Forum on Middle East conflict discusses sources of grievance

by Tom Ford

The conflict between Israel and Palestine was identified at a Thursday forum at the St. Paul Student Center as a deep root of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

The forum, called “Middle Eastern Perspectives,” was organized by the Twin Cities Student Unions and addressed the issues underlying the conflict and the causes of widespread anger toward the United States in the Middle Eastern region.

Ragui Assaad, a University professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said anti-American sentiment in the Middle East doesn’t revolve around fundamental religious or cultural differences, but instead is based on very specific U.S. policies and actions in the region.

“What is probably the biggest source of grievance is what is seen as unquestioning and unconditional support of Israel,” Assaad said.

He said the United States allows Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – which many other nations regard as illegal – and has supplied Israel with weapons for several years.

Israel has placed settlements strategically in those areas, he said, in order to maintain their occupation. And while protecting those settlements, the nation harshly restricts movements of Palestinians through checkpoints and roadblocks, Assaad said.

Extremist Middle Eastern groups exploit the anger generated by situations like this to gain new recruits and sympathy for the religious war they wish to wage, he said.

“It’s a common myth that the settlements are illegal,” said Koby Nahmias, University graduate students and president of Friends of Israel.

Nahmias said Israel didn’t put those settlements there, and the Jews in those settlements went there of their own accord.

Many of those people, he said, were pushed off the settlements in 1948 by Jordan but maintained legitimate deeds to the land which Israeli courts recognize.

Stephan Silverfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said Israeli protection of settlements might be restrictive, but it’s often justified.

“It’s horrible to sit at a checkpoint for a long time, but if that checkpoint isn’t there, a suicide bomber gets through,” he said.

Palestinian authorities do not stop terrorists, he said, and Israel is forced to protect its own people.

Silverfarb said Israel and the United States support the creation of a Palestinian state, but an agreement must be equitable to both sides.

Assaad said although negotiations must progress, Israel possesses a great advantage in military force.

“The least that the Palestinians want is the participation of international parties who will talk as arbiters toward a fair solution,” he said.

Thursday’s event was the first in a series of four TCSU forums organized; all were held at the St. Paul Student Center.

“We decided to do this lecture series because we feel that student unions are a central gathering place of students,” said TCSU communications manager Lisa Solomon.

TCSU member Brad Hasskamp said the forums are organized as discussions rather than lectures to allow students a chance to participate in the event.

“We want to generate a town hall setting where students can be more open and vocal,” he said.

Three more November forums will be held to address the Sept. 11 attacks, their impact on the United States and global relations and also the implications of America’s war on terrorism.


Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]