Elana Goldstein, 18, went to Israel last month for what's called a "birthright trip": a subsidized visit available to anyone with at least one Jewish parent.
She was greeted with air-raid sirens and exploding rockets.
Another Central Florida woman, Natalie, 23, traveled with her mother to visit relatives in the West Bank. She was surprised to see the greatly expanded Jewish settlements and saddened by what she saw as a lack of basic human rights endured by Palestinians in the area. She, too, was never far from the gunshots and explosions.
Both young women — Elana an Oviedo High graduate on her way to University of Florida, and Natalie a hairstylist and University of Central Florida student — shared their opinions about the latest violence in Gaza, which has killed more than 1,600 Palestinians, more than 60 Israeli soldiers and three people in Israel from rocket and mortar fire.
As in past bloody clashes in this war-torn region, the most recent eruption has galvanized both sides, confounded diplomats throughout the world and left little hope for anything close to a lasting peaceful resolution.
Passions have run high in Central Florida as well. In recent weeks, hundreds of people gathered at Maitland's Jewish Community Center to hear an Israeli diplomat discuss his country's response to Hamas rocket attacks. Two days later, hundreds of Palestinian supporters gathered at Lake Eola to condemn Israel's incursion, which started weeks after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
The pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Orlando blamed Israel for killing scores of innocent civilians in Gaza, where 1.8 million people live in an area of only 139 square miles. Israel's supporters saw a much different picture, insisting that the country's sole aim has been to stop Hamas rocket attacks and to destroy the sophisticated tunnels through which the Islamist militants move men and weapons.
For Elana and Natalie — two Americans with different backgrounds and perspectives — these unyielding positions became much more personal during their visits to the region.
Natalie's parents are Palestinian Christians from the West Bank town of Ramallah who immigrated to the United States before she was born. She asked that her last name not be used because she fears Israeli authorities could bar her from visiting the area again. She traveled with her mother to visit relatives and attend a gathering of about 2,000 Palestinian-American Christians with ancestral roots in Ramallah.
Elana was among a group of 39 young Jewish adults from across the U.S. who set out to gain a greater appreciation of their roots by exploring Israel, and being immersed in Jewish and Israeli culture.
Elana left for Israel on July 7 — a day before the country launched its operation in Gaza — with no idea what she was getting into.
"I knew the three boys were kidnapped," she said. "I knew that might turn into something, but I didn't think it would be a full-blown war."
A few days into her trip, while in Jerusalem, she heard the first siren warning of a possible incoming rocket.
"We were in a five-star hotel, and we ran into a bomb shelter," she recalled, adding that the group had to remain there for only about 10 minutes. "The rocket didn't come close."
But trip organizers were worried enough to cancel a visit to Tel Aviv, opting instead to head to the city of Eilat, far south of the danger zone. Or so they thought.
After a night out, Elana and some friends were in one of their hotel rooms when they again heard a siren wail.
"I was running for the staircase toward the bomb shelter, and I heard a loud boom," she said. "The rocket hit two blocks from our hotel. It set cars on fire and shattered a window in my hotel."
Members of the group stayed in the hotel's shelter for about two hours before being allowed to return to their rooms.
"It was ironic because we thought we'd be safe," she said. "The rocket didn't come from Gaza; it came from Sinai, which is in Egypt. There's a lot of trouble coming from different directions."
During a stop in the Golan Heights, the group heard the sounds of explosions from the civil war in neighboring Syria. And during a trip to the Negev Desert, the group's members had to leave the Bedouin tents they were staying in to seek shelter when warning sirens went off again.
"We had to run for cover behind a cement wall around the bathrooms," she said. Fortunately, nothing happened, and they were able to return to their tents after about a half-hour.
Natalie arrived in Israel in early June, well before the start of hostilities. She was immediately sent to a special area for extra security screening.
"We jokingly call it the Arab VIP section," she said.
While staying in the West Bank, she noticed that Jewish settlements had grown tremendously since she last visited the area as a child.
And despite being an American citizen, Natalie said she felt unwelcome because of her Arab heritage.
She was saddened to see the daily difficulties encountered by her relatives who still live on the West Bank — such as the "humiliating" experience of passing through Israeli checkpoints, having to take circuitous routes because of the security barrier that separates the two peoples, and the difficulty of finding necessary goods such as shoes.
Natalie said she in no way supports Hamas or the firing of rockets at Israel, but she understands the anger and frustration that many Palestinians feel living under occupation.
"You are denied the most basic human rights," she said. As an American, she added, she was able to visit sites that her Palestinian kin could not.
A few weeks into her visit, violence flared.
"Rockets would come over from Gaza, and they would get intercepted by the Iron Dome, and we would hear that 'kaboom,'" she said, referring to Israel's anti-rocket defense system.
"One night we woke up at 3 a.m. to gunshots," she added. "It was Israeli troops searching for the three kidnapped boys."
Like Elana, Natalie said there's an odd sense of normalcy despite the violence.
"There are rockets going off in the air, and people are driving around in the streets — they're at cafes.
"What a sad way to learn how to live," she said. "What a horrible thing to adapt to."
Natalie thinks most Americans are sheltered from the reality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
"There's a lot of propaganda on the Internet," she said, "but there's a lot of stuff that's 100 percent true."
For Elana, the trip left her with a deep appreciation for Israel's beauty, a stronger sense of her Jewish identity and a deep belief in the need for Israel to survive and defend itself.
She's deeply offended by those who compare Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis' treatment of Jews during World War II.
"Hitler's mission was to kill all the Jews," she said. "Israel just wants to protect their own citizens."
She also points out that Hamas seems to have little interest in safeguarding Gaza's population.
"Hamas isn't protecting their citizens at all," she said. "Hamas will put bombs in civilian areas. Israel would never allow that."
Natalie described her trip overall as "a sad experience," although it did make her reflect on her rights and freedoms back home in the U.S.
"Here, if someone says something to you, you can say something back," she said. "Over there, you're worried you'll get arrested."
She's eager for the opportunity to tell people about what she saw and felt on the Palestinian side of the wall.
"You feel the oppression, you really do," she said.
Natalie, who hadn't been to Israel in nine years, isn't sure when she'll go back.
Depending on the security situation, Elana would like to make a return trip next summer.
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