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Creative Dialogue 

A local group brings Middle East activism to the Triangle.

When Palestinian Salim Shawamreh tells the story of his home being demolished by Israeli soldiers, it's hard not to feel moved. Armed with large, glossy color prints and slides showing his modest West Bank home getting bulldozed, Shawamreh calls July 9, 1998, "the black date of my family's life."

Shawamreh and Israeli anthropology professor Jeff Halper were in the Triangle last weekend on the final stop of a monthlong tour through 18 U.S. cities. The local stops were sponsored by the Triangle Middle East Dialogue, a small group of Jewish, Arab and Christian activists who meet monthly to discuss the possibilities for peace in the Middle East. The national tour was sponsored by a consortium of peace groups from across the country.

Halper, who teaches at Ben Gurion University, admits up-front that things are pretty grim in the occupied territories, where he says Israel is engaged in a clever political campaign that appears to be leading to a 21st-century version of apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories. "The peace process isn't going so well," Halper says.

Halper is coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, a group that supports non-violent direct action to oppose and resist destruction of Palestinian homes by Israel. According to ICAHD, 6,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed since 1967. About 4,000 more are targeted for demolition.

Shawamreh was attempting to erect a home on land that he owned. After years of applying, Shawamreh, whose family was forced to live in a U.N. refugee camp for many years after the 1967 war, was unable to obtain a building permit from Israeli authorities. He finally went ahead and built his home without a permit. This is the second home that Shawamreh has had demolished, and he says his family is traumatized. His wife is "broken from inside," and his younger children are often afraid to be inside the family's rebuilt home because they fear the inevitable return of the soldiers and bulldozer.

"They destroyed everything that day. They destroyed the walls around the home, the trees. They left us with nothing that day."

As the Israelis carve up East Jerusalem and the West Bank into isolated pockets of often impoverished settlements, Halper says it's clear Israel is not truly interested in sharing power with the Palestinians, but rather rendering them helpless and powerless. The viability of a so-called two-state solution appears elusive as Israel gains more and more power, and continues its human rights violations against Palestinians, in Halper's view.

Halper believes that the best chance for real peace in the region is for U.S. citizens to pressure Washington to cease and desist in its support for Israel, specifically the support Israel uses to further oppress the Palestinians.

On Saturday, Halper and Shawamreh joined members of the Triangle Middle East Dialogue on visits to Democratic congressmen David Price and Bob Etheridge. Price, who recently returned from his own Middle East visit, was sympathetic, according to Halper. The group was also pleased with its visit to Etheridge, who Halper says was "genuinely interested" and asked a lot of good questions about the issues.

The visits were the only face-to-face meetings Halper and Shawamreh had with members of Congress during their tour. The delegation asked Price and Etheridge to encourage the U.S. State Department to clarify its position regarding international human rights covenants and the actions of Israel.

Halper believes the United States should require Israel to adhere to international human rights accords as a condition of receiving aid. "Everything Israel has done in the occupied territories is illegal according to international law," he says.

Since 1967, Israel's strategy has been to create tracts or settlements for Israelis "that foreclose the possibility of any Palestinian state," Halper says. And after more than three decades of such a strategy, it can be argued that "the Palestinians are defeated."

Halper believes that Israeli Palestinians will get little help from the Arab states. "The Arab world will accept this apartheid kind of a thing," he says. "Israel is so overwhelmingly strong militarily and economically--with American backing--that in a sense the Israelis feel the Palestinians will accept anything they get."

Still, Halper says he is encouraged by the efforts of both Israeli and U.S. Jews who do not support the measures Israel is taking to isolate the Palestinians. Scores of Israeli Jews risk arrest to help the Palestinians rebuild their homes. Halper himself faces trial in May. The day the soldiers arrived at Shawamreh's home, a large contingent of Jews--contacted immediately by cell phones--joined the opposition. Several resisters were injured.

While the risks to Israeli Jews resisting home demolitions are minor, the symbolic acts of solidarity get widespread media coverage within Israel, Halper says. But this isn't true for Palestinians.

"If Salim sat in front of a bulldozer, they'd shoot him."

On Sunday, the pair made their presentation at Durham's Beth-El Synagogue. Often during the tour, Shawamreh and Halper were not permitted to speak in Jewish venues. At Beth-El, Rabbi Steven Sager welcomed the speakers. It turned out that Sager had visited Shawamreh at his home last year while he was in Israel.

Joe Levine, an N.C. State University professor who is a member of the dialogue, said he left the Sunday meeting with a degree of hopefulness. Levine envisions "a movement of town meetings taking place all over the world" where efforts toward unity can emerge and solutions can be found. At present, Levine sees an openness on the part of both Jews and Arabs to seek such creative solutions. "We don't need to think in terms of rigid structures," Levine says. "What we need to do is create something the world hasn't seen before. In the Jewish community--and I think in the Arab community as well--people seem to be open to thinking in new ways. With the Triangle dialogue, I think we're well-poised to be a leader toward that solution."

That's just what Halper wants to hear. He's been advocating for Jews and Arabs all over the world to get together and found a new political movement with the goal of finding creative solutions to the Middle East crisis. "When we leave, what we're hoping for is a network of people who can begin together to develop political campaigns that address the issue of how to bring a viable, just and lasting peace to the Middle East, especially to our region of the Middle East." EndBlock

To find out more about the Triangle Middle East Dialogue contact Mary-Lou Smith (967-5181), Rachel and Nathan Bearman (929-6178), or Rajaie Qubain (676-1939).

  • A local group brings Middle East activism to the Triangle.

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