Mideast peace debate solves little but prompts death threat

While a debate on achieving peace in the Middle East did little to accomplish that goal, it may have prompted a death threat to one of the speakers.

The threat was made against If Americans Knew, an organization dedicated to halting all aid to Israel until it relinquishes control of the territories. Journalist Alison Weir, the group’s executive director, was one of four speakers at the U.C. Berkeley debate, “How to Best Achieve Peace Between Palestinians and Israelis,” which attracted a standing-room crowd of more than 200 students and community members Oct. 2.

Weir arrived at the group’s Berkeley office the morning after the debate and listened to the message on the answering machine left by a fairly youthful and emotional male voice. The caller threatened to “come and kill every single one of you …”

Berkeley police said they are investigating the threat, but no suspect has been found, Officer Kevin Schofield said this week.

“We are hoping that the Jewish community will condemn this kind of intimidation,” said Weir on Tuesday. “One half of me thinks it’s just the blame tactic by the cowardly person, but it’s far more threatening than I’ve ever received. I’m hoping and have the impression that Berkeley police department will be watching this area more than before.”

Just as Israelis and Palestinians don’t see eye-to-eye on how to achieve peace in the Middle East, neither did the speakers at the debate, which was organized by the university student organization.

“The one single, overriding stumbling block to peace is Arafat’s support of terror. Palestinians must immediately and unconditionally stop the terror,” said David Meir-Levi, a Bay Area lecturer on the Middle East and the executive director of the Israel Peace Initiative.

Arafat and his “thugocracy” are the main obstacles to peace, according to Meir-Levi, who asserted that millions of Palestinians want “to get their lives back and hate Arafat for squandering every opportunity for Palestinians to have a state.”

Noting that Arafat was persecuted by the Egyptians in 1948, Meir-Levi asserted that “the Arab refugee problem was created by Arabs.” Weir put the blame on America’s support for Israel, which she claimed amounts to $10 million a day and enables Israel to maintain its “cruel” hold on Palestinian territories.

“The Zionists were always committed to the transfer of all Arabs out of Palestine and Israel,” said Weir, who has visited the region. “Why were Palestinians denied the right to return when Jews poured into the land?”

Supporting her viewpoint was U.C. Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian, who stated, “We are dealing with occupied territories and settlements.” He rejected arguments that “Israel is morally superior as she defends herself and Palestinians engage in a pathology of violence. That is nothing more than blaming the victims.”

Palestinians have been victimized, Bazian said, by Israel’s refusal to honor the fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture, coercion, collective punishment, prolonged curfews, the destruction of private property and the transfer and deportation of populations within and outside occupied territories.

“Israel needs to declare it is an occupier,” said Bazian, who teaches Near Eastern and ethnic studies. “How can we have a peace process when Palestinian land is being stolen day in and day out?”

Eric Sirkin, a Palo Alto technology firm executive who helped found the Israel Action Committee in 1975 to counter Arab propaganda and defend Israel on college campuses, agreed that “the situation today is tragic and human rights are being infringed upon.” But the core issue is that Israel lacks a true partner for peace, he said. Therefore the wall of separation being built now will help secure Israelis until the Palestinians renounce terror and violence.

“The Israeli government and population has shown that when peace is a possibility and there is a partner, they will compromise and make sacrifices,” said Sirkin. “I wish the Palestinian Arab community would recognize that the Palestinian Authority is not interested in peace.”

In response to specific charges that Israel destroyed Palestinian buildings, wounded and killed children, and uprooted ancient olive-tree groves, Sirkin said, “Israelis soldiers hate duty in the territories, but do it to protect Israeli civilians from suicide bombers.”

Bazian scoffed at the notion that Israeli soldiers detest service in the territories and are therefore not accountable for their actions, saying, “We held the Germans responsible for what they did during World War II.”

The evening revealed how much anger and hostility remains between Israelis and Palestinians, and their respective supporters in the United States, leaving audience members at times frustrated.

Dena Rifahie, a third-year sociology student at Berkeley, was unimpressed with what she heard. Her immediate family was born in Egypt, but she has a grandmother from Saudi Arabia and other family in Morocco. She thought most audience members came to the debate as part of one side or the other.

“I didn’t think anything progressive could come out of the discussion,” said the kaffiyeh-clad Rifahie, who tuned out Meir-Levi after he charged that Palestinians allow their children to be human shields for the terrorists.

She believes the conflict is political, not religious. “Neither side compromised. I think Arab-Jewish dialogue groups are much more beneficial.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.