Bell, Hagopian discuss Mideast

by Charles Gardner | 5/23/01 5:00am

Visiting speakers Avi Bell and Dr. Elaine Hagopian discussed Arab-Palestinian relations in an animated debate held before a full house at Rocky 2 last evening.

The discussion -- entitled "Violence Reaches New Levels: Where is the Crisis in Israel Headed?" -- featured presentations by each of the speakers, followed by a lengthy question and answer session.

Avi Bell, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in Juridical Science at Harvard Law School, was first to present his take on the current situation in the Middle East.

According to Bell, the source of the ongoing conflict can be traced to a lack of respect for the right of peoples to form, inhabit and administer countries of their own.

"Most Palestinians still do not recognize Israel's right to national self-determination," Bell said.

Bell drew on 4,000 years of history in tracing the development of the current conflict, mentioning the longstanding historical ties both Jews and Palestinians have to the Holy Land.

"We have here a land that is cherished by two very distinct peoples," he said, adding that while conflict between Arabs and Jews has long existed, questions of national identity, as represented by the Zionist Movement and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, are relatively more recent.

Bell described the PLO, which was founded in the 1960s, as an organization "originally dedicated to the armed destruction of Israel," which has since grown to recognize the possibilities for Palestinian nationhood without destroying the state of Israel.

With regard to recent events in Israel, Bell accused the PLO of perpetuating the current eight-month long Palestinian uprising through radio broadcasts and other means.

"There is no indication from the PLO that they are willing to end the violence," he said.

He also found fault with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he claimed rejected recent Israeli peace proposals while offering no counter-proposal of his own.

In light of the refusal of Palestinians to compromise, Bell was not hopeful of any immediate resolution to the conflict.

"Today peace remains a very remote possibility," he said.

"I am hopeful that in the end we will be able to make a peace that accommodates both human rights and national rights."

Dr. Hagopian, who currently serves as professor emeritus of sociology at Simmons College in Boston, offered a contrasting perspective on the conflict.

"Israel has two faces," she began. "It's a haven, an identity, and a history and means something very important to Jews. The other face that Palestinians see is that of a colonial settler state."

Hagopian emphasized that Israel was colonized from Europe, and linked Palestinian discontent to the often colonialist oppression of the Israeli state.

Discussing the formation of the state of Israel, she identified one of the tenets of Zionism as "population transfer," which she described as being "a euphemism for ethnic cleansing."

In support of this claim, she cited the outcome of the 1947 United Nations decision to partition Palestine, after which, according to Hagopian, "Zionists began to move in and began evicting people ... in the end, they expelled approximately 85 percent of the Palestinian population."

Describing the primary source of the conflict as being the continuing Israeli settlement of disputed areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, she asserted that Israel must cease such settlement if peace is to be achieved.

In recent negotiations, held during the summer of 1999, Hagopian said Israel had entered peace talks while permitting Israeli settlement of Palestinian controlled areas.

"If you are interested in a durable peace, you don't increase settlement," she said.

Accounting for the current Palestinian uprising, Hagopian blamed both the PLO and Arafat, whom she said failed to secure an offer that would have tied Israeli actions to international law, in addition to Israel, which she said did not help matters by electing a "war criminal" in Ariel Sharon and by continuing settlement.

Hagopian said that Israel is permitted to oppress Palestinians because of its image as a haven, rather than a colonialist state. While expressing sympathy for Israelis and their right to a state of their own, she called on Israel to accept responsibility for its actions, and to ideally push for the formation of a Palestinian state whose borders would be satisfactory to both Israelis and Palestinians.

After the presentation, the speakers fielded numerous questions from Michael Sevi '02, president of the Dartmouth Alliance for Middle East Awareness, which sponsored the debate, as well as audience members.

During the questioning, Bell expressed doubt over the recent actions of the Israeli Government in using F-16 fighter jets to respond to a suicide bombing, while Hagopian answered questions over the best means for civilians to defend themselves against terrorist attacks.

Other questions concerned the plight of Palestinians, findings from reports on the conflict, and anti-Arab discrimination in Israel.