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April 19, 2001

DEBATING THE CONFLICT: Some shared opinions, many disagreements in campus debate over the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict

It wasn't as if Professor Robert G. Hazo and Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun failed to agree on anything during their April 10 discussion of "Sharon and the Arab, Israeli, Palestinian Conflict."

Both men said they despair of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and regret the killing on both sides.

They spoke disparagingly of both Ariel Sharon, Israel's newly elected prime minister, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

Hazo, director of Pitt's American Experience Program, and Berkun, of Squirrel Hill's Tree of Life Synagogue, also agreed that the deal Israel proposed to Arafat last year — parts of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank, in exchange for peace — was the biggest concession the Jewish state has ever offered the Palestinians.

Berkun refused, however, to endorse Hazo's suggestion for bringing lasting peace to the Holy Land: Evacuate Jerusalem's one-square-kilometer Old City and obliterate its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places.

"I would blow it up and then I would irradiate all of the dust so it could not be put in urns and worshipped," said an unsmiling Hazo, who swore he wasn't kidding. "Maybe at that point, they could start talking about human lives rather than these sacred symbols."

Berkun retorted: "I didn't know that the Mosque of Omar was held in such low regard as to be blown up," referring to the Muslim Dome of the Rock built on the site of the Jews' ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

Then Berkun re-emphasized a point he'd made at the beginning of the discussion: For Muslims, Jerusalem is a holy city, but less significant than Mecca, Medina and, arguably, Damascus and other places. Whereas, for Jews, Jerusalem is the lodestar of their faith.

The word "Jerusalem" doesn't even appear in the Koran, but the city is mentioned 700 times in the Old Testament and on virtually every page of the Jewish prayer book, Berkun noted. For centuries, each Passover Seder meal and Yom Kippur celebration has concluded with the words: "Next year in Jerusalem." Just as the Koran calls on Muslims to go on pilgrimages to Mecca, the Bible commands Jews to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

"To hear the propaganda coming out of the Palestinian Authority over these last several months — denying that Jews have roots in Jerusalem, denying that the Temple Mount is sacred to Jews, denying that the Western Wall [the surviving wall of the ancient Jewish Temple] is part of our physical center of focus — is ridiculous," Berkun said.

"The Palestinians have a lot of legitimate gripes, and I absolutely do not deny those gripes at all," the rabbi said. "But for them to make up history, in the sense that I'm hearing lately, is really, to say the least, disconcerting."

Hazo didn't argue theology or ancient history. "My contention is very simple: I think that Ariel Sharon is not prime minister material" and is virtually incapable of facilitating peace, Hazo said.

He quoted Israeli Army senior officers' descriptions of Sharon as being megalomaniacal, vulgar, impulsive, reckless, vain and provocative — a portrait with which Hazo concurred.

He also quoted a German saying, "Power brings out responsibility," and predicted that Sharon will be surrounded by aides and cabinet members seeking to modify his policies. "I hope that works," Hazo said, "although my instincts tell me it will not. At 73 years old, Sharon is unlikely to change. Also, he's promised to give [Israel] security, but the means he's chosen to deliver security won't work because he and other Israeli leaders don't understand the Palestinian uprising."

The Palestinian intifada takes as its model the Algerian revolution, in which 1 million Algerians perished kicking the French out of their country, Hazo said. That same determination and nobility drive Palestinian nationalists, he maintained.

Berkun questioned the "nobility" of Palestinian leaders who promote terrorism against innocent civilians, demonize Jews, deny Israel's right to exist and incite rock-throwing youths to take to the streets while Palestinian Authority police stand by doing nothing.

"I've seen Israelis maimed for life by those rocks. These are not pebbles that are being thrown," Berkun said — eliciting groans from pro-Palestinian audience members, who muttered that Palestinian rocks often are answered by Israeli bullets.

Berkun said he, too, is saddened by the killing of Palestinian children. But he added: "How about the mothers who are sending those children to the front line, where they don't belong? That to me is absolutely destructive."

During the question-and-answer session that followed the discussion between Berkun and Hazo, a young Palestinian woman accused Berkun of characterizing her countrywomen as unthinking "animals" who care nothing for their children.

"Those words never left my mouth," Berkun replied, hotly. "I don't believe it, I don't think it, I don't feel it, and I resent your suggesting that that's what I had in mind."

(The question-and-answer session echoed recent Arab-Israeli public exchanges: plenty of rhetoric but no genuine dialogue.) q The Hazo-Berkun discussion, held in 3J51 Posvar Hall, grew out of an exchange on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's op-ed pages.

In a March 5 article, "Ariel Sharon, Fuel on the Fire," Hazo called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "one of the most complicated and agonizing struggles in human history" and said Sharon's surprise ascendancy to power is likely to make the situation "much worse."

