A Tale of Friendship Amid War

Israeli, Arab long for peace

Colorado camp drew girls together 

HADERA, Israel – Blue police lights flashed at the central bus
depot. Israeli soldiers swarmed with machine guns. A plainclothes
commander barked into a cellphone, chasing a tip about a
Palestinian. The Holy Land pulsed, again, as if something was
about to explode.

Ignoring this blitz, a Jewish girl, 16-year-old Adi Meidan,
and a Palestinian girl, 17-year-old Moran Zhalka, ran toward each
other, smiling. They embraced.

“I believe in Adi. She will never kill anyone,” said Zhalka.

“Moran has this magical smile. She can really cheer me up
when I’m down,” said Meidan.

This unlikely friendship – surviving in the face of an
escalating Mideast war and skepticism from their segregated
communities – began five months ago in Colorado. At a three-week
“Bridges For Peace” camp in the San Juan Mountains, Meidan and
Zhalka met far from the pressures of their charged home environment.

The Colorado camp over seven years has introduced more than
200 Jewish and Palestinian girls to each other – a youth version
of the 1993 Norway retreat that, until this fall, had Israeli and
Palestinian leaders working toward peace. Building peace is an
ideal role for Americans, said camp director Melodye Feldman.
“We’re not rioting and shooting in our streets. We have something
to teach. We have a democracy that works and a society that is
pluralistic in its views. It’s something other nations can learn from.”

She and her Jewish and Arab-American supporters plan to
expand the camp to include boys. They talk of inviting teens from
Belfast to Bosnia.

But in the Mideast, seven weeks of killing as Palestinians
and Jews clash over land they both covet is thwarting those
efforts to open young minds. Teenagers are among the most furious
fighters, say parents in Israel and Palestinian territories. And
unlike Meidan and Zhalka, Feldman finds most of the girls who met
in Colorado now feel hopeless.

Internet conversations between the girls grew contentious,
even angry, during recent hostilities: Israel’s Sept. 30 shooting
of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy as he huddled against his father
for protection; the Oct. 12 Palestinian mob slaying of two Israeli
soldiers; and Israel’s Nov. 9 helicopter-missile attack on a
Palestinian leader. The death toll has topped 230. Most of the
dead are Palestinians.

The new war “definitely has set us back, probably by 10
years,” Feldman said, adding that she may have to change camp next
summer because fewer families are willing to participate and
Palestinian girls may face travel restrictions.

Yet the friendship of Meidan and Zhalka has survived. The
two say they are determined to defy any challenges. In a few
months, Meidan is supposed to begin her compulsory military
service in Israel’s army. Two of Zhalka’s schoolmates recently
were shot by Israeli soldiers who fired into an “intifada” rally.

Since returning from Colorado in July, the girls called each
other almost every day, sometimes surreptitiously.

In her Hebrew-speaking Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, Meidan
slinks upstairs to the phone in the family office while her
brother, two older sisters and parents get ready for bed. The
escalating war has left her so distracted that her grades have
dropped. She says a million thoughts race in her head.

Zhalka may be “the only one who really understands me,” she

They talk about everything, from family arguments to
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Lately they dwell on the Army
decision that looms more heavily than anything Meidan has had to

Refusing her required service would cause problems: no
admission to some universities and difficulty finding jobs and
obtaining loans.

“On one hand, it’s my duty,” Meidan said. “On the other, it’s
an organization that is using violence. I’m against violence and
don’t want to be part of it.”

About 90 minutes to the north, Zhalka retreats upstairs to
her room with a Boyzone poster on the wall and a telephone. A
rooftop porch looks out across Kfar Qara, an Arabic-speaking
Palestinian town amid olive trees just north of the West Bank

Outgoing and self-confident, Zhalka is a natural class leader,
according to a teacher. But like Meidan, she can’t concentrate
these days in class.

The killings “make me angry all of the time” and unleash
feelings that cut to the core of her identity as an
Arab-Palestinian. As Israel emerged as a nation where he and his
forefathers have grown olives for centuries, Moran Zhalka’s
father, Ali, gave her the Jewish first name Moran in hopes it
would bring better opportunity in her life.

“Sometimes I want to change my name and make it an Arabic
name,” she said.

But as hostilities intensified, the girls learned to control
their own anger and maintain mutual respect.

Consider what happened after the Sept. 30 incident when
Israeli bullets killed 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Al-Dura as
he huddled against his father for protection.

Zhalka was so enraged that she questioned whether she could
still be friends with Meidan. She spoke first with her father, who
told her that “this girl, your friend, is not guilty.” He’s an
elementary school principal who, after recent riots, arranged a
roadside peace rally including some Jewish principals from Hadera.
They passed out bumper stickers that say, “Enough. Don’t Destroy
Our Home.”

When Zhalka spoke with Meidan after the shooting, she felt
conflicted, she said, swallowing thoughts she hesitated to
express, worried about making Meidan angry and defensive.

“When I talked to Adi about the kid being killed, I didn’t
want to say this at first: “You see? This is your army.’ Because
Adi is a special girl. You want to say: “They are a killer.’ But
what does she have to do with that? I know Adi. She would start to
cry. She would be in her room for a week. So, I didn’t say anything.”

On Oct. 12, a Palestinian mob killed two Israeli soldiers in
Ramallah and flashed bloody hands to the world.

Meidan fumed. “It’s murder. You can’t defend it.”

Zhalka agreed. Yet she understood, even shared, the anger
motivating the slaying. Every day in Kfar Qara, she and other
Palestinians hear menacing thuds of Israeli soldiers taking target
practice – perhaps “to make us afraid.” In October, when some of
her classmates joined a local “intifada” demonstration against
Israeli killings, Israeli soldiers opened fire and injured two.

