Sunday, October 15, 2000

Local Arabs rally for peace

Recent violence evokes powerful emotions

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Safi Safi was born in Covington, played football at Ryle High School and studies electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. But Saturday, the 21-year-old came out to Fountain Square to show his Palestinian roots, and to help call for peace in the Middle East.

        “People used to say I must be a terrorist because my parents are Palestinian, and I've been called every single name you can think of, but I'm proud to be Palestinian,” Mr. Safi said. “I want peace, and can show it peacefully.”

        Mr. Safi was one of about 150 who turned out for the rally, held to promote the Arab point of view about the conflict in the Middle East and to pray for peace.

        Several signs at the rally displayed the image of Mohammed Jamal Aldura, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed earlier this month by Israeli soldiers as he huddled in his father's arms during a fierce Israeli-Palestinian clash. Captured by a television camera, the image was broadcast around the world.

        Unlike the turmoil overseas, the event was peaceful. The crowd marched around the square, lined Fourth Street to wave signs and chant, and turned to pray toward Mecca late in the afternoon. There were no counter-protesters.

        “We're all Americans and want peace,” said Dr. Inayat Malik, an Indian Hill physician who moved to the United States from Pakistan in the 1960s and is chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Islamic Center. “It has gotten as bad as it can get, and it has to stop.”

        Many said they came to present a united front to U.S. leaders, whom they perceive as favoring Israel with foreign aid and in peace negotiations.

        Recent violence, which in 17 days has killed nearly 100 — most of them Palestinians — escalated dangerously on Thursday when a Palestinian mob beat two captured Israeli reserve soldiers to death, and Israel retaliated by rocketing Palestinian command targets.

        “You are citizens, and come April 15, the U.S. government doesn't say you don't have to pay taxes,” said Majed Dabdoub, who helped organize and lead the rally. “They ask where the money is. Well, there are 6,000 Arabs in Greater Cincinnati, and we need to start speaking out about where our money is spent.”

        Saturday, President Clinton announced he would attend a meeting of Israeli President Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Egypt on Monday in an attempt to stop the violence.

        Many at the rally saw the announcement as a good sign and thought peace could be achieved; but others thought the summit wouldn't stop the current violence.

        “Until we are treated like a respected equal at the bargaining table, it will never happen,” said Amin Shafie of Monfort Heights, who came to the United States 30 years ago from Palestine and is now a computer specialist at the University of Cincinnati.

        Muhammad Hilmi, a 21-year-old Palestinian who is studying computer science at Northern Kentucky University, said he hopes it happens for the sake of his family back home in Jerusalem.

        “It's not as bad there as it is in Gaza or the West Bank, but there is still danger,” Mr. Hilmi said. “If this summer doesn't work, it's only going to get worse.”

        Mr. Safi said a childhood visit to his parents' homeland showed him how difficult lasting peace would be to achieve. He said he had a scare when he was 8 years old, because he pretended to throw a foil ice-cream wrapper at Israeli soldiers.

        “One of them raised their gun at me, thinking I had a rock or a grenade or something and another one stopped him,” Mr. Safi said. “It's very scary over there and it's going to take a lot to fix it.”


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