Amit sat next to me on the bus. He and six other Israeli soldiers had just joined our group of 37 young American Jews for the last few days of our educational tour of Israel. Our guide called this our mifgash, or encounter – our chance to know Israelis, and vice versa. Amit impressed me immediately with his easy carriage, bright perceptive eyes, and kind face. Of the seven soldiers, only he had seen recent combat in Gaza.
Out the bus windows the sun melted into sunset over the expansive Negev desert. I asked him about Gaza. He described how, not two weeks earlier, he marched across the heart of the Strip, coming within 400 meters of the sea. He described a woman running from a building with a child strapped to her front so she could get as close as possible to his comrades before blowing up herself and her child.
"Did you kill anyone?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, and paused, "But it's not like I looked them in the face. We were all ... shooting."
The first stars appeared outside.
"How has that – killing – affected you?" I asked.
"I can't sleep. I keep waking up all night. When I close my eyes I see things. It's terrible. No one wants killing. No one wants war."
We let it rest. He pulled out his MP3 player and shared Israeli pop with me, each of us listening out of one earpiece.
Four days later, amid the bustle as our bus prepared to leave for the airport, Amit pulled me aside. He handed me his blue muscle shirt with the name of his special forces unit in Hebrew over the left chest. "Put it on," he encouraged. Israeli military tradition dictates that the bestower of an initiating honor, such as a shirt or pin, punch the initiated in the chest. We smiled at each other and he socked me back into the glass wall. We hugged goodbye.
In a divided Holy Land, where every side has its mirrored image, this was not the end of the story.
The bus dropped me off, not at the airport, but in downtown Jerusalem where I planned to extend my visit. Five nights later, the same day that George Mitchell visited Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and violence had just reignited in Gaza, I – a Jew – ate dinner in the home of a Palestinian stranger in the middle of Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Every authority on the tour had warned me against entering Palestinian neighborhoods. Amit insisted that were I to enter East Jerusalem I would be kidnapped or stoned to death.
My friend Amy had also stayed in Jerusalem after the tour. In a coffee shop in the Old City's Muslim Quarter, a bespectacled Palestinian man in a black pinstripe suit had struck up a conversation with her. Very friendly, he invited Amy to dinner and drinks the following night at East Jerusalem's Jerusalem Hotel, and she invited me.
Anan struck me at once as charismatic and appealing. He ordered a generous platter of lamb, chicken, and accoutrements to share. Conversation flowed easily from war to family to relationships. Born and raised in East Jerusalem, Anan married (and since divorced) a Swedish woman and has lived in Sweden for more than 15 years where he runs a successful international business. At the end of the night he paid the bill and invited Amy and me to his home two days later for maqlubbeh, or "upside down," a classic Palestinian dinner, prepared by his mother.
As Amy and I walked back to the Old City, we wondered "What's the catch?" I was worried. The Jerusalem Hotel is a public place near the Old City walls. Meeting there was very different from letting a Palestinian man take two Jews by taxi to his private residence in the middle of East Jerusalem, where my tour guide and soldier friends said I could be killed. But I did not believe them, and I cautiously allowed my instincts and faith in human nature to win.
The night came. Amy and I sat in Anan's living room while his mother carried out a massive platter of maqlubbeh: elaborately cooked (and delicious!) chicken, rice, and vegetables. Many of his adorable 32 nieces and nephews ran around, grinning wide-eyed at me. We talked with Anan's brother who had been beaten and jailed by Israeli soldiers at 14 during the first intifada. Anan described how his mother cried every night these past weeks watching the TV images of dying women and children in Gaza.
"No one wants war," he said. "We're so tired. Both sides, we're so tired."
He took me to the roof and we watched a sliver of moon shine over Jerusalem. He showed me the shell of a building where he wanted to build a school. He talked about expanding his family's home into nice villas, someday.
Mostly, though, in his pained eyes, just like Amit, he dreamt of peace.