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A Companion Called Hate Has Torn Their Worlds Apart

Tel Aviv: Lely Stadler speaks Arabic but can't see having a Palestinian friend -- not after the bombings.

August 01, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — 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.


TEL AVIV -- Lely Stadler flips the pages of a well-thumbed copybook filled with curving handwritten Arabic script, searching for the vocabulary words she plans to review before starting eighth-grade classes in September. Arabic, she says, is her favorite subject.

But despite her consuming interest in the language, Lely -- a lively and precocious Israeli girl, only days shy of her 13th birthday -- does not have a single Palestinian friend, and doesn't think she wants one.

"Of course not all Arabs are bad," she says, turning now to her computer. She likes to play at least one game before breakfast -- a beginning, an ending, a small dose of electronic certainty -- even before changing out of the faded Betty Boop T-shirt she sleeps in.

"But I hate the ones who are bad," she continues, with a single swift upward glance. "The ones who attack us. Who always attack us."

For a child like Lely, hovering on the cusp of adolescence as her country charts an uncertain course between war and peace, the notion of real friendship between Jews and Arabs isn't so much undesirable as simply unimaginable.

Violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over the last 34 months has consumed nearly a quarter of Lely's life. Both before and during the intifada, her home city of Tel Aviv has been hit repeatedly by suicide bombings. Lely was born only months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and her mother nursed her in the family's "sealed room," where they huddled nightly during weeks of Iraqi Scud missile attacks aimed at Tel Aviv.

"God knows how it all affected her," murmurs her mother, Razia, whose own father's family suffered deaths in the Holocaust.

On a hazy summer's day, in the light-filled rooftop apartment in the heart of the city where Lely lives with her engineer father, her mother and two sisters -- one older, one younger -- the conflict could hardly seem more distant.

Lely's room is an eclectic clutter of kid stuff and teen gear -- the computer, of course; a Harry Potter book by the bedside; a Mickey Mouse trash can; a curtain of plastic beads in the doorway; the trumpet she plays in the school band.

With shiny, waist-length brown hair and snapping brown eyes, Lely is pretty and funny and smart.

Born in Tel Aviv, she attends a magnet school for the arts, has an e-mail pen pal in her father's native Argentina with whom she corresponds in Spanish, and speaks nearly perfect English as well.

Like many kids her age, she has a way of veering between dreaminess and classic teen-age disdain. "Annoying" is one of her favorite words, which she sometimes uses to connote mere irritation, and sometimes to talk about things that frighten her, or upset her in ways she cannot explain.

On this day, Lely is counting up the money she'd earned baby-sitting the week before -- 74 shekels, or about $16. In triumph, she telephones her best friend, Sahar Kaplan.

"We can go shopping," she informed her. "I've got a lot of money."

Done up like pint-size young adults in hip-grazing jeans and teetering platform shoes, the two of them head for Tel Aviv's trendiest shopping area, Sheinkin Street. They stop at a fresh-juice bar, buy a pair of inexpensive earrings at a boutique called Moonstone, sign an environmental group's petition to clean up the country's beaches. Lely considers a henna tattoo for her shoulder blade.

"It's just temporary, not a real one," she says. "Are you kidding? My mom would kill me."

It's a life that appears to overflow with privilege, but one that is also constricted by very real fears.

Lely isn't allowed to take buses -- after all, they might be blown up. An armed security guard watches over her school. She wants to go to a pop concert that evening on the beach. But even in these days of relative calm, crowds are a potential target, and she thinks her parents won't allow it.

"Which is very annoying," she says imperiously. But then she adds: "I worry a lot if my big sister ever comes home late, though."

Lely idolizes her older sister Nufar, who at nearly 16 is only two years away from her mandatory service in the Israeli army. She's also close to her little sister Nur, who is 8.

Lely was younger than Nur is now when she first became aware of what adults around her called "the situation" -- the conflict with the Palestinians. In between discussing music (she likes Avril Lavigne and 50 Cent) and boys ("The ones my age are very stupid. They're not at all mature") she remembers that day.

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