Unlikely friendship blossoms across front lines in Israel and Gaza

  • Article by: GRIFF WITTE and WILLIAM BOOTH , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 9:57 PM

Though they can’t cross between Israel and Gaza to visit each other, they talk and text every day.

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Roni Keidar sat in her back yard in Netiv Ha’asara, Israel. She keeps in constant contact with her Palestinian friend Maha.

Photo: Griff Witte • Washington Post,

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– When the rockets start falling and fighter jets buzz the skies, Roni Keidar and Maha Mehanna know they can lean on one another for comfort.

They are neighbors and close friends, and they call and text throughout the day and late into the night, checking to be sure the other has survived the latest round of fire between Israel and Hamas.

But despite sharing a war zone — and all the horror and fear that goes with it — they can’t visit now. Keidar is Jewish and lives in a small farming community in southern Israel. Mehanna is Palestinian and lives in the sprawl of Gaza City.

In one telephone call Saturday, a loud boom could be heard on the line, so close the two were not sure on which side of the border fence the explosive had fallen. “I think it’s your side,” Mehanna told her Israeli friend. “Hitting our side?”

Keidar paused a moment. “Yes,” she said. “I think you’re right.”

Theirs is a rare, almost impossible, friendship. Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza are more isolated from each other than ever before, and that has made the wartime bond between Keidar and Mehanna a subject of curiosity, scorn, suspicion and no small measure of amazement.

To some Israelis who have heard her voice on Israel’s news broadcasts, Mehanna is the face of Gaza — except that she remains faceless. In an interview Saturday, she agreed to speak openly about her friendship with Keidar and her views of the conflict, but she declined to allow photographs or video that might be circulated on the Internet. “I will speak from my heart, but these days are dangerous,” she said.

Keidar faces no such threat but still must contend with questions about how she can befriend the enemy.

“My daughter lost her best friend to a Qassam attack,” Keidar said Saturday above the incessant beep of a cellphone app that sends out alerts each time a rocket is on its way. “She’ll say, ‘Mom, I’m proud of what you’re doing, but I’m just not there.’ ”

Nor are many Israelis, especially after five days of nonstop fire that have, if anything, only intensified calls within Israel for a ground assault aimed at routing Hamas, the Islamist militant organization that governs Gaza.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to call for a cease-fire, but both sides have brushed off the pleas. Israel escalated its air assault Saturday, raising the death toll in Gaza to 151, including many women and children. Over 960 people have been wounded, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

An airstrike by Israel leveled one of the oldest mosques in central Gaza, which the Israeli military alleges was being used to store rockets.

Israel said 18 Israelis were injured by rocket fire Saturday, including several people who were treated for shock. More than 85 rockets were fired toward Israel, though many were knocked down by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Israel reported rocket fire from across its northern border with Lebanon late Saturday night and responded with artillery fire.

Keidar, who describes herself as a proud Zionist, has lived in a cooperative farming community on a leafy bluff about 800 yards from the Gaza border for more than 30 years. For much of that time, Keidar could travel freely to the occupied Gaza Strip — she learned to drive there — and Palestinians ventured to Israel to work the farms, including one run by Keidar’s husband, Ovadia.

But recent years have brought little but separation and war. As an Israeli, Keidar is now forbidden from visiting Gaza. Mehanna can only come to Israel with a special waiver to get medical treatment for her nephews, who suffer from a rare immune disorder.

It was on one such trip three years ago that Mehanna met Keidar, who was escorting Palestinians as part of her volunteer work with Other Voice, an organization that promotes Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

The two hit it off and have maintained their friendship through many rounds of fighting. They’ve bonded over their shared fate: to live with the constant threat of death from above.

They talk several times a day and exchange a constant stream of text messages — particularly when the fighting is at its most intense.

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