Life in the Crossfire
by Courtney Kealy
As teenagers living in Israel and the West Bank, Raya and Besan have a lot in common. They love to download their favorite songs off the Internet and to hang out with their friends. They are also both worried about the violence that has plagued their homeland and the politics that divides their people and each other.
Raya Epstein is a 16-year-old Jewish girl who lives in Jerusalem, on the western edge of the West Bank. Besan Omary, an 18-year-old Palestinian, lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Both girls come from middle-class families, but both are also from different cultures that have been warring over the same land for the decades.
Besan was beginning her senior year in high school a year ago in September when the current uprising began.
"It was really hard this time, studying," she said. "We had to go to school, but we heard shooting all the time. It was harder than the last Intifada. We were young, we didn't know any different. Then we had peace. Now we have seen the peace fall apart."
While many other Palestinian teenagers were throwing stones at the Israeli Army, Besan wrote a book of her experiences and feelings.
"I felt I had to do something," she told Scholastic News. "I couldn't throw stones, so I wrote instead."
Her parents helped her print copies of her book for distribution. Her father is a journalist with the Al Jazeera, an Arab satellite network. Her mother works at Bir Zeit, the Palestinian University. As members of the Palestinian middle class, the Omarys are a minority. Most Palestinians live below the poverty level. She is proud of her parents, but worries because of their jobs.
"This year I was always worried about my dad, because he's a journalist and has to go where things are happening," she said. "I was also worried my mom would have trouble getting home because of roadblocks."
Travel in the West Bank is slow and sometimes impossible because of Israeli roadblocks. Palestinian travel has been restricted because of the suicide bombings. As the violence increases, so does Israeli security. This has cut off her visits to the McDonald's in Jerusalem, another seemingly normal part of teenaged life she must now do without.
Besan has other fears, too. She is scared of snakes and, since the Intifada, of people carrying guns, whether they are Israelis or Palestinians.
When she found her friends shared her fears, she helped them design a Web site where they could vent their frustrations over the news.
"Every day we have to watch the news and read the newspaper and cry over it sometimes," she said. "It's hard to look at the Israelis as humans. When I look at them I think, 'Tomorrow you could shoot me or kill my Dad.' I never feel safe."
"I can't go downtown, my parents won't let me," she said. "Compared to my friends' parents, they have been lenient."
One of her closest friends, Elinor, lives behind the King David Hotel, about 1,600 feet from where a pipe bomb was found. Another close friend, Michal, was a block away from the suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizzeria where 15 people were killed in mid-August.
"I remember learning in school about all the incidents that led up to how Israel is today," she said. "I thought, 'Wow, we've been fighting for a long time. I thought, Well, this year's going to be one of those years. But, I had no idea that this is the way it's going to be. It's so upsetting."
Her biggest fear is that she will be torn apart from her family. Her parents are divorced. Her father is a fund-raiser for non-profit organizations and has a 2-year-old daughter, Avital, by his second wife. Her mother is a career counselor. Besides her brother, Yoni, and half sister Avital, she has a 14-year-old sister named Rina.
Since the violence began, she has not felt like her usual, outgoing self. "I'm not in the mood to be perky, friendly, and cool," she said. "I've stayed away from going out this year. I don't feel ready. I need the safety of sticking around family and close friends."
At school, she spent the last four years studying Arabic. Recently she spent a week at a camp learning about the Israeli Army. All Israeli teenagers serve in the Army at the age of 18 for one to two years unless they receive a special exemption for religious reasons. The weeklong camp showed them how an intelligence unit works.
"It was very impressive and it made me want to continue Arabic," said Raya. "You can use your Arabic to listen to phone calls or work as a translator."
She said she is really looking forward to her time in the Army.
"How many girls do you know who get to go into the Army," she said. "I want to fight for my country." Her father corrected her statement, asking, "Do you mean fight or defend?" Raya smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Correction. I want the chance to defend my country. My father was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War," she said.
But Raya's main hope is for peace. She quoted one of her favorites songs, "Days of Quietness," by Lola: "There will be a day when everything will be quiet and there will be peace."
Raya's Palestinian counterpart, Besan feels differently. She doesn't believe peace is possible, at least not any time soon. She is leaving Israel to begin college this fall at a university in Indiana. "This is my chance to show people my Palestine, my culture," she said. "To show them, hello, we're human."