Similar Lives, Opposite Sides;
Jewish, Arab students in Israel's occupied lands
share dreams and dread.
By Elliot Grossman
The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania
January 26, 2003
GUSH KATIF JUNCTION, Gaza Strip -- Samar Aldaghma, a Palestinian college student who's studying to be a journalist, sits in a taxi on a dusty field amid a chaotic collection of waiting cars and trucks, hoping to arrive home safely to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
But an Israeli soldier, protected in a steel-encased bunker, points his automatic rifle at the vehicles, refusing to let them pass.
Eighty miles away in the West Bank, Bracha Possick, a Jewish student majoring in social work, drives her family car to college one morning that same week.
She makes it without incident, but the hilly, winding route has a deceiving calm to it. Palestinian snipers have shot at bus passengers here, killing them.
Such is life for college students in Israel's occupied territories where, regardless of nationality, religion or social status, they face daily hardships, wondering whether a bomb or bullet might kill them as they're embarking on one of the most promising periods of their lives.
Since before the founding of Israel in 1948, life has been hard for Arabs and Jews, intermittently fighting over this patch of desert. But the violence has intensified in the last 21/2 years, making daily life even more harrowing.
Bracha and Samar, both freshmen, are typical college students, not much different than those on American college campuses. Both have dreams of raising families and pursuing meaningful careers.
But unlike their American counterparts, these two students -- and tens of thousands like them in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- cannot even predict whether they will make it through college alive. If they do graduate, their memories will be marred by a conflict that seems as if it will never end. Both know victims of the violence that plagues their land.
Early last year, three friends of Bracha's teenage sister died in a suicide bombing. Israeli soldiers fatally shot one of Samar's college friends while he was trying to help people wounded in his hometown. Each could give many more examples of people they know who have been hurt or killed.
Bracha and Samar have never met but they have much in common. Both come from educated, religious families who are staunchly committed to their people's political causes.
Both love movies, talking to friends on the phone and helping others less fortunate than themselves. And both have connections to the Lehigh Valley. Bracha's mother, Ivy, grew up in Allentown. Samar's sister, Nisreen, lives in Upper Macungie Township.
In another place, Bracha and Samar might be good friends. But the ancestral hatred and bloody struggle between their people make that unthinkable. Ask each about the possibility of visiting the other and the reaction is the same -- shock.
Samar just wanted to get home for Eid ul-Fitr, a feast celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Before the violence started more than two years ago, this trip would have been simple, a 25-minute drive from Gaza City, where she attends college, to her hometown, Abasan, at the opposite end of the Gaza Strip.
But some days now it takes hours. The main obstacle is a checkpoint that the Israel Defense Force created between Gaza City and Abasan to stop the movement of Palestinian militants. It's near the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. Occasionally, people are questioned at the checkpoint and vehicles searched. Sometimes, the military closes the checkpoint for hours. Once, Samar waited there for 12 hours before leaving in frustration.
At first, she commuted from home to school, leaving at 5 a.m. for 8 a.m. classes. But when she started missing classes because of the delays, Samar moved into a Gaza City apartment with her sister, Neveen, and her cousin, Wafaa.
Weekends and holidays, she must endure the checkpoint as she heads home to Abasan to be with her family. One day in December, she joined her cousin and two male college students in a taxi-van for the journey.
Sitting in a rear seat with a backpack at her feet, Samar wears a tan scarf, a hijab, observing an Islamic custom for women to cover their heads. Several times during the ride, she pulls out a cell phone to take calls from friends and relatives, including from her father -- all are worried about her safety.
The taxi rides over roads along the Mediterranean Sea, near concrete houses destroyed by the Israeli army and past hundreds of boys and girls wearing gray-and-white uniforms attending a United Nations school for Palestinian refugees. The taxi cannot take the direct route from the northern to the southern part of the Gaza Strip because that road has been closed to prevent Palestinians from driving near Jewish settlements.
After 25 minutes, the taxi arrives at the checkpoint. Instead of being lined up orderly on the two-lane road, hundreds of buses, cars and trucks fan out on the road and alongside it on a barren, bumpy field. Samar's taxi takes its place amid the vehicles.
Samar considers this a small line. Sometimes it's five times worse, she says, backing up a mile into a nearby refugee camp.
With none of the vehicles moving, a man gets out of a nearby car, puts down a piece of cardboard, kneels on it and begins praying. Other men join him, bowing up and down in unison.
Gunfire can be heard. One of the passengers with Samar believes an Israeli soldier has shot into the air to scare the waiting Palestinians.
