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The Struggle to Share Jerusalem

Palestinian ambassador calls for two-nation territory at LAW

The International Students Consortium is sponsoring a two-part discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; PLO ambassador Afif Safieh launched the series at the School of Law last night.

The long and bitter conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people has been described as a turf war, a clash of faiths, and a collision between cultures. Last night, speaking at the School of Law, Afif Safieh, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to Washington, D.C., characterized the dispute as a moral dilemma.

“We either have one people too many or we have a state which is missing,” he said. “History is still undecided, and our task is to help history make the right choice.”

Safieh spoke before approximately 100 students as part of a two-part series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, organized by the International Students Consortium (ISC). The next event, a discussion with Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, will take place on Tuesday, May 1. The series, organizers said, is intended to help offset stereotypical and overly simplistic ideas about the decades of struggle between the Palestinian people and Israel.

Charles Dunbar, a professor of international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences and a former ambassador to Qatar and Yemen, introduced Safieh, noting that it has been close to 60 years since the U.N. General Assembly determined that Palestine should be partitioned to create the state of Israel. Dunbar then pointed out that it has been five years since the international community recognized the need for a Palestinian state. “Neither side,” he said, “neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority, is prepared to take the steps needed so there can be, if not a normal diplomatic relationship between the two sides, at least a discussion that would lead to a normal diplomatic relationship.”

Safieh, who was appointed as the PLO ambassador to Washington, D.C., in 2005, has long been an outspoken critic of the failures of the peace process. While he considers himself a democrat and recognizes the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Parliament, he has said that he does not support its denial of Israel’s right to exist. Safieh recently criticized the American government for a lack of involvement and the Palestinian government — including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — for failing to help move the peace process with Israel in a productive direction.

Safieh blamed both nations, as well as the United States, for the lack of progress in the  peace process, saying that the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections was partly a result of corruption and stagnancy in the secular Fatah party and resulted in a year of “internal paralysis” that brought the nation near civil war. The leaders of Israel, he said, have consistently rejected the offer of an historic compromise that would return both nations to their boundaries prior to 1967, when Israel gained new territory in the Six Day War. The United States, he said, aligned itself with “one belligerent player in the conflict,” and has antagonized its own “social and domestic fabric” and perpetuated the peace process without actually achieving peace.

“I believe that in this world of ours, which today is described as unipolar and monopolar with only one remaining superpower, that nonalignment should be what characterizes American foreign policy,” he said.

Safieh said that, paradoxically, Israel’s development as a nation has put the Palestinian people in the same position of uncertainty that characterized Europe’s Jews before Israel was founded in 1948. “We believe that Israel was supposed to be the answer to what was called the Jewish question,” Safieh said. “Now, we are the question awaiting an answer.”

After Safieh spoke, he took questions from the audience, addressing topics ranging from safety concerns at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which has been the capital of both the Israeli and Palestinian nations, to the proposed accords in the mid-1990s.

“If peace is to come in the near future, the Palestinian people will have to swallow this 50 years of history,” said Slavi Vassilev (CAS’07). “It seems to me it cannot be erased — how is this peace going to come?”

“Eighty percent of the Palestinian people have known nothing but occupation, from birth to death,” Salieh responded. “But we have to dream of the future.”

Students attending the event said that they had come to the lecture to learn about the conflict from a firsthand perspective. “I want both sides of the story,” said Shadab Mahmud (ENG’07), president of the Bangladeshi Student Organization. “I want to see the Israeli ambassador make a good case for Israel and the Palestinian ambassador to do the same for Palestine. I want to hear each of them state their opinion and allow students to have an opportunity to make their own conclusions.”

“It’s not every day you get to hear from the Palestinian ambassador,” added Jolianne Ray (COM’07). “It’s great to be able to hear what ideas are coming out of the area and hear what these people have to say for themselves, instead of hearing other people speak for them.”

“This is one of the most important political and economic situations going on in the world,” said Nael Musleh (ENG’09), vice president of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Alliance. “In my freshman year, I’d ask my floormates to give me the first word that came to mind when I said ‘Middle East’ or ‘Palestine.’ And the word they always chose was terrorist or terrorism. This ignorance should be replaced with knowledge about the situation.”

The leaders of BU Hillel and the Muslim Students Association asked how their groups could encourage students to work together to resolve the conflict.

“Our coexistence is unavoidable, but our existence is extremely unhappy,” Safieh said. “My advice to everybody is to adopt a universalistic approach, and not a tribalistic approach. Our two societies are burdened or plagued — or blessed — with too much history, too much theology, and too little geography.”

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu. Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.