EREZ, Gaza Strip — For the last six months, Lt. Oren Amit of the Israel Defense Forces and Capt. Hassan Ali of the Palestinian security police had worked together, attempting to build trust on the divide that separates Israel and the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.
In two-car convoys several times a day, they would patrol a quiet stretch of road. Nothing much would happen, but the idea was to send a message of cooperation to Israelis and Palestinians.
Ali, a 34-year-old veteran of the Palestinian wars in Lebanon, would share his hummus and cheese with the fresh-faced, 20-year-old Israeli. Amit would provide the ice for the water they drank. Using a combination of Hebrew, Arabic and English, they were able to trade news about their families around a makeshift table under a canvas awning.
All that changed last Thursday after demonstrations by Palestinians, enraged by Israel's opening of a tunnel near holy places in Jerusalem, turned into a gun battle here and elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, Israel and the West Bank. At least 75 people have been killed, including Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police.
On Wednesday, Amit and Ali were back together performing joint patrols for the first time since that horrific spasm. But the feeling of trust was gone.
For the most part, they avoided each other's glances, keeping to themselves. But when reporters asked them to relate what had happened, they were soon quarreling over who was to blame.
Ali shook his rifle to make a point. Amit hefted a stone. It was an eerie reminder of the all-too-recent bloodshed and how quickly friendship can turn murderous in the Middle East.
Joint military patrols in Gaza and the West Bank had been in effect for the last two years as part of the accords between Israelis and Palestinians. The patrols go out in two separate vehicles, each carrying four soldiers and flying an orange pennant designed to represent neutrality.
It is one of the rare opportunities for Palestinian and Israeli soldiers to bridge the separate worlds they inhabit and get to know each other personally. But their separate loyalties remain, as was clear when Amit and two other Israeli soldiers began telling reporters about the fighting last week.
As the Israelis told it, they were set upon by a mob throwing rocks. They used tear gas and rubber bullets at first, they said, but when gunfire came from the Palestinian side, they reluctantly shot at the people who were attacking them.
"Our head commander tried as hard as he could to stop our soldiers from shooting at the Palestinian crowd," said Israeli Sgt. Avi Chen. "Then things got worse and worse and there wasn't any option--it was kill or be killed."
At the height of the fighting, he said, Israelis were being fired on by Palestinian officers whom they knew by name. "We were not ready for this kind of fight," he said. "We were ready for intifada riots, not for riots with real bullets."
Another Israeli, Sgt. Moshe Guri, pointed to a chunk of concrete block lying on the ground and said the Palestinians were throwing rocks that size.
That remark was too much for Ali, who had been listening in silence. Just try to throw something that size, he responded angrily.
The soldier picked it up and hurled the heavy piece as far as he could--only about 15 feet. Ali laughed. Then Amit picked up another rock--a smooth, fist-sized stone this time. "This one could kill somebody easily," he declared.
He asked Ali what he would have done if he had seen 500 people marching toward him with rocks and Molotov cocktails. How would he have stopped them to save his life? Ali didn't try to answer, but he questioned whether the Israelis were really in mortal danger in the first place.
"They were inside the camp and well protected, and we were trying to explain to the people that they should go home," the Palestinian officer said. "Then two of our police were shot in the back."
Of course, the Palestinian police did shoot guns, he admitted. "But this was after the shooting from the Israelis."
Guri broke in. "When people attack us, we have to react," he said. "And next time, the answer will be different. It will be tougher. The Israeli army will not let any of its soldiers get killed."
"Don't try to frighten people," Ali warned, shaking his rifle in Guri's direction. "We can do a lot of things with a Kalashnikov [automatic rifle]."
For a moment, tension hung in the air. But then the men agreed that co-existence was their goal. "'We are obligated to work together, and our feelings cannot interfere," Ali said.
Re-creating their friendship, though, may be more difficult.
"Somewhere in my heart, I hope we can still be friends," Amit said.
Responded Ali: "If God wills."