood? Will their experience be acknowledged? Much must happen, in other words, before Palestinians turn to the overdue delegation from Washington and say, ''Now you know what it feels like.''