Travelers and soldiers have been killed at this checkpoint. Three weeks later, a news cameraman would be shot in the head, suffering a minor wound, while covering a Palestinian protest.
After 15 minutes, vehicles start moving on the other side of the checkpoint, coming toward Samar's side. A Palestinian ambulance, with its emergency lights on, goes first. It, too, had been waiting.
Then, Samar's side starts to cross. A soldier in a steel bunker surrounded by concrete barricades and barbed wire uses a bullhorn to give directions in Hebrew and Arabic, gesturing with one arm sticking out of a slot in the bunker. With the other arm, he points an automatic rifle at the vehicles.
But his efforts at controlling traffic are futile. It's a free-for-all, a stampede, as dozens of drivers try to pass through at once, like cars leaving the Veterans Stadium parking lot after an Eagles game.
A pickup truck with produce smashes into a taxi, damaging the taxi's rear end. The drivers get out and yell at each other. Another taxi rolls back into a private car. Most of the vehicles are within inches of each other. It's a wonder Samar's van isn't hit.
Samar and her cousin sit side by side, still and silent. Samar points to her head. She has a bad headache and guesses it's from the stress and fasting. Because of Ramadan, she hasn't eaten for more than 10 hours.
Just beyond the checkpoint, they pass an abandoned concrete apartment building, riddled with holes from being shelled.
At the end of Samar's ordeal, nearly an hour after leaving Gaza City, her father greets her at the curb of their villa, kissing her on each cheek.
Samar, 18, comes from a wealthy family. So in that way, she is not typical. Many Palestinians are poor, living in crumbling cinder block homes.
But she is like other Palestinians in another way: She faces regular danger from the Israeli army. Her family's wealth cannot guarantee her safety from bullets and bombs.
Her father, Hassan Aldaghma, 63, served as a legal adviser to the United Arab Emirates' public welfare department. His wife, Faiga, a former teacher, takes care of household duties.
They have three daughters -- Samar is the youngest -- and two sons. The oldest sister, Nisreen, lives in Upper Macungie with her husband, Nagi, a native of Abasan, and their two daughters.
Samar has never visited her sister in the Lehigh Valley, partly because of potential delays in leaving the Gaza Strip. She'd have to cross the southern border into Egypt, then fly out of Cairo. But the Israeli army makes some Palestinians wait for days at the crossing, so she might run out of time before she had to return to school.
Several times a day, the family, including Samar, prays at home or in mosques in Abasan.
Samar is a stylish teen, slender with long brown hair and brown eyes. While Neveen wears more traditional hijabs, Samar tends to wear brightly colored scarves. She has an elegance in the way she dresses and grooms herself, yet she cracks her knuckles at times.
She writes romantic poems, but fewer than before the conflict, which has hampered her concentration. On vacation, she watched "Titanic" seven times. "Love never dies. That's what I learned from this movie."
Her native language is Arabic, but she speaks English well enough to answer most questions without the help of a translator.
Samar enjoys shopping for clothes but sometimes feels awkward wearing nice things when so many fellow Palestinians have so little. She also liked swimming in the Mediterranean before the Israeli army closed the beaches.
Generations of her family have lived in the southern Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. But after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, the Aldaghmas moved to the United Arab Emirates, where it was easier for her father to find work as a lawyer.
For 32 years, her family lived in the United Arab Emirates, where she was born, returning to Gaza each year for long vacations. But it was always her father's dream to return to Gaza, hoping someday to live there as a citizen of a new Palestinian state.
So while she was in high school, when Israel and the Palestinians were moving closer to peace, the family moved back to Gaza. "It was difficult to have new friends, a new place to live, a new life," she said.
Soon after they returned, the conflict started. Her high school was near a Palestinian security office, and she remembers teachers telling students to evacuate because the Israeli army was attacking the office. "We used to run. We used to escape from school many times." She excelled anyway, earning a 94 percent grade point average.
Last fall, she enrolled in Islamic University, determined to finish in 31/2 years. But because of the violence, she can't even be sure she will graduate. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow."
A friend in her village was shot by an Israeli soldier just for opening a window, she said. "You can be killed anytime, even in your home If you open the window, it's over."
Sometimes, the electricity goes off, so she studies by candlelight. She is afraid to go out at night -- to shop or socialize with friends -- because she is worried about getting shot. Said her sister, Neveen, "We are always afraid."
Islamic University is in bustling Gaza City, the largest city in the Gaza Strip. Busy intersections near the campus have no traffic lights or traffic signs to direct the vehicles, people and mule-drawn carts all trying to cross at once. Horns honk so loud and so often that it's nearly impossible to hear a conversation.
