Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
August 12, 2010 - 12:00am

A sweltering June day at Reagan National Airport. Mariam Ashour walks to the parking lot, "freaking out in my mind," looking for someone she has never met. Noam Rabinovich sits in a car, trying to identify Ashour, with whom she has exchanged only a few messages on Facebook.

As they approach each other, something strange happens, something neither can fully explain.

They hug.

"I don't want to over-dramatize the moment, but time stopped for a second," Ashour said later. "To me it was, like, 'Wow.' I was very happy."

Rabinovich added, "It wasn't a conscious decision, just an instinct, which is very uncharacteristic of me, really."

Two interns, Israeli and Palestinian. For six weeks, they would live together in the District, courtesy of a nascent, shoestring operation called New Story Leadership for the Middle East. New Story, an offshoot of a group that brought together Protestant and Catholic youths during the conflict in Northern Ireland, sent 10 Israeli and Palestinian interns to Washington to see whether the idea of pairing youths from opposing sides could be replicated.

Rabinovich, an Israeli, would work for a Palestinian advocacy group. Ashour, a Palestinian, would work for a pro-Israel peace group. As four-day-a-week interns, they would do research, meet foreign-policy experts and do typical internship grunt work. And, together, they also would develop a plan for the organizations to contain increasing Jewish-Arab tensions on U.S. college campuses.

In their own way, the two interns would try to bridge a divide spawned by a never-ending conflict. For both women, the hug was a sign of determination, a shedding of doubt. But by summer's end, some doubts would return.

In the Middle East, their childhood homes are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well have grown up on different continents. For 20-year-old Ashour, whose family lives in Gaza, Rabinovich is the first Israeli to whom she has ever spoken who wasn't standing at a checkpoint or holding a gun.

Rabinovich, 26, spent nearly three years in the Israel Defense Forces, becoming an officer who commanded two mobile radar units on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip. She looked at Ashour: "My job was to make sure no one from your side comes to my side."
Changing a narrative

The basic fabric of our lives is stories and narratives, some handed down from parents and grandparents, others developed from personal experiences. The way a person looks at life -- and others -- is the product of those stories. But sometimes the narrative can be altered in unexpected ways, as Rabinovich and Ashour can attest.

Rabinovich spent the first nine years of her life on a kibbutz founded by her grandparents in 1938 -- before there was a state of Israel -- and then spent much of her teenage years in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. She was in Hong Kong when she met her first Palestinian.

His name was Khalil, and they both attended an international high school there 10 years ago. They were friendly but didn't talk about the conflict. "There were no big dramatic moments of discovery, no heated arguments, no struggles with emotion," she said. "I felt exactly the same."

But when Rabinovich returned home, she realized something had changed. "Whenever I turned on the TV, opened the newspaper, listened to the radio, there was a story about Hebron," in the West Bank, she recalled. "Raids, riots, curfews, gunfights. I thought, 'What a coincidence, that right after I meet someone from Hebron, it becomes such a hot topic.' "

Rabinovich stops. She smiles. She loves telling this story, which is now a central narrative of her young life.

"Then I realized that Hebron was always on the news," she said. "Nothing had changed there. It was me that was different."

Israelis, she says, can very easily tune out the conflict with the Palestinians, because it is so ever-present that "it's like elevator music." Palestinians are nameless, faceless -- nothing. She didn't care about them. But now the Palestinians had a name and a face, and she had even studied for a math exam with him. Now she found she cared.
'Right of return'

In July, more than midway through Ashour's internship at Americans for Peace Now, something bothered her. It was an offhand comment that Rabinovich had made: "The right of return scares the hell out of me." She wondered what her roommate had meant by that.

Here's an Ashour family story: Her father's parents lived in Ashkelon in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared, and they fled to Gaza with the Egyptian army. Some years later, her grandparents visited their old home, knocked on the door and discovered a Jewish family living there. Her grandmother, the story goes, was so upset she had a miscarriage.

The population of Ashkelon in 1948: 11,000. Today, more than 100,000 Israelis live there.

The Palestinian claim to a "right of return" -- to retrieve those lost homes -- does not mean much to Ashour. She does not expect to go back to Israel. And yet, she pauses, turning Rabinovich's comment over in her head.

Ashour was born in Bulgaria to a Palestinian father and Russian mother. Her father, a psychiatrist who nearly three decades ago fought for the Palestine Liberation Organization, moved the family back to Gaza when she was 5 because peace was in the air and jobs were plentiful. Her first memory is of crossing the Israeli checkpoint into Gaza.

