Two women, divided by war, united in fear

'When it's your children or theirs, it's better that it's theirs'
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Whether or not Condoleezza Rice's arrival in the Middle East marks the first stage of a peace process, it is unlikely to bring Madonna Baradhi, a Christian Arab living in southern Lebanon, and Lilach Ben Itzhak, a Jew living in northern Israel, closer together.

Even the "new Middle East" Ms Rice says she wants to emerge after Israel's assault on its northern neighbour is unlikely to see the reopening of the heavily militarised border which has closed off the two countries from each other for almost 60 years.

And yet in other circumstances it would be easy to imagine Ms Baradhi, 46, and Mrs Ben Itzhak, 35, becoming firm friends. Both are modern working women and daughters of businessmen. Both live nearer to each other than to their friends and family in Beirut or Tel Aviv. Both are justly proud of the fine views of the same stretch of the eastern Mediterranean from their homes. And both yearn for a lasting peace that still seems as distant a prospect as ever.

There is an even more striking similarity between Ms Baradhi, who serves iced rose water on her balcony in Tyre as Israeli jets prepare for another attack, and Mrs Ben Itzhak, who, 33 miles down the coast in Haifa, serves Coca-Cola on her balcony in a break between the sirens sounding Katyusha alerts. What they have in common is the lack of animosity of either woman to the race and national identity of the other.

Mrs Ben Itzhak speaks warmly of her Muslim Israeli Arab neighbours, whose mosque she can see from the balcony and who, she insists, mostly "love Israel". She says the Christian Arab day-care worker who looked after her son Bar, now six, and now looks after her daughter Ariel, 15 months, at the local nursery is "the best".

Equally Ms Baradhi, despite the destruction - and civilian deaths - inflicted by the Israeli air force, says she also feels "sad" for Israeli civilians who, like the Ben Itzhaks, have to run down to their basements every time they hear the sirens. "I'm sure they feel like I do when they hear explosions," she says. "It is not the ordinary people who are fighting. Nobody asked us if we wanted this war. This is 2006, and the world is all connected, but still some people are fighting, and for what?"

The Ben Itzhaks believe they have an answer to Ms Baradhi's rhetorical question, however. If the 1,600 Katyushas that Hizbollah have launched on northern Israel have proved anything, says Mrs Ben Itzhak, it is that the war is necessary. "Those rockets were waiting for us," she says. "This is the only thing that can save us from those threats."

While the Israeli deaths, civilian and military, since the war started are no more than a 10th of the total in Lebanon, ordinary life in Haifa has still been turned upside down. Mrs Ben Itzhak explained the family left for a few days because they were worried about the psychological impact on the children. "Bar seemed OK, but he was having nightmares about trying to get into the safe room when the sirens went and not being able to get there."

But then "we crept back in the night, like refugees", and the family is now all sleeping in the one basement room. "We are not living," she says. "We are surviving. We haven't worked for over two weeks. Seven out of the eight people who work in our [engineering and technical supplies] business have left Haifa. The kids are cooped up at home with nothing to do." Her husband Ehad is going into work for a few hours each day, she adds, "but just to stay sane: there are no suppliers or buyers coming to Haifa".

Politically mainstream, the Ben Itzhaks, along with Lilach's father, Shalom Ouannou, and her stepmother Nehama, are united, like a large majority of the Israeli public, in supporting Israel's military campaign despite the loss of nine soldiers in the battle of Bint Jbeil last Wednesday.

What did they feel when they saw the death and devastation from the Israeli bombing in Lebanon on their television screens? "It makes me cry, but I don't know what we can do," says Mr Ouannou, 63, a former professional soccer player with Maccabi Haifa who ran an insurance business and himself fought in Lebanon in 1982. "They should have stopped Hizbollah years ago."

Mr Ouannou repeats that he wishes there were no civilians killed on either side, but also blames some in Lebanon for giving Hizbollah "the right to shoot at our houses from where they live". He adds: "When it's your children or their children, then I'm afraid it's better that it's their children."

Ms Baradhi is the only member of her extended family of 20 who stayed behind. All the rest fled to Beirut after the third day of missile strikes. The Baradhis are a merchant family that once ran cargoes of sugar and flour south - to Haifa. Unmarried, and a French-educated, multilingual bank employee, Madonna is every bit a symbol of the modern Lebanon that she says her generation has strived for so long to achieve, but which is now being undone before their eyes. "It's a terrible situation," she says.

In the morning she still goes to the bank, abandoned by other staff, to reply to faxes sent by Lebanese expatriates seeking to transfer their money out of the country. In the afternoon she fields worried phone calls from family members. With a cousin, Melhem Tawil, she bustles along deserted streets. The quiet is punctuated only by the regular slam of Israeli missiles and the arrival of minibuses packed with desperate families from villages near the southern border.

"I think the neighbours of Lebanon are jealous of us and our wonderful country," says Ms Baradhi. "I cannot believe this is all about two prisoners. Israel wants to take Lebanon. Syria wants to take Lebanon. We love life and we want to live. Nobody seems to want peace for Lebanon."

The family home has been constantly refurbished over decades of destruction. This time round, however, she is not sure she would be able to rebuild. "Salaries now are not enough to live on," she says.

"Every time we look to the future, the present pushes us back," says her cousin. "I don't think we have fully recovered from the last war. The Lebanese middle class has been wiped out."

On her own in Tyre

Madonna Baradhi, 46 and unmarried, lives in Tyre, the ancient Phoenician port in southern Lebanon. The other 20 members of her extended family, who shared the stone house overlooking the Mediterranean, have all fled north to Beirut, but she insists she will remain, saying: "If I left, I might not be able to come back. Even if they destroy all the buildings, I will stay."

Ms Baradhi, an Arab Christian, comes from a long-established Tyre merchant family, which used to trade with Haifa to the south. She was educated in France, speaks several languages, and works in a bank. She still goes there every day, even though all her colleagues have also left.

The family in Haifa

Lilach Ben Itzhak, 35, lives in Haifa. She and her husband Ehad, far left, run an engineering and technical supplies business.

Mrs Ben Itzhak fled the city with Ariel and six-year-old Bar, sitting next to her, after Katyusha rockets began landing, but returned to their flat, overlooking the Mediterranean, a few days later. Her father, Shalom Ouannou, far right, a former professional footballer with Maccabi Haifa, and stepmother Nehama remained behind.

"We are not living," says Mrs Ben Itzhak. "We are surviving... the kids are cooped up at home with nothing to do."