After the slaying in Ramallah, an Israeli helicopter fired a
missile into the central Palestinian police station. Sad and
confused, Meidan forgot her anger and called Zhalka and three
Ramallah girls she had met in Colorado. She didn’t want to argue
about what happened. She wanted to see if they were all right.
They were. They told her they were scared, the shooting was so
close to their homes. They told her they were happy she cared
enough to call.

Meidan must decide soon about the army. She’s scheduled for
interviews and tests in January. Her sister is in the army, along
with a boyfriend who serves in the West Bank. Her mother and
father want her to serve. “Maybe, if I go, I can make a little
change,” she said.

Zhalka holds back her comments on this too.

“I’m afraid she will change,” Zhalka confided away from
Meidan, “that she may begin to agree with what the army will do.
I’m afraid when I think about it.”

Yet when Meidan cries, flip-flopping about what to do, Zhalka
tries to respond comfortingly. “I tell her: “You have to go.’ I
think we can still be friends.”

While the girls grew closer, their communities grew more and
more tense – and disapproving of the girls talking, let alone
meeting face-to-face.

Meidan’s father, Rami, 51, an accountant, said he let her go
to the Colorado camp for a broadening experience, not to change
the world. He says he doesn’t believe in peace camps. His own
experience has imbued deep wariness. His father, a Jewish tailor,
was expelled penniless from Iraq. Rami grew up knowing hunger.
Fighting for Israel against Egypt in 1968, he lost his right arm.
He looked ahead to the Mideast he figures his daughter will face
in two decades, and said sadly: “There will be fighting. Small
wars.” The only question, he said, is whether a nuclear bomb
destroys everything.

At school, Meidan and Zhalka are regarded at best as dreamers.
At worst, their siblings, friends and neighbors accused them of

Zhalka’s older sister Ann, 20, “doesn’t like that I have a
Jewish friend,” she said. Ann and her other sisters warn that
hanging out with Jews could corrupt her, lead her into forbidden
behavior such as drinking beer. “And my sisters think that,
because I have a Jewish friend, maybe I won’t talk to my Arab

Palestinians pushed Zhalka to reconsider what she’s doing.
One girl said: “Maybe her father would kill your father. How can
you be friends?”

Jewish boys at Meidan’s school told her “Arabs are bad.”

“I feel so alone,” Meidan said.

Now the girls idealize Colorado – Meidan remembered it as
“this special warm place full of love and happiness.” They long to
return to camp next summer.

In Colorado, nobody asked for identification, Zhalka
marveled. “It felt great. And I found myself. Before, I didn’t
know for what I was living. I wanted another goal, not just to
study and be someone. I want to live so that, after I die, people
will say: “She changed something.'”

And in Colorado, the girls can get together – something that’s
nearly impossible here. In Israel, Jewish and Palestinian
communities mostly are segregated, similar to apartheid-era living
that split people racially in South Africa.

The girls’ parents say meeting face-to-face is too dangerous.

Fighting once concentrated in Gaza and the Palestinian West
Bank territories – where 3.1 million Palestinians reside –
threatens to spread closer to the girls’ homes. As the killing
continues, Israelis increasingly question the allegiance of the 1
million Arab-Palestinians living outside the West Bank in Israel.

Riots against Israeli killing recently erupted in
Palestinian-Israeli towns including Zhalka’s home, Kfar Qara.

In early November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat still were refusing to talk.
Bloodshed was increasing daily. Fighting escalated toward all-out
guerilla combat.

Meidan and Zhalka resolved that their relationship also had to
take a new course.

They launched an offensive of their own.

Their mothers immediately said no.

The girls persisted.

They proposed a meeting in Hadera – a Jewish coastal city
between their homes.

On a sunny afternoon, Meidan called Zhalka to say even that
was refused, but promised she’d keep pressing anyway. Zhalka then
sat with her father on the porch overlooking the hillsides where
olive trees were heavy with fruit.

Just then, the phone rang again – Meidan with a breakthrough.

“OK!” Zhalka reported to her father. “We will meet in Hadera!
Her mother agreed to meet in Hadera. She said her mother asked her
why Moran can’t come here. And she told her mother: “The same
reason you don’t let me go there.’ OK!”

Her father’s face furrowed. How would Moran get to the bus
depot in Hadera? His car was broken. Taxis wouldn’t go to Kfar
Qara. Israeli soldiers were shaking down Arabs everywhere.

Zhalka begged. Finally, Ali Zhalka got up and hastily
arranged to borrow a car.

Off they went to Hadera’s bus depot.

And they saw the flashing police lights and soldiers. Ali
drove past them, pulled over. Moran got out. That’s when Meidan
saw her and ran.

After they hugged, the girls climbed into the back of the
borrowed car.

Ali Zhalka felt tears in his eyes as, in the rearview mirror,
he saw the girls happily sitting together talking.

“When you see something like that, you hate this conflict,”
he said. “You hate everything that would keep two girls who want
to be friends apart.”

He drove the girls to the Odd Cafe on Hadera’s main street.
Meidan had an hour. He waited nearby while the girls sat at a
table and ordered two cups of hot chocolate.

While machine guns crackled across the West Bank and Gaza,
they sipped and talked.

While Arafat and Barak stayed deadlocked, the girls made new
plans. Swim together. Go for a walk on the beach. Eat pizza
together. Attend a concert.

While military commanders honed strategies for stepped-up
action, the girls honed a strategy too. Soon, they vowed, they
will visit each other’s homes.