Violence and tensions are so heightened in the Middle East that despite Palestinian and UN protests, Israelis are building a fence to physically separate themselves from Palestine.
But at Lehigh, Jewish and Israeli students sat next to Muslim and Palestinian students Thursday afternoon in the Sinclair Laboratory auditorium and talked openly, honestly, and humanely about the volatile situation in front of a packed room of more than 150 people.
Nathaniel Golub '04, co-president of the Hillel Society, admitted he's witnessed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and Muslims and Jews at Lehigh. "But things are moving in the right direction," he said. "This is the first step in leading this campus to a point of continuing dialogue about the situation in the Middle East."
Faisal Khan, graduate student and president of the Muslim Student Association, agreed that most students he's encountered at Lehigh appear to be enlightened and accepting.
But not all. "People have asked me if I'm a bomber," he said in citing one of the most offensive comments he's heard since the 9-11 attacks. "I want to educate people about the Muslim side and create a peaceful dialogue."
Other panel members included Gil Cnaan ('06), an Israeli student from Jerusalem and Mohammed Matar ('07), Palestinian student from Gaza. Eamon Aloyo, graduate student in political science, moderated the event.
"The students who participated in the event accomplished something elected officials seem unable to achieve," said Bill Hunter, director of the office of international students and scholars. "They brought together Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews, and carried on a very frank and open discussion about the region and how peace might be realized."
Barriers to peace
After expressing their goals concerning future dialogue on the Middle East at Lehigh, the panel members opened up the floor for questions. Recurring themes were the media's representation of the situation and the barriers to peace, such as suicide bombings and the heavily debated separation wall.
In response to a question about why the media places more emphasis on suicide bombings in Israel than the plight of the Palestinian people, Matar said that the root problem is the lack of factual reporting.
"Palestinians will say 500 were killed and Israelis will say 50, and no media is allowed in there, so no one knows the true facts,” Matar said.
Khan explained his viewpoint with a quote: "I once heard a journalist say, 'We report on Israelis dying because it's news. We don't report on Palestinians dying because it's not news--it happens every day.'"
Cnaan disagreed. "The U.S. media is driven by money, and an in-depth report on what's happening in the Middle East won't make money. Sensationalism will. There is a background to every action, but we only see the horrific events."
On the topic of the controversial fence, Matar objected to it and said it's being built too far inside Palestine. "Farmers can't get to half of their land, because it's on the other side of the fence."
Khan agreed that it's a bad idea. "History has shown that fences don't work, and it's a physical barrier to peace."
Cnaan said the fence is being built to cut down on the violence, but he agreed that it probably won't work. "It's sad that these measures have to be taken, he said.
`Let’s make things better for everyone’
The dialogue became heated when the topic turned specifically to the topic of suicide bombings, especially after Cnaan told the crowd he lost his girlfriend in a terrorist attack.
"I'm not bitter--it's not worth it," he said. "In honor of her memory, let's make things better for everyone in the future. I understand that Palestine has no military, but attacking civilian targets is not acceptable. Point blank. I do not compromise on that."
Khan addressed the sense of helplessness in Palestine that leads to suicide bombings. "You need to understand what drives a person to take his own life--the abuse, repression. Their state doesn't even exist. They feel there is no other way."
All the panel members agreed that the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders are incapable of achieving peace. "Right now the situation is too unsettled and there's too much fear," Cnaan said.
Despite occasional moments of tension that punctuated the conversation, organizers said the general atmosphere of the event was open and hopeful.
"The panelists divulged some excellent information that I hope helped some other students better understand the situation and, above all, want to seek out more information," Ayolo said. "I think educating students now, before they become close-minded or indifferent, is extremely important--most people who are close-minded are indifferent largely because of a lack of information."
"We need to all understand the roots of the conflict," added Khan. "There needs to be change--the violence needs to stop. But the best thing we can do is educate ourselves and listen and learn about what's happening on both sides."