Best friends, different views

Teens find their relationship is changing in the face of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict some 6,000 miles away.

Published August 11, 2006

Before a few weeks ago, the two teenage friends used to talk about boys, Seven jeans and Nordstrom at International Plaza.

Then the deadly fighting broke out between Israel and Lebanon.

Now best friends Sarah Chibani, whose family is from Lebanon, and Ester Steinberg, who has Jewish roots, have different conversations, sometimes strained ones.

"I think Israel is defending themselves," said Steinberg, while eating a falafel sandwich at Acropolis, their favorite Greek restaurant in Ybor City.

"Israel should lay off," Chibani responds. "They've destroyed airports, roads and infrastructure. The Lebanese people are being misused."

But in between their Mideast talks, the South Tampa friends find common ground.

Chibani, 18, visits Lebanon every year to see her family. She left in June and returned in early July, surprised at the peace and progress of the country.

Then the Israel-Hezbollah conflict escalated on July 12.

Chibani worries for her cousins who fled the violence to Syria. Her grandfather is in the mountains of Lebanon, and communication is patchy.

"Everything is so complicated," Chibani said. "It's hard to get out of that situation."

Steinberg, 16, traveled through Israel last month with B'nai B'rith Youth Organization counselors and 18 teens. She met young Israeli soldiers and sat inside a military tank, just before the fighting made world news. She fears for the soldiers, her counselors and the Israeli people.

"I'm worried because the goal of Israel's neighboring countries is to wipe it off the map," Steinberg said.

They agree that Hezbollah guerrillas need to leave Lebanon and that civilian casualties are unnecessary. But they disagree on who started the fighting and about a cease-fire.

The conflict has slightly bruised but not severed their relationship. Avoiding Mideast conversations helps to keep them best friends.

"When we first came back from the Mideast, that's all we talked about, but now it's like, how much can we talk about death," Steinberg said.

People often ask if they are cousins or sisters. Both have dark olive complexions and long, brown curly hair.

Most of the time, they answer "yes."

The two have been best friends for more than a year. They met while attending Plant High School.

"She is like an older sister," Steinberg said. "She is always the driver, she gives me advice, more than I give her."

This fall, Chibani will attend Boston University to study international relations.

Steinberg will be busy with cheerleading practice and honors classes at Plant, where she is president of the Latin club.

They hope to keep in touch through MySpace, phone calls and holiday trips. They don't want their countries involved in a war and hope to be able to stop talking about war altogether.

"I don't blame Ester for the conflict," Chibani said.

Steinberg, dipping into hummus with a slice of pita bread, says, "This is bigger than both of us."

Aldo Nahed can be reached at anahed@sptimes.com or (813) 310-0998.