In three and a half years of fighting, Ravit Rubin and Grace Karaa have grown accustomed to the sound of shooting between their neighborhoods. But recently, the 15-year-old girls met amid the din of blow dryers in a hair salon to discuss their hopes in an upcoming beauty pageant.
Rubin, a Jewish Israeli from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and Karaa, a Palestinian Christian from the adjacent West Bank town of Bethlehem, are among 26 Israeli and Palestinian girls participating in the "Miss Barrier Line" pageant (search).
Organizers said they chose the name to emphasize that the girls come from an area of friction, but can still get along. Israel's West Bank (search) separation barrier, which it says is needed to protect against homicide bombers, now stands between the two communities.
Gilo (search) and Bethlehem were a key flashpoint early in the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that broke out in late 2000, as Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers shot across the rocky valley separating the sides. Fighting in the area peaked in late 2001.
Now, after months of relative quiet in the area, Israeli Jewish businessman Avi Nagar and Israeli Arab beautician Jacqueline Yosef have decided to put on a pageant for residents of the neighborhoods. The pageant is scheduled May 31 in Gilo.
Last week, they brought together four of the girls, including Rubin and Karaa, for their first meeting. The gathering took place at Yosef's hair salon in an Arab neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
"My dream is to be a model and my dream starts with this pageant," said Rubin, whose long hair frames a pale face with large eyes. "This will prove we can live in coexistence, that there is nothing to be afraid of."
The girls sat next to each other, barely touching and only glancing briefly at each other. Neither speaks the other's language, and their English is limited. Reflecting the deep scars left by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, relatives of the girls barred reporters from asking about politics.
Karaa said she has often been afraid of Israelis, pointing to a recent occasion at the entrance to a Jerusalem mall when security guards questioned her after seeing a small gold cross around her neck.
"I know Israelis are good, they are not only soldiers and police," said Karaa, who traveled with her mother through an Israeli army checkpoint to get from Bethlehem into Jerusalem, only a few miles away.
Karaa's mother, Claire, said the family had special permission to enter Jerusalem for the Easter holiday period, but it was not clear if they would be able to get permits for the pageant, scheduled May 31 in Gilo.
Israel has imposed strict travel restrictions on the Palestinians since killing the founder of the militant group Hamas on March 22.
So far, 20 Jews and six Arabs — including at least three Palestinians — have signed up for the pageant, Nagar said. The Arab contestants are all Christian, since the Muslim religion frowns upon beauty contests. The judges will be both Arabs and Jews, Nagar said.
During last Thursday's meeting, Yosef's salon was flooded with Jewish and Arab clients. "There is no difference between Arabs and Jews at all," said Yosef, pausing from curling a woman's hair. "Beauty is beauty, Arab or Jewish."