Political graffiti cover most walls around the city, appearing since the conflict started. In Arabic, on a wall across from the campus: "Jerusalem is the capital. Palestine forever." "We want peace for all." "Stop war."
Hanging from streetlights are posters of Palestinian students killed by the Israeli army, each labeled a "martyr."
The three-bedroom apartment in Gaza City Samar shares with her sister and cousin is about a mile from campus in a four-story concrete building. A large color photograph of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs in the living room, with maps of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
A half dozen goats stand in a yard down the street, a dirt road strewn with rubble and covered with sand.
She is studying journalism because she wants to show the world what's happening to her people and her land, "to persuade them we are suffering here."
Back home in Abasan, a farming village, Samar is helping her mother and sister cook and serve a dinner of hummus, pita, beef steak, a blended melon drink and a split grain soup with beef.
Her home would be considered opulent almost anywhere in the world. It is a beautiful oasis surrounded by dry fields, dusty roads and unpainted cinder block houses. A wall surrounds it. After being buzzed in, visitors enter through a black metal gate with a sign in Arabic, "Mr. Hassan Aldaghma's Villa." The yard around the house has two fountains, cactuses, rose bushes and fruit trees.
The seven-bedroom house has several living rooms, marble floors, a marble staircase, chandeliers and Persian rugs.
Reluctantly, Samar shows visitors her bedroom, worried that it might be messy. "Oh my God," she says as she opens the door. "Oh my God." But it's actually quite orderly, with a large bed in the center of the room and modern furniture around it. On her mirror are photos of her friends and a family vacation to Jordan. Stuffed animals are on a bookcase.
On the back of her door is a Backstreet Boys calendar. Her favorite magazine, the "Backstreet Boys," lies on a table. "I've read it 100 times." She gives a thumbs up as she explains that she likes band member Kevin Richardson the best because he likes the color blue, just like her, because he's the oldest and therefore the wisest and because he's "pretty."
Now peaceful, her home can fill with terror. Samar's family spent much of the prior night cowering in a first-floor living room, getting little sleep. Outside their house, they had seen Israeli helicopters and tanks moving about in the distance and heard shooting. So they turned off the lights and took refuge, hoping they'd be protected in this interior room away from the sides of the house.
Other times when the army is operating nearby, they leave the house for an apartment they keep near the heart of Abasan, where they believe it is safer because it is farther from the edges of the Gaza Strip. It's a precautionary step they make as often as 10 times a month.
This night, they stayed awake, wondering aloud what was happening outside. "Sometimes, you have to wait until the morning to know what happened to your neighbors," said Samar's brother, Amgad, a pediatrician.
The next morning, they learned that the Israeli army had killed 10 people and injured about a dozen in the nearby Bureij refugee camp. The soldiers, looking for a Palestinian militant, had encountered armed resistance and used tanks and helicopters to respond. They failed to find the militant, then destroyed his house.
The next day, men and boys climbed over the rubble, trying to salvage what they could. A foot-thick cement second floor had collapsed onto the first floor. Following the explosion, the flag of the Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian faction, was placed on the rubble. Two boys held hands nearby, comforting each other.
Samar shares many of her parents' political views. But she takes a softer stance than her father when it comes to suicide bombers. "They kill my son," he said, "I will kill their son."
Samar sees no justification for suicide bombers. "We don't want civilians to die. They didn't do anything wrong."
Bracha helps pack lunches for her family as she prepares for the morning drive to college. Then, she hops into a 1997 Nissan sedan with her mother, Ivy, who teaches at the college.
As they leave their West Bank housing development, Karnei Shomron, which is surrounded by a security fence, they pass an abandoned bus stop. It's abandoned because of concerns that Jews waiting there could be shot from passing cars.
Another bus stop has been set up inside the security gate, where Bracha picks up a fellow student going to The College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, about 15 miles away. Moments later, her mother says a prayer in Hebrew for safe transit.
On the road to Ariel, the scenery is spectacular, with rocky hills rising from both sides. The hills, however, are perfectly suited for snipers. Because it's a two-lane road, there's no escape route. And because much of it is unpopulated, there's no one nearby to help stranded motorists.
"You're worried about who can be on that hill," Ivy Possick said, pointing to one side. "Who can be on that side."
In two similar attacks near this road, militants on the hills remotely detonated roadside bombs as buses drove by, then shot at fleeing passengers and rescue workers. Combined, the attacks killed 17 people and injured dozens.
When they reach the college, the Possicks suddenly begin to argue about driving. Grabbing the wheel from the front passenger seat, the elder Possick doesn't like the way her daughter is parallel parking the car.
