Center helps Israelis, Palestinians be friends

April 15, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

The Inner Harbor campus of Baltimore City Community College was neutral ground yesterday for 14 intense, but courteous, debaters from the Middle East -- Israeli and Palestinian students who said they couldn't be friends at home the way they are here.

For most of the visitors, this friendship was little more than a week old.

The group arrived in the United States April 6 from Israel and the occupied territories for a 12-day "conflict resolution" experiment sponsored by an international center at the University of Maryland College Park.

Adli Dana, one of the Palestinians, was asked if the experiment was working. "On a personal level, yes," he said.

"I live in Hebron, where the massacre took place," said Mr. Dana, an undergraduate studying biology at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, on the occupied West Bank north of Jerusalem. "To me, the Israelis are Rambos. I have known them only as soldiers, as settlers. They were harsh to us. I hated them a lot.

"But here, the social life is very good. We are outside, in a neutral place, not in the middle of the conflict. At home, it would be impossible for me to invite an Israeli to my university."

"Friendship with an Israeli -- here?" He repeated the question reflectively. The idea was new to him.

"Yes," he said. "We will try to use this when we go home."

One of his opposite numbers was Avraham Simon, an Israeli graduate student specializing in international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Avi, as he is known to the group, said of his new Palestinian friends, "On a personal level, I know now what's going on in their minds. On a personal level, we have very good relations."

But the debating sometimes was sharp, with old conflicts near the surface.

When Nasir Arafat, another Palestinian, held up a map of Israel and discussed boundaries, Mr. Simon corrected a mistake. The two were soon caught up in banter. "Thank you, Avi, for correcting me," said the Palestinian, smiling.

"You want to start a conflict here?" Mr. Simon replied. "You have to stick to the facts."

But they were smiling as they needled each other.

Group discussions, which began after lunch and a sunny tour of the Inner Harbor, brought the Middle East visitors together with about 25 student and faculty representatives of the community college.

James Hillmon, one of the community college students, suggested that recent interracial progress in the United States could be a model for both groups of visitors.

"It's taken us a long time to get where we are now," he said of relations between blacks and whites. "I see the same thing happening between Israelis and Palestinians."

"We have to disregard what happened in the past," said Mr. Simon. "I don't judge the past, it's history. Now, it's a question of what we do in the future. What keeps us coming back and back and back [to peace negotiations] is that we are human beings."

Mr. Dana interjected a note of realism. "This conference is changing images," he said, "but only by ending the occupation will we be able to have truly open relations."

Amir Jahansir, a College Park student helping to coordinate the project, said of yesterday's trip to Baltimore, "The discussions have definitely been interesting. Heated at times. We are working on the misunderstandings on both sides."

The reconciliation effort is sponsored by the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. The visitors came to Baltimore from Washington, where they are staying.

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