Interfaith mission probes Mideast peace issues

A Palestinian boy in the town of Duma holds a signed “peace ball” from Tucson’s Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk. (Paul Afek)

It sounds like the start of a “walks into a bar” joke — four Jews, four Muslims and two Christians traveled from Tucson to Israel and the Palestinian territories. But this was a serious interfaith peace mission organized by the International Center for Peace and Justice, a local organization, which took place Nov. 27 to Dec. 11. Participants visited sites in Jerusalem from the Temple Mount to the Al Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall, as well as Bethlehem, Sderot, Haifa and the West Bank. They met with representatives of Rabbis for Human Rights and Palestinian peace activists, had dinner with Israeli families and lunch in Hebron with the Shaheen family, whose son lives in Tucson.

The group also met with Sherri Mandell, journalist and author of “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” whose 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by Arab terrorists in 2001. She and her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, have since started the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs healing programs for families affected by terrorist attacks or acts of war.

Three of the mission’s participants spoke with the AJP recently at a local coffee shop. “Basically everyone wants to live in safety and peace,” said Fayez Swailem, one of the Muslim participants. “People are people. They’re all worried about their family, their children.” A professor of nuclear medicine and radiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine since 1980, Swailem was born in Cairo, Egypt. It was his first visit to Israel.

The group met with people who had myriad political views — some who prefer a single Jewish state and others who support a two-state solution. “Many Israelis disapproved of [President Barack] Obama’s speech in Cairo” following his 2008 election, said Art Aldag, who’d also made his first trip to Israel. A former engineering professor at the University of Oklahoma, Aldag, who is a Methodist, retired to Tucson seven years ago.

“There has to be equitable treatment” toward all factions in the Middle East, he said, adding that “a lot of money is headed toward Israel. Our government tends to support Israel.”

The United States has “a big interest in the Middle East. There’s a lot of business there,” said Swailem. If everyone benefits “it’s a win-win economically as well as from a humanitarian viewpoint,” Aldag added.

Workers are being brought into Israel from the Philippines, said Swailem. “Let people come in from the territories to work [in Israel]. There’s so much frustration” on the part of unemployed Palestinians.

For Dina Afek, a local Jewish attorney who has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, “It was quite shocking to see the whole landscape littered with checkpoints, even more than in 2009” on her last visit. “There seems to be a complete separation between Israel and the [Palestinian] territories. It’s like they aren’t there,” she said.

But denial won’t work, according to the three trip participants. “We know Hamas is a bunch of troublemakers,” said Swailem. “The Israeli government needs to get something done with Fatah or else Hamas claims victory.”

And that would “shift us back to more violence,” said Afek. “I understand the fear that Israelis have. The average Israeli has no contact with Palestinians.” Both sides need to change their perceptions, which are often sensationalized, she added. “Both sides are trying their best. We always hear that no Palestinians are working for peace. That’s not true.”

“Fear plays well in the press,” said Aldag. “Instead of hearing about peace movements we like to see the bombs exploding.” Afek noted that “it was unusual for people to see an interfaith group, both in Israel and Palestine,” which points up the need for more collaboration.

All three agreed that U.S. involvement is critical to bringing about a two-state solution, and that an important step in promoting a deal would be for the United States to pressure both Israel and Egypt. “They get the most foreign aid. The United States should put some restrictions on both,” affirmed Afek. “It’s essential that we push our government to intervene. If two guys are fighting in a bar you can’t just say ‘make nice.’”

It’s frustrating when “we always get close to an agreement,” said Aldag, “and something happens to break that trust.”

In 1979, “Egypt made peace with Israel as a first step,” said Swailem. “The Egyptian people are happy to have their land back and there’s no war. The fact is Egypt is the leader of the Arab countries. Whatever Egypt does — even during its current turmoil — other Arab countries will follow.” Another important step, he said, is “we must isolate Hamas and Iran.”

Israel “must stop the settlement construction,” says Afek. If the occupation ends, the Arab League peace initiative of 2002, which was re-endorsed in 2007, could be looked at again. The plan proposes a normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab countries if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and the refugee issue is addressed diplomatically.

“Demanding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state from the Palestinians is not realistic and does not make sense,” said Afek. “What would that mean for the 20 percent of Israelis who aren’t Jewish, most of whom identify as Palestinians?”

Palestinians living in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, said Aldag, “were terrorized. They didn’t know what Israel was going to do.” Generalizations abound: Just as all Gazans weren’t shooting rockets into Israel, “no one organization speaks for the entire Jewish community,” said Afek. “There are extremists on both sides.”

Afek has her own theory about support for the Jewish state: “Zionism and Israel are the foundations for Jews instead of religion,” she said. “Support for Israel, especially since 1967, holds the Jewish community together. There’s tremendous fear that if you rock that structure the whole house will fall down.”

“We need to build a new structure that involves justice for all. We definitely want Israel to exist,” said Swailem. The debate “is more about nationalism than religious values,” added Aldag, while Afek opined that it’s important “to appeal to American values, to justice” for Palestinians who don’t believe their lives will change.

For many young Palestinians the crux of the problem is the dire economic situation, said Swailem. Considering that a suicide bomber may say, “‘I have nothing’ and would go to paradise, if he had a house, a family, a job, would he do this?”

There will be a presentation about the interfaith mission at Congregation Or Chadash Shabbat services on Friday, Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, contact Paul Afek at paul.afek@gmail.com.