"You're taking an hour here," the mother complains.
"You're making me nervous," her daughter replies.
Bracha, 21, whose name means "blessing," was born in Columbus, Ohio. When she was 2, her family moved to Israel. Her parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted to help build a Jewish homeland.
"This is a Jewish country. This is where the Jewish identity is," said her father, Marvin, a rabbi. "We felt that Jewish people should live here."
First, they lived in Ra'anana, north of Tel Aviv near the Mediterranean coast. But after a few years, they moved to the West Bank.
There, they get tax breaks and a discounted mortgage because they're helping settle the Israeli frontier, preventing Palestinians from living there.
"Most people that live here are making a statement," Bracha said.
They live in a five-bedroom cement row home with one shower. Children play on their streets -- in-line skating -- and, during Hanukkah, menorahs appear in windows and on patios.
Many Israelis call the Possicks' housing development a "Jewish settlement." The term carries political connotations because of the controversy about whether Jews should be building in an area that could be part of a Palestinian state. Residents there simply call it a "yeshuv," a community.
Bracha's 53-year-old father, Marvin, teaches religion at two high schools. Her mother, Ivy, 46, is a family therapist who took a leave of absence because the burden of counseling victims of the conflict became too much for her -- she knew most of them. Now, she teaches social work.
Bracha has six brothers and sisters. Just a generation ago, her extended family was mostly American. Now, she has about two dozen other relatives in Israel. One by one, they moved to Israel to strengthen their Jewish identities.
Bracha, who is tall and thin with curly brown hair, manages to giggle a lot, despite her country's turmoil. "I always laugh about everything. That's the way I am."
She prefers casual clothes, sometimes wearing hooded sweatshirts and long skirts to classes.
She can be quiet around her family, making her seem sullen. But she opens up when she's talking to her friends, with her cell phone or home phone glued to her ear. Usually, she speaks in Hebrew but her English, her parents' native language, is fairly good as well.
Bracha didn't like high school and she doesn't like college. "I don't like sitting and learning. I find it boring, very boring."
Between high school and college, however, she found her calling. Instead of serving in the military, she performed what's called "national service." She worked as a counselor at two boarding schools for troubled teens. "I felt like I was doing something worthwhile." She hopes someday to open a shelter for troubled youths or to investigate child abuse.
Unlike Samar, she has no doubt she'll graduate from college. She hasn't missed any classes because of the conflict.
Her mother describes her as "vibrant, stubborn, dedicated, loyal, independent." At the boarding school, she told the principal what she believed was wrong there. "It's more important for her to be her own person, to do what she believes is right," her mother said, "even if she'll have to pay a high price for it."
The College of Judea and Samaria, which has 7,000 students, sits on a hill between the West Bank town of Ariel and a valley dotted with Palestinian and Jewish communities. Between classes, students relax on the grass or on steps in a courtyard. A chain-link security fence is being erected around the campus.
In the last nine months, two suicide bombers blew themselves up off campus in Ariel, killing three soldiers and injuring more than 30 people.
When the conflict started, the Possicks took more precautions than many families, mostly at the parents' insistence. They wore helmets and flak jackets when they traveled outside their community and they changed their activities to avoid potentially dangerous places. Bracha's friends chided her: "Why should we show them [the Palestinians] we're scared? We should drive wherever we want."
The Possicks no longer wear the protective gear because, after an army outpost was set up near their community, they believe they are safer. Their community also took a step toward self-protection -- building a shopping plaza inside it so residents could make fewer trips outside.
Then, one Saturday night last February, a Palestinian suicide bomber entered the community and detonated his bomb in the shopping plaza. Three teenagers were killed at a pizza shop, all friends of Rachel Possick, Bracha's
Rachel, 15, had been with her friends earlier that day. They had tried to reach her by phone that evening, inviting her to join them for pizza. But with seven people living in the Possick home, the phone is often busy, and they couldn't reach her.
"We don't complain about people using the phone anymore," Marvin Possick said.
The pizza shop has been rebuilt and the Possicks go there often. Rachel wears bracelets inscribed with her friends' names. And once a month, she and other friends go to the home of one of the dead teens at the request of the teen's mother, who misses the hustle and bustle at home.
After the bombing, a security fence was built around the community. "You don't think something like that will happen, until it happens," Bracha said. "Then they get smart."
Bracha doesn't express emotion when talking about the bombing. It's her stoic we-must-remain-strong, we-must-not-show-the-enemy-we're-scared side. But Rachel leaves the room crying when the subject is raised.
