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An Israeli man remembers his Gazan friend

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This next story is about a rare sort of friendship between two men who lived on either side of the barrier that separates Gaza from Israel. They never met in person, but they bonded over their hopes for peace until one of them was killed in the war. NPR's Fatma Tanis has their story.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: These are the words Ariel Bernstein wrote in a letter to remember his friend.

ARIEL BERNSTEIN: (Reading) These days when someone dies, you first have to declare which side of the wall they belong to before being granted permission to be sad. But on Monday, an exceptionally rare man who caused no harm to anyone was killed.

TANIS: Khalil Abu Yahia was a writer, activist and English teacher in Gaza; Ariel Bernstein, a former soldier for the Israel Defense Forces, now an anti-occupation activist. He and Abu Yahia met at an event where Bernstein was speaking last year.

BERNSTEIN: In 2014, I was in a combat unit, and I spent several weeks in the ground invasion of Gaza. So I was speaking about my experiences. And right after me, they brought up a man on Zoom to speak to the group. And this was the first time I met Khalil.

TANIS: It was the first time he had ever heard someone from inside Gaza talking about life under the Israeli blockade and Hamas rule. And he was surprised.

BERNSTEIN: Then he spoke about his dreams and hopes and how he believes in the basic idea that everybody deserves freedom and equality and how he doesn't have hatred in his heart towards Israelis, and he would like for us to be able to find a solution where he could come and visit people in Israel. And he had this charisma to him that was really appealing.

TANIS: After the event, the two men stayed in touch. They organized other events together that were held in Israel, where Abu Yahia joined by Zoom and spoke to a small but captivated audience of Israelis. He had several other friends in Israel too - peace activists, climate researchers who were interested in Gaza. Abu Yahia would update them on fuel and water developments. His kindness and optimism was contagious. And he cared deeply about his friends, often sending voice notes like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KHALIL ABU YAHIA: You know that feeling that I cannot come and see you, my friends and comrades, and you too cannot come and visit me in Gaza. Oh, I don't want anyone to undergo this feeling. No. That's life. Hugs, love and music and appreciation and thanks and everything from Gaza to you.

TANIS: Abu Yahia only left Gaza once in his life to get life-saving treatment at a hospital in East Jerusalem. Bernstein says his friend got accepted at a university in England but couldn't get permission from Israel to go.

BERNSTEIN: He really seemed to, like, not be constricted by the situation he was in. And mentally, he was so much freer and had a larger vision of the world than most people. He didn't channel his pain into hate, but he managed to see a bigger picture.

TANIS: On October 7, Hamas militants broke out of Gaza and attacked communities in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking dozens hostage. Israel retaliated with an ongoing bombardment of Gaza, killing at least 15,000 Palestinians. When the war broke out, Bernstein and Abu Yahia were constantly texting each other.

BERNSTEIN: It kind of changes everything when you actually know someone personally. It makes it much more difficult when you hear about the bombings and all. And he started moving south to where the army said it would be safe.

TANIS: Then Bernstein got the dreaded news. The building Abu Yahia was sheltering in was hit by an airstrike. Bernstein not only lost his friend, but also a sense of hope.

BERNSTEIN: Here, they try to convince you that everyone in Gaza are just monsters that want to kill you because you're Jewish. And here, I know someone who lives there. He wasn't looking for trouble. He wasn't hurting anyone. And when he died, something kind of broke inside because it made it more difficult to hold on to this belief that we can make things better.

TANIS: Still, he feels an obligation to continue spreading his friend's message of hope and peace, even as the war continues. Khalil Abu Yahia was 28 years old. He was killed along with his wife Tasnim and his daughters Elaf and Rital.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.