A Friendship Tested By Deep Gaza-Israel Divide Mohammed Saqar from Gaza and Dana Levy from Israel met as teenagers at a peace camp in the U.S. They once believed in peace in the Middle East. But now they've have lost hope for Israel and Gaza.
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A Friendship Tested By Deep Gaza-Israel Divide

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A Friendship Tested By Deep Gaza-Israel Divide

A Friendship Tested By Deep Gaza-Israel Divide

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week, we have been exploring life on the Gaza Strip. And today, we end our series with two friends, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, who have lost hope for peace in the Middle East.

Dana and Mohammed met when they were teenagers in the late 1990s at a summer Seeds of Peace workshop in the U.S. Then, Dana went back to Israel and Mohammed to Gaza.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro picks up the story from there.

Ms. DANA LEVY: It started really weird, you know. He hated me so much in the beginning. He couldn't stand me.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dana Levy reminisces as she looks over an old photo album stashed in her apartment in Tel Aviv, where she lives alone with her cream-colored dog, Coca(ph). She has the lean frame of a danger. In fact, she manages a salsa club on the weekends. She flicks her long, brown hair as she speaks, her already huge eyes widening when she mentions Mohammed.

Despite their rocky start, his antipathy didn't last long, she says, and they became close during that summer camp in Maine.

Ms. LEVY: And then we had this thing that we would wake up an hour before everyone, and we would walk around in the morning in camp and talk, and it was very, very weird. I mean, it was two weeks of hatred and then two weeks that we would spend the whole day together. And then that's it. That's how we met. It's very weird.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed Saqar's apartment in Gaza couldn't be more different to Dana's. It's on the top floor of a dilapidated building in the Gazan city of Khan Yunis. The walls are unpainted concrete; children's toys from Mohammed's two sons are scattered around the bare floor.

Mohammed teaches for a living. His emphatic gestures match the urgent tone of his voice when he describes the difficulties of his life. But when he talks about Dana, his words become softer, more hesitant.

Mr. MOHAMMED SAQAR: When I was young, I started to think, okay, when I grow up and become 25 or 26 or 30, I'm becoming a leader here, she is becoming a leader there, then we can marry, you know, so we can produce new people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While their friendship has endured for 14 years, their idealism has not. Both have lost cousins in the region's conflicts. Dana's died in the 2006 war in Lebanon, Mohammed's in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Mohammed says he stopped believing in a peaceful solution to the conflict here when Israel imposed a blockade, or what he calls a siege of Gaza.

Israel began restricting shipments to Gaza after militants of the Hamas movement captured an Israeli soldier in the summer of 2006. A year later, after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah movement, Israel stopped most goods from entering Gaza except the most basic humanitarian aid.

Mr. SAQAR: I saw many Israeli attacks and assaults against us. I see people dying. I see children killed. I see women killed. I see everything. Despite this, I could have something positive for peace. But in the siege, everything changed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed says he feels trapped. He is educated, only 30, but sees little future for himself. He has been outside of Gaza only once, that trip to the U.S. when he was 16.

He wants to get a Ph.D. in another country, but like most Palestinians in Gaza, he can't leave.

Mr. SAQAR: We are not like you. We can't travel. Thousands of people, millions of people here spend their whole life moving in 20 kilometers. I want to go to Britain. I want to see their culture. America, Canada, I want to see how people live there. Why do they put us in this prison?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so, the boy who dreamed of creating peace through marriage is these days a man hardened by reality. He now says fighting is the only way Palestinians can gain their independence.

Mr. SAQAR: We try peace with Israelis, and Israelis are not ready to introduce or to give something for peace. They kill everything without any discrimination. I told her many times, I told Dana, I told her that we must turn into armed people here, we must get weapons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While Mohammed is reminded every day of the conflict with Israel, just 50 miles up the coast in Tel Aviv, Dana rarely thinks about it, she says.

Ms. LEVY: Here in Tel Aviv, it's a different country. It's sad to say, but it's true. I think about it because of him, but other than that, it's not here. It's not here, I don't feel it. It's hard to be it's like a war in Kosovo. It's the same thing, somewhere else. Gaza is like three worlds away from us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eighty percent of Gazans rely on food assistance from the international community. And by conservative estimates, half the population is unemployed.

In contrast, Israel is booming. Tel Aviv is the center of a high-tech industry that has helped the Jewish state weather the global recession. This year has seen tourism surge to the highest levels ever in Israeli history.

Dana and Mohammed's attitudes reflect the growing divide. The only Israelis Palestinians in Gaza see are soldiers. Israelis think of Gaza as nothing more than a launching pad for thousands of rockets that have hit Israeli communities.

Dana says she's seen her fair share of suicide bombings, and she doesn't trust Palestinians. But she can't tell Mohammed that.

Ms. LEVY: Like when there was a bomb, you're like, I want them to go in and just bomb the whole place except for his house, but bomb the whole place. And you can't tell him that. How can I say I want your people to die?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Polls consistently show that Palestinians and Israelis seem less interested in peace than ever before. Dana says among her friends, no one even discusses the conflict anymore.

Ms. LEVY: It's stuck. I feel like it's stuck. We're not going to have a solution. That's how I feel. So it won't resolve itself. It will be like this, I think, forever, until Iran gets a nuclear bomb, and then we're all dead. That's what I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Gaza, Mohammed acknowledges that he and Dana never talk about politics.

Mr. SAQAR: I talk to her about personal things, and she talks to me about personal things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have a ritual. They both light cigarettes when they speak on the phone, as if they were two friends sitting on a stoop. Mohammed says he'd like to see the woman he calls his best friend again someday.

Mr. SAQAR: I hope I could meet her again. I think we could, we can someday, meet each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting on her sofa in Tel Aviv, Dana says despite how close they've become over the years, there is a reason she and Mohammed can't discuss their beliefs.

Ms. LEVY: We wouldn't be able to be friends if we would talk about politics. We wouldn't be able to. How could you be friends with your enemy? He's the enemy without a doubt. His people are the enemy, and my people are his enemy. So we have to either decide not to let it go and just be Mohammed and Dana and that's it, or Israeli and Palestinian and that's it because we're supposed to hate each other, you know? But we don't, so we're just friends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dana says she recently asked Mohammed if she could send him a care package, something to make his life easier. The only thing he asked for was a pack of cigarettes, the brand she smokes.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR.

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