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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Middle East divide not so vast, Palestinian says

The Daily Gazette of Schenectady

November 24, 2008

By Michael Goot

ALBANY — Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian who grew up in Israel, recalled running away from soldiers and being shot at when he was 7 years old.

“There is no normal childhood over there,” he said before about 50 people Sunday at the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary at The College of Saint Rose.

When he was 9, soldiers broke into his home and arrested his 18-year-old brother as part of a crackdown by the government. His brother was subjected to harsh interrogation and sentenced to a year in prison. He then became ill with liver and spleen failure and died.

The incident angered Sarah very much, and he grew to hate Israelis. “The whole idea of peace and reconciliation seemed a very stupid idea to me. Who would want to talk about peace when your brother was being killed?”

Rather than being consumed by feelings of revenge and bitterness and allowing himself to be pulled into the cycle of violence, Sarah said he wanted to do something more positive. He became active in the Parents Circle-Families Forum, which is a grass-roots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have lost members of their families in the conflict.

Sarah’s talk was sponsored by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) and co-sponsored by the Sidney Albert Interfaith Lecture Series of The College of Saint Rose, Interfaith Alliance of the Capital District and the Commission on Peace and Justice of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. Sarah was actually filling in for another Palestinian speaker who was unable to attend because of a personal emergency.

Sarah, who now lives in Virginia with his American-born wife, supports a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians each have their own lands, instead of a single state. He hopes to be able to return to his homeland someday, and added that most of the people with whom he has spoken are very optimistic about the possibilities for peace. The Palestinians have to be unified, Sarah said, and he believes the two main political groups — Hamas and Fatah — can come together for peace. Also, the entire Arab region should be involved, he said.

Sarah also said the border between the territories will have to be approved by the two sides and the Palestinians will have to get an acceptable amount of land. Currently, the wall between the territories cuts through the middle of prime agricultural land. An estimated 60 percent of Palestinians are not employed. “It makes people more desperate. It makes people move toward extremism.”

Sarah said his feelings about Israelis began to change when he took a Hebrew class so he could have more opportunities for advancement in Israel. He was the only Palestinian in the class and was forced to interact with others. He found that — of all things — he shared a love of country music with some of his Jewish classmates. These encounters changed the way he perceived Israelis.

“When you’re at war . . . you forget they’re people just like you,” he said.

He said part of the problem is that there is little mention in mainstream media of efforts that both Palestinians and Israelis are making to achieve peace. Media tends to focus predominately on the violence.

“It really makes you think that there’s nothing good happening, [that] people hate each other and they want to kill each other. Both sides I think are losing and every day we wait to bring this conflict to an end. There is a loss. We lose people, we lose hope, we lose our humanity in many ways.”

With the Parents Circle-Families Forum, Sarah traveled, giving speeches, and found that despite coexisting for 60 years in the same country, Israelis and Palestinians knew very little about each other. Some Israelis said they had never met a Palestinian.

“There is a lot of fear, but we can never overcome that fear if we’re not talking,” he said.

He also co-hosted a radio show in Arabic and Hebrew where ordinary Palestinians and Israelis were interviewed about their lives, and it became a top-rated show.

Marvin Garfinkel of Niskayuna, who is Jewish, said he enjoyed the chance to hear a Palestinian’s perspective.

“It always helps to see somebody not as an abstraction, but as a person,” he said.

Deb Riitano of Schenectady, a Catholic, said the talk gave her hope. “I knew there were people working for peace there — Israelis and Palestinians. I didn’t know how broad that support was,” she said.

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