It is my first day at the youth cafe in Ofakim. I pick up a ping-pong paddle and start whacking the ball back and forth with an Israeli teenager. Others hear of my arrival and gather around the table.
"Eh, you speak Hebrew?"
I say I speak a little.
"Eh, from where are you?"
I say New Jersey.
"Eh, you like Arabs?"
I tell the kids I do not know many.
"I hate them," they yell in unison.
I saw this enmity at the youth cafe and I see it also among the children at various schools at which I teach English here. The kids wear this bigotry with pride, as if it were a source of patriotism - the collective aversion toward Arabs.
I can understand the source of their feelings - their impressionable minds forced to process the rationale behind the thousands of rockets that have fallen on their country in the past few years, leaving in their wake death, injuries, destroyed homes and above all, fear. I vindicate them mostly because they are young and they undoubtedly learn this mentality at the dinner table. Even my educated, moderate Israeli friends espouse similar views.
However, this bigotry and hatred - among both the Arabs and the Jews - is the fuel that fires this ongoing conflict and the main obstacle to forging peace between the two peoples.
The Palestinians need their own state. Since 1948, they have been wading in poverty and oppression in refugee camps on the edges of countries like Lebanon and Jordan, which have refused to grant them citizenship and assimilate them into their societies. After 1967, Israel inherited what now amounts to about four million Arabs via the acquisition of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Israel cannot remain a Jewish state, moreover a safe haven for Jews suffering anti-Semitism worldwide, if it grants the Palestinians citizenship. On the other hand, no people should be forced to live in a land without rights and without someone to protect their interests.
But to whom will Israel give this state?
In 2006, with backing from the United States and Israel, Palestinians held elections, and Hamas won. Hamas, a terrorist organization whose charter advocates destroying Israel and vilifies Jews, now officially represents the will and interests of the Palestinians.
The rival Fatah is seen as more moderate, but it maintains no control over the Gaza Strip and is viewed by its people as corrupt and weak.
How has Hamas been able to rise to power and maintain military and political control in Gaza? By exploiting the Palestinians' enmity toward Jews. Its demagogues preach hatred in schools, in mosques, and throughout the media. A TV show on Al-Aksa TV features cartoon-inspired characters making a child repeat anti-Israel and fanatical religious slogans in a melodic fashion.
Imagine a Palestinian who has been inculcated by this kind of propaganda and just lost his two daughters when Israeli airplanes dropped bombs next to his house where Hamas had fired missiles. Devastated and hopeless, he will blame Israel for his agony and eagerly join Hamas to seek revenge.
While anti-Arab bigotry is not promulgated by the media or in Israeli schools, it is still prevalent in society and grows with every missile that falls on Israeli soil. Just recently, Israeli soldiers scribbled graffiti on the rubble of collapsed buildings in Gaza that read: "1 is down, 999,000 to go," and "Arabs needs 2 die," among other diatribes.
A few weeks ago, Israeli youths were arrested for beating up an Arab in Tiberias. In the West Bank, religious, fanatical Jews have repeatedly hurled stones at Arabs and torched their homes. It is extremists, not representatives of the collective conscious, who usually carry out such despicable acts.
But this anti-Arab sentiment, not necessarily the will to act on such feelings, is unequivocally present in the subconscious of many Israelis.
To see this endless cycle - war causing hatred and hatred causing war - the public need only look at the elections. Avigdor Lieberman's successful campaign slogan, "No Loyalty, No Citizenship," is aimed at initiating a McCarthy-like litmus test to suppress the nagging, caustic voice of a frustrated Israeli Arab population.
Lieberman had also pushed to ban the leaders of two Arab parties from participating in the elections because of remarks he considered seditious. Fortunately for the sake of democracy, the Supreme Court intervened.
In a country whose flag has the Star of David and whose national anthem references the "Jewish soul," a country where Arabs, some of whom have family in Gaza and the West Bank, are marginalized in the labor force, universities and the housing market, it is understandable that when David battles Goliath in Gaza, there may be a few Israeli Arabs who support David.
When Israel drops more bombs into Gaza, it is tackling the symptoms of this cancerous epidemic, not the cancer itself. And as with many forms of cancer, the disease will resurface. More rockets will fall - see the dozens that have fallen since the unilateral "cease-fires" - and another war will ensue.
Also as with cancer, a cure has yet to be developed. But it lies not in bombs and the deaths of 1,300 Palestinians, nor in the 10,000 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza since 2001, but in the cultivating of a new generation of moderate, tolerant Palestinians to whom Israel can give a state and trust.
These new Palestinians must abdicate their romantic dreams of returning to their pre-1948 lands - recognizing this as antithetical to the preservation of a much-needed Jewish state - and instead welcome the idea of a democratic, thriving, Palestinian country in the area of the West Bank.
This cure also needs an Israeli partner who has not become too radicalized and jaded by war and who still possesses the ability to trust a man who praises Allah. On the same point, Israel needs to stop building settlements in the West Bank, the land where Palestinians will ultimately gain their sovereignty.
While I do not purport to have the road map that will bring these two partners together, I do know what pushes them further apart. First of all, all enmity and bigotry must be stamped out on both sides. That means Hamas must be dethroned. That means a man like Avigdor Lieberman cannot again win 15 seats in an election.
And that also means, on the grassroots level, that Israeli kids at a youth cafe cannot ask, as their third question after meeting me, whether I like Arabs, as a way to test my allegiance to Israel.
The electorate's move toward Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu represents a loss of hope in the peace process. But in these times of heightened emotions, Israelis must grab on to hope and refuse to let go. For without hope, without a real attempt to forge peace with the Palestinians - whether it takes 10 years or 100 years - Jews and Palestinians will forever remain locked in a vicious cycle of misery and despair.
The writer, a journalism graduate from the University of Maryland, is currently volunteering in southern Israel through the Jewish Agency's yearlong Otzma program.