Hazo called Sharon's peace proposals to date "pathetically inadequate: No more than half of the West Bank for the Palestinians, no part of Jerusalem as well as no recognition of the right of return of the refugees or compensation in lieu of return….What would incline Sharon to believe that he can get the Palestinians to accept the idea of a truncated, dwarfish entity, itself divided into cantons, the economy and borders of which would presumably be controlled by Israel?"

In a letter published a week later, Berkun said Hazo's description of "an unscrupulous zealot, something of a megalomaniac consumed with personal ambition as well as a ruthless warmonger, and, yes, even…a war criminal" should have been a reference to Arafat, not Sharon.

* Berkun told the Posvar Hall audience: "I am in despair that Sharon was elected" because his election (by the largest plurality ever in a democratic country) signifies that Israeli voters have given up hope for peace.

"If you had asked me two years ago, Could Sharon be elected? I would have told you that you were out of your mind," Berkun said. "Arafat single-handedly put him in office" by rejecting former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of half of Jerusalem plus 95 percent of the territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war.

According to Berkun, Barak represented the 40-50 percent of war-weary Israelis who were willing to "give away the store" at last year's Camp David summit (brokered by President Clinton) in exchange for peace.

"When Arafat left Camp David, he went around the world, visiting 22 countries," Berkun said. "He was told by everyone, including France, which has not exactly been a friend of Israel, that he'd made a mistake. They urged him to go back and accept.

"Now, there are many who say [Arafat] feared for his own life, that if he'd said 'yes' he would have been assassinated. Regrettably, he said 'no' and instead he went to the streets and told the people to throw rocks."

Hazo said, "I'm not a defender of Yasir Arafat" and pointed out that many Palestinians likewise don't think highly of Arafat.

But the Palestinian leader was caught between a rock and a hard place, according to Hazo: If he had accepted Barak's plan, many Palestinians would have felt betrayed. When Arafat rejected it, he was called intransigent.

"Arafat could come out against the uprising. He could not stop it. He could curtail it somewhat, but his 40,000-man police force is not going to fire on Palestinian youth," Hazo said.

"I agree that Barak offered [Arafat] more than any Israeli prime minister had ever offered the Palestinians, but it was not enough," Hazo continued. "The reason I say it was not enough is that the Palestinians want sovereignty. They don't want someone else controlling their borders. They don't want someone controlling their water and electricity. They don't want occupation. And all of those things were built into the Clinton plan."

Following Arafat's rejection of the Camp David proposals, Sharon visited Jerusalem's Temple Mount. His visit is seen as the spark that touched off the current intifada.

According to Hazo, Sharon knew he was provoking violence.

According to Berkun, Palestinians used Sharon's visit as an excuse for a planned attack.

Wheelbarrows filled with rocks were already in place, 24 hours before Sharon's visit, ready for Palestinians to throw into the Jewish-administered Western Wall area, said Berkun. As a Knesset member and an Israeli citizen, Sharon had every right to visit the Temple Mount, Berkun argued.

"That area is not forbidden to Jews. It is part of Israeli territory, and certainly a member of the Knesset should have the right to go. It was Arafat who took his visit there to be the signal for the masses of Palestinians to go to the streets," Berkun said.

Hazo replied: "I don't think Ariel Sharon was going to the Temple Mount in the name of peace….He knew that his going there was a provocation."

As for Israelis' free access to the Temple Mount, Hazo said: "There is not one country in the world — not one, including the United States — that has ever recognized the annexation of Jerusalem" by Israel.

Hazo said that prior to the mid-1990s, he believed the Arab-Israeli conflict would be settled when one side won, or both agreed to share the land and make peace. "I came to the conclusion some five, six, seven years ago that it was a terminal struggle," he said, "that one side was going to win and that peace was almost impossible."

But the more Hazo thought about it, two other possibilities occurred to him: The struggle will go on indefinitely, or (more likely, according to Hazo) both sides will lose by unleashing weapons of mass destruction.

"All Israel has to do is knock out Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo and it would pretty much paralyze the Arab world," Hazo said.

"And do not for a minute think that the Arab countries, particularly Syria, Egypt and even Jordan — certainly Iraq — do not have weapons of mass destruction. They do. They're not atomic. But they have chemical and biological weapons that can be delivered in a suitcase."

Hazo said he hopes his doomsday scenario is wrong. "But I hear few hopeful arguments."

Once again, he and Berkun were on the same page.

"I am not filled with hope," the rabbi concurred. "I am, frankly, filled with despair at this point in time."

* In response to a Palestinian mortar attack on the Israeli town of Sederot, four miles from the Gaza Strip border, the Israeli Army this week seized Palestinian-ruled territory in Gaza and announced plans to occupy it indefinitely to protect against further attacks. But on Tuesday night, after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had criticized Israel for using "excessive and disproportionate" force, the Israeli Army announced that its mission was complete and began withdrawing.

The withdrawal came less than two days after an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian radar position in Lebanon, in retaliation for a Hezbollah attack on Israeli forces at Shabaa Farms.

— Bruce Steele

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