In 2000, when she was in sixth grade, the second intifada started and she heard her first Israeli bomb. She recounts a litany: One of her second cousins was killed, along with his father, by supposedly errant Israeli bombs; a close friend was shot and paralyzed when, he claimed, he watched children throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers; a neighbor's house was bombed because of alleged links to a suicide bomber.

The militant group Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and the family was trapped. Ashour's younger brother doesn't know anything but life in Gaza; her mother feels compelled to cover her head now.

"I can now tell when the bomb is going to drop," Ashour said. "I don't know how to explain it. But when you see the planes and there's a sound, you just know."

Even during the internship, there were reminders of the sounds of Gaza. "I had a very uneasy feeling at the Fourth of July fireworks," she said. "It was beautiful and all, but I was literally crying. I was there with the Israelis, and I was so ashamed."

Ashour, a student at Columbia (S.C.) College, had achieved some celebrity in 2007 when she missed much of her first year of college because Israel wouldn't let her leave Gaza to obtain her visa. She appeared on CNN and was mentioned in a Human Rights Watch report; eventually, the Israeli government relented.

"People ask me how I feel about Israelis. I don't feel anything," she said. "My only knowledge of Israelis was bombings, checkpoints and not being able to come to school."

Ashour applied for the internship because "it was now or never" to finally meet an Israeli. But at times the experience is overwhelming. One of the male Israeli interns bluntly told her that the average Israeli wouldn't care what she thinks. An unremarkable statement perhaps -- that's how Rabinovich felt before she met Khalil -- but Ashour says she went home and cried.

"I thought, 'The next time there is a war, he would just kill me,' " Ashour said.
Routine violence

Rabinovich, who is studying international relations at City University of London, sketches political cartoons. One striking one she made during last year's Gaza war shows a dark-haired young woman -- much like herself -- with her eyes closed and head in her hands, facing a blank sheet of paper. Two crumpled stacks of paper are next to her. One stack is labeled, "Things I feel but don't know how to say." The other is marked, "Things I feel but shouldn't say."

In June, Israeli commandos killed nine activists on an aid ship headed toward Gaza. Rabinovich posted a note on her Facebook page -- something she felt but probably shouldn't have said:

"Angered, ashamed, disappointed, confused. But not shocked. Another routine day and another typical move by a government that seems bent out of shape to isolate us, alienate the world, stick its head in the sand while waving a blood-stained white flag in one hand and a gun in the other."

Her Facebook page was flooded with comments. "The Israelis were so disappointed at my disappointment," she said. "One of my uncles wrote in Hebrew, 'This is your family, this is your country.' "

Rabinovich was so ashamed of her country that she told people she was from the United States. A year spent in Arizona when she was 14 has given her the accent of a well-traveled American.

Paradoxically, she said, the weeks as an intern at the American Task Force on Palestine have made her feel more Israeli. She realizes her first reaction to anything she hears or learns is from the Israeli perspective.

Ashour notices the same thing from working at Americans for Peace Now. She had not known anything about Israeli politics before; there was rarely any news about Israel in Gaza. But as she learns more, she said, she begins to feel more Palestinian.

"Being there helped me with my own identity," she said. "In Gaza I felt like a nothing, an object. Now I believe it is okay for me to be a Palestinian."
'Let's have peace'

One night in July, the 10 Israeli and Palestinian interns have a raw, open discussion. One of the Israelis says something that really surprises Ashour -- that all Palestinians gave him the sense that they were trying to make him feel guilty.

"I never thought of it that way," Ashour said later. "Now I pay attention to how I phrase things. It was a reason for a big barrier in conversation."

Last week, over a dinner of hamburgers and Rabinovich's couscous salad at the Chevy Chase home of Martha Dickey and Jay Goldbloom, where the women have stayed during the internship, Rabinovich said she has trouble knowing what she really thinks about the conflict. When she expressed her fears about the Palestinian right of return, "Is it because I am personally afraid or because I live in a country that is terrified of the right of return? Is this what I really think or what I was taught to think?"

Rabinovich said she wants to be realistic, that people can't simply say they are against war and there will be peace. Ashour laughed, and said that's the difference between them: "I just want to say, 'Let's have peace and hold hands.' "

With the internship ended, the two women see their future in the Middle East differently.

When she graduates in a year from her London program, Rabinovich is going back. "I'm an Israeli, and my first immediate concern is with Israel. Maybe it is time to go back and see what good can be done. The question is what. . . . I want to figure that out."

Ashour said she doesn't want to return to Gaza. "For now, I don't think I can contribute to society and to the situation there," she said. "I feel guilty because my family is there and they are stuck. But there is nothing. What can I do there?"


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017