On Thursday evening, May 29, a group of Israeli and Arab college students were aired live on Al Jazeera from Haifa from where they participated in a special two-hour program. The college students, who hailed from Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion, Haifa, and Bar Ilan universities, were asked questions about the future of the state of Israel and about the history and present situation of its citizens.
Sderot Media Center's Anav Silverman, a third-year student at Bar Ilan University participated in the debate. She writes about her experience in the following blog.
As one of three students from Bar Ilan University invited to an Al Jazeera program, I found myself on an usually warm night debating the future state of Israel with Fayid, Remah, and several other Arab students studying in Israeli universities. The whole evening was a bit surreal. Here I was, in Haifa, taking about the future of the state of Israel with people who clearly had a very different idea of the Jewish state, on the last TV station I would ever imagine appearing on -- Al Jazeera!
Of course it was imperative for me to talk about Sderot, the rocket attacks, and the suffering of the Israeli residents in this western Negev town. I've been talking a lot about this rocket situation for the past year -- just ask any of my friends and my family back in Maine. However, I would never consider having the opportunity to present the horrifying rocket reality in Sderot and the western Negev on Al Jazeera.
Walid Omary, the program's host and Al Jazeera's Jerusalem Bureau Chief, asked us questions, and then had two panel guests comment on our commentary. Each student was given a minute or so to respond to Omary's questions as the cameras in the background recorded our exchange.
There were obviously many and varying opinions but we were all basically civil on camera. Walid asked us what we thought the solutions for peace were and how we envisioned the state of Israel in another few years. One Arab girl said that in order for peace to exist, the state of Israel can no longer be Jewish and that the concept of Zionism had to be completely eradicated. The president of the Haifa Student Council for Arabs stated similarly that there should be a secular state.
It surprised me how most of the Arab students were not for a two-state solution.
We got into heated discussions off-camera during the advertisement breaks. One debate involved the origin of falafel and the kafiyah.
I got the feeling that none of the Arab students truly recognized a Jewish state of Israel. The Holocaust was mentioned as the primary reason for a Jewish homeland from a couple of Arab students. The historical and religious ties that the Jewish people have with this land was not recognized by any of the Palestinians, except by one of the panel guests. Many of the Arab college students stated that Palestinian right of return was fundamental to peace.
I had an interesting conversation during the break with an Arab girl from Haifa University who described herself as atheist. Her father, she told me headed a human rights organization. When I spoke about Sderot and how Palestinian terror organizations like Hamas and Fatah's Al Aqsa brigades frequently wound and damage property belonging to innocent Israeli civilians, this Haifa student asked me if I understood why.
"The people in Gaza have been forced to live without water and fuel," she said. "They are desperate."
I pointed out that Israel has been forced to respond in this fashion in order to limit the number of Palestinian casualties that would result if the IDF was to enter in a full scale military operation in Gaza. According to the IDF, 97% of the Palestinian rockets are fired from civilian and residential areas in northern Gaza, especially from the populated cities of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya.
"What other way does Israel have to attempt to stop the Qassam rocket fire that plagues Sderot and the western Negev on a daily basis?" I asked her.
A couple of the Arab students also said that they had no rights in Israel. This sounded rather inaccurate to me, especially in reference to religious rights. I told the panel and the students that only last year, I saw two Arab men praying on the campus lawn in my university, Bar Ilan, which is a religious (Jewish) institution. "I would never be able to enter Gaza, Syria, or Saudi Arabia and be able to pray there freely as Jew," I said.
The debate would have continued except that the program ended at 10:00 p.m., and we all had classes at our respective universities the next morning.
This was the first time that I directly engaged in this kind of dialogue with Arab students. Working and living part time in Sderot under rocket fire has not made me lose perspective -- there are human faces in the Arab-Israeli conflict on both ends. On either side we have a right to voice the opinions that we believe to be true. I was glad to have the opportunity to do so.