From inside a dimly lit living room in the West Bank city of Hebron, I sit with my new friends Hazim and Rita, who have been married for 32 years. Rita scurries off to the kitchen and returns bearing Arabic coffee, a Palestinian custom. How she balances the tray with all those little coffee cups on it is beyond me, for I realize she’s missing an arm.

Rita’s arm was lost after a rocket struck her home back when she lived in Gaza City. Now she lives here, in Hebron. She tells me if she had never left Gaza, she’d be dead because, in her words, “All they want is to kill us.”

Weeks later I’m sitting at my gate in Ben Gurion International Airport. Beside me sits an older Israeli woman. I only caught her first name in passing -- Etti. She notices my camera satchel and asks if I’m a photographer. She is a photographer too.

Before long we’re comparing photographs we’ve taken. I show her a portrait I made of Hazim and Rita, several weeks before, and Etti quietly asks where it was taken. Hebron, I answer, then ask if she’s been. “No, of course not,” Etti replies. “They’d kill me there.”

I wonder if Etti is right. Perhaps she is. While the West Bank isn’t particularly dangerous, a trip to Gaza may very well end violently for the old Israeli. And perhaps Rita is right, too. A wrong encounter with an overzealous Israeli settler or soldier may get the old Palestinian gunned down.

But perhaps both women are also wrong.

If Etti met Rita and Rita met Etti, would the two women immediately want blood? It seems unlikely — highly unlikely. So then why, I ask myself, can two kind people, who live just 17 miles apart, live in perpetual fear of the other person?

From my home in Westminster, I watch Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rain down rockets on Gaza. At 141 square miles, the Gaza Strip is a speck on the map, and comparable in size to Denver. Depressed, but not surprised, is what I tell my friends.

This summer I spent writing in the West Bank I felt a tension, so palpable, it’d make election season in the U.S. seem like a Jack Johnson concert. The so-called Holy Land is a powder keg waiting for someone to light the fuse. But history tells me the fuse was lit decades ago.

Towards the end of my stint, the Israel Defense Forces sent troops into the Jenin refugee camp and used air strikes in advance for what the IDF said was a targeted attempt to break up terrorist activity and stockpiled weapons. Several Palestinians were killed and many injured. I was horrified then and am horrified now, though not in equal measure.

Jenin pales in comparison to what is now unfolding.

When roughly 1,400 Israelis were killed after Hamas attacked on Oct. 7, I was horrified. And when Netanyahu’s far-right government declared war, I became depressed. If justice was what Israel wanted, it got no such thing. In response to terrorism, Netanyahu perpetuated a terrorism of his own. I watch as the limp corpses of children are dug out of heaps of charred rubble. War is the greatest blemish on the face of humanity. In war, everyone loses.

On either side of this war is Hama’s leader Yahya Sinwar and Netanyahu.

But when Hamas’ orchestrated attack killed hundreds, it was not Netanyahu they targeted, but people — children, families, mothers, fathers. And when Netanyahu’s hellfire rains down on Gaza, it is not just Hamas terrorists who perish, but children, families, mothers, and fathers.

It is the Ettis, and it is the Ritas, who bear the brunt of war, not the Netanyahus and not the Sinwars. Rarely is it the people who wage war who pay its price.

The Vietnamese learned this in 1955, the Afghans in 2001, the Iraqis in 2003, the Syrians in 2011.

We must condemn bombs wherever, and upon whomever, they are dropped. We must condemn violence no matter the source. We actually need less — not more — jingoism. Strong ties to notions of land and identity that trace back centuries have set the groundwork for Israelis and Palestinians to live, generation after generation, in a perpetual state of conflict. Perhaps the Holy Land is instead a cursed land and endless war is its destiny.

The question I left the Middle East with keeps bobbing up and down in my mind: is this what Israelis and Palestinians really want? Do Palestinians really want to spill Israeli blood? Do Israelis really want to eviscerate 2 million Palestinians? I cannot believe it to be so.

When I leave, Rita tells me to return soon so I can meet her sons. At the airport, Etti fritters away an hour sharing photos and telling me stories of her grandchildren. Rita serves me a piping hot cup of Arabic coffee. Etti passes me a stick of gum. Rita laughs when I suffer a burnt tongue upon my first taste of her delicious coffee. Etti giggles when I jokingly ask if she passed me gum on the pretense of curing my bad breath.

When I think of Etti the first thing that comes to mind is not the Star of David, the Hebrew language, or the Torah, but of her warm personality, her love for her grandchildren, how sharing gum with a perfect stranger came instinctually.

When I think of Rita it is not her lavender hijab, the Quran, or even the Palestinian flag, but instead her playful demeanor, the way she longingly gazed at her husband, and how welcoming a foreigner into her home was simply second nature.

I wonder what Etti and Rita make of all this. I wonder if they applaud the killings of their perceived enemies, or if they lament seeing maimed children and massacred families, regardless of which side of the border they fall, because in the dead, they see themselves.

Ryan Biller is a freelance journalist currently based in Denver. He was an intern at The Denver Post in 2022 and studied mass communications. Biller spent the summer in the West Bank.