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."