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A Companion Called Hate Has Torn Their Worlds Apart

Ramallah: Sami Najjar's family once had Jews as friends. Now, he says, 'I look at them as the enemy.'

August 01, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In some ways, 12-year-old Lely and 13-year-old Sami are mirror images. She is Israeli; he is Palestinian. They live an hour apart -- she in Tel Aviv, he in Ramallah. Both are privileged, middle-class children, raised by educated, worldly parents, and both have been marked by nearly three years of unrelenting conflict. The Times spent a day with them to see how their worlds have been shaped by the fighting -- and by the prospects for peace.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Morning came in cool winds and white sunlight, and Sami Najjar slipped from his sheets to fix himself a cheese sandwich, thick for strength. The shadows were still long; his mountain bike waited downstairs.

The silver 21-speed with rusting spokes is everything to 13-year-old Sami -- the edges of his universe are traced by its path. All summer long, the boys have clattered off at daylight and panted home at sunset. On Thursday they had a plan: They'd go to the edge of town, farther than Sami had ever ridden.

Even though gunfire in the street rattled Sami awake the night before, his mother has declared the intifada over. That means that, for the first time in nearly three years, Sami and his sister can leave the neighborhood without worrying, too much, that the town will become a war zone and that they will be stranded in the streets when Israeli soldiers impose a curfew.

By the time Sami got to the curb, Tamer Salen, a longtime friend whose curls were frozen stiff with styling gel, was ready. Together they waited for a third boy. Sami slipped a salmon pink mobile phone from his pocket, glanced up and down the street and glared.

"Nobody keeps appointments," he said, dialing. "We've been waiting for an hour!" he groused into the phone; in fact, it had been five minutes.

A boy with dimpled cheeks and limbs so lanky he resembles a colt, Sami is wealthier, and more Westernized, than most Palestinians. He and his friends sport slumped Tommy Hilfiger jeans and spray Boss cologne onto their necks. Sami is the proud proprietor of a single cigar, which he is allowed to admire, but not to smoke. He has Nike sneakers, a poster of Britney Spears alongside his computer and a thick silver bracelet with his initials engraved in English -- "It's prettier than Arabic," Sami said.

Sami wasn't raised to hate Jews -- but he does. His father works as a technician in an Israeli hospital; his mother is a banker. They went to dinner parties with Jewish friends when Sami was younger. Those were the heady days of the Oslo peace accords, when fashionable Israelis danced in Ramallah's jazz clubs and well-heeled Palestinians frolicked on Herzliya beaches.

Those days are long gone. Sami's family barely talks to the old Jewish friends anymore; Sami's mother admits that she has come to "hate them." Her son has lived his short life just a few minutes' drive from the Jewish state, but it might as well be the other side of the ocean.

"They all have guns. They're all soldiers and settlers," Sami said. "We used to think they were just people, like us, but now I look at them as the enemy."

From school, television and conversation, he has come to regard the Israelis as invaders who have come from around the world to swell the ranks of a nation at the expense of the Palestinians. "They take our things, our homes, our trees. They steal our land and our history, and then they tell their children it's their house, their tree.

"They think it's their land. They want to take it from us. And they think we're the problem! We believe it's our land. It's going nowhere."

Sami thinks suicide bombings are a fine idea. "Because it scares them," he said. "Anyway, we don't kill that many of them -- they kill many more of us."

If his parents struggle with nuanced political dilemmas, Sami's view is uncomplicated. "They're one thing," he said, "and we're something else."

On the dizzying hills of Ramallah his friends are fast, but Sami is the fastest. The streets swam past -- cliff, house, pavement, mosque. The boys rode to the city's edge, scanned the shaded rocks for snakes and sat down in an olive grove. The arrival was a long-awaited feat, but what next? Sami, ever restless, leaped back to his feet. "Come on -- you want to stay forever?"

"There isn't very much for them, they don't even have nice things to think about," Sami's mother would say later. "They are trying very hard to make the best of things, but they are growing up too fast."

By "things," she meant that Sami and his friends have spent the latter part of their childhood hemmed into their neighborhoods by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank -- that they have been frightened by fighting so often that fear has been braided into their characters, and that their world has shrunk dramatically. To pass the long summer days, the boys make kites and play computer games. They prowl alleys and orchards. They watch James Bond films. The mobile phones are more than a luxury -- their parents are nervous every time they walk out the door.

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