Despite the turmoil in Israel, Bracha would not consider moving to the United States, where she's a citizen by birth. "It's very important to stay here. If you believe in something, you don't give up just because it's hard."
When the conflict started, Bracha didn't go out much at night. Now, she goes with friends to nearby cities to bowl and watch movies. She also camps with friends in the Golan Heights, a mountainous area that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
"Everything you do, you think two times. You look around, look for anything suspicious [But] nothing's going to stop us from going."
Bracha has a friend in Israel whose mother won't let her visit Bracha's home because of the perception of danger on the West Bank. "You hear about the West Bank, you think it's the scariest place in the world," Bracha said. "It's not. People live here."
The friend lives in Kiryat Shmona near southern Lebanon, from which Hezbollah guerillas occasionally fire rockets into northern Israel, making Bracha scared about visiting her friend.
"That's the way it is," Bracha said. "Everyone is scared of the other place."
Despite the conflict, the Possicks try to live as normally as possible. Each morning, Sarel, 12, the youngest child, skips over the news in the newspaper and goes right to the sports section to read about his favorite subject -- soccer.
But last year, when two of the Possick children were married, Israeli soldiers were stationed on top of the wedding hall, guarding against an attack.
One Sabbath evening in December, the Possicks celebrated five close-together birthdays. They sang "Happy Birthday" in Hebrew. A sign on the wall with balloons attached to it said "mazel tov," congratulations.
Then a balloon popped and people jumped. Chaim Possick, an army reservist whom Ivy considers "Mr. Macho," was pale. "There's still a startle effect from loud noises," she said.
The next evening, as the Sabbath ended, the Possicks walked to their synagogue, about 50 yards from their house. Their community is so close to a Palestinian village that the chanting of the Quran from a mosque could be heard, mixing with Hebrew prayers from the synagogue.
The Possick men sat with about 100 other men, mostly wearing white shirts and black pants. Bracha headed toward the back of the room, joining several other women behind a partition with white curtains. In Orthodox Judaism, men and women pray separately.
The men were "davening," swaying as they prayed. Boys played in the aisle.
Like churches or mosques, synagogues are supposed to be peaceful places, especially on the Sabbath, respites from the chaotic world. But a man dressed in a black hat, black pants and black coat, an ultra-religious Jew, had an automatic rifle under his chair. Another man had a handgun tucked in his pants.
Before the conflict, there were no guns in the synagogue. Now, congregants take turns guarding it during services. Even the rabbi takes a turn.
Though typical in the West Bank, the Possicks' political views are further to the right than most Israelis. And since the conflict started, they've moved even further to the right. They've lost hope of living on the same land with Palestinians.
Now, the Possicks say, they would seriously consider expelling all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip because it is difficult to differentiate between peaceful Palestinians and those who are militants. The Possicks prefer to call it a "transfer."
"I think it's the only way, the way things are going now," Bracha said.
Bracha insists that Israel should be her people's land, the Jewish homeland, even though Samar's Arab ancestors have lived here for generations. Likewise, Samar claims it is her people's land, a home for Arabs, even though Bracha's Jewish ancestors lived here more than 2,000 years ago.
And therein lies the problem. Like many of their fellow Israelis and Palestinians, both young women say they want peace. But both also show a reluctance to share this land. And since the conflict flared anew more than two years ago, their views have hardened.
In an eerie way, Bracha and Samar -- unaware what the other one had said -- made nearly identical statements. In their more candid moments, for example, each expressed a desire that the other side would just pack up and move far, far away.
According to Samar, the Jews should go back where they came from, without elaborating what that would entail.
Bracha asserted that the Palestinians would be better off in one of seven Arab nations. "If they want a country," she said, "they can go there."
Though both look for goodness in people, each harbors a deep fear of the other side.
Asked how she'd reply if invited to Bracha's home to listen to music, Samar said she could listen at home. "I have no need to go there."
Bracha answered: "I wouldn't go into any of these places and sit in their home. I don't take those chances." Bracha wouldn't even go to the Gaza Strip to help troubled children, her passion, "because I'm not sure I would get out alive."
Both believe that the other side is taught to hate them. But at times, both also had softer views of each other.
"Not all Jewish people are bad," said Samar. "The war is between the leaders only."
Said Bracha, "My parents have always said, not all Arabs are bad I don't hate them. I hate what they do."
Samar paused when answering many questions, apparently struggling with her English. But when she was asked whether she would marry a Jew, if she fell in love with one, she quickly replied that she would not.
"Don't ask me why," she said. "There is no why."
Nor would Bracha consider marrying a Palestinian. "That would never happen," she said. "It just wouldn't. Never."