Published: April 14, 2002
Star Tribune
Edition: METRO
Section: NEWS
Page#: 01A

By Eric Black; Staff Writer
Mark Rotenberg of Minneapolis lost a cousin in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He also heard the explosion and saw the bloody corpse of a Palestinian suicide bomber on the streets of Jerusalem in December.

Like many supporters of Israel, Rotenberg said that for Israel, as for America, the fight against terrorism trumps other considerations. No nation should be asked or expected to tolerate the organized murder of its citizens, no matter the grievance behind the attacks, he said.

Ziad Amra of Minneapolis also lost a cousin and almost lost a brother. It was a few years back, when the Amra family was living in the occupied West Bank. The cousin was killed and the brother was captured by Israeli troops, he said.

For Amra, as for most supporters of the Palestinian cause, the central fact of Mideast violence is the 35-year Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. When the Palestinians have a state on the territory Israel captured in 1967, Israel will have peace, he said. Not before.

The differences between the ways Amra and Rotenberg approach the issue reflects a chasm between mainstream opinions held in Israel and by most American Jews and those held by Palestinians and Arabs generally, including most Arab-Americans.

Israelis and Palestinians have an intertwined history over the past 100 years. But even the settled facts of that history are interpreted very differently, depending on which side of the tribal divide holds one's sympathies.

From the Israeli side, the central narrative features an ancient people unjustly evicted from their homeland centuries ago, subjected to depthless oppression and genocide during centuries of wandering, until they were able to re-create a small state in which Jews from anywhere in the world can find refuge. But this nation, since the moment of its creation, has had to withstand what Rotenberg called ``an unremitting refusal by Arabs in the Mideast to accept the existence of an independent, secure Jewish state.''

The Palestinian narrative includes many of the same locales, the same wars, the same U.N. resolutions. But it features a different population, one that was essentially minding its own business when a group of foreigners arrived, declared themselves the long-absent but rightful owners and evicted the Palestinian Arabs from territory their ancestors had inhabited for more than a thousand years. The Palestinians resisted and, they say, have been oppressed, occupied and branded as terrorists ever since because of their refusal to embrace the catastrophe that descended on them when the Zionist dream became the Palestinian nightmare.

Tune into the argument and the fighting at any important point over the last 50 years and you can see how the events are worked by the two sides into these basic story lines. Or, just ask Rotenberg and Amra, knowledgeable, highly involved partisans of the two sides, to explain the events of the last two years, during which the search for peace passed from moments of great hope to widespread despair. Each blames the other side for the descent into suicide bombings and sieges. Each says his own side stands ready to embrace peace with a two-state solution. Each says the other side doesn't mean it when it says that.

Two stories

Rotenberg, 47, a Minneapolis native, is general counsel for the University of Minnesota. His father was one of the area's outspoken advocates for a Jewish state, he said. Rotenberg is one of the founders of Minnesotans Against Terrorism, which recently bought a full-page ad in the Star Tribune to complain about what it believes is anti-Israeli bias in the newspaper's coverage.

He has been to Israel six times, including a trip last December when he and a fellow Minnesotan got separated from their group after a prayer service at the Western Wall. So they hailed a cab to get back to their hotel. It became a ride they would never forget.

Amra, 32, is a corporate banker with U.S. Bank with degrees in law and business. His father, a surgeon, came to the United States from Ramallah, in the West Bank, in 1950. Ziad Amra was born in Shakopee and has lived in Minnesota except for a couple of sojourns in the West Bank. He is a board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, of which his sister, Soraya Amra, is the chairwoman.

In 1987, the Amras were living in Ramallah while Ziad was in college and he would join them during vacations. That December, the first intefadeh broke out and the Israeli military cracked down. During Amra's visit in the summer of 1989, a cousin, also a U.S. citizen, was picked up by Israeli troops, an event that figures heavily in Amra's views on the conflict.

As Rotenberg and his friend sat in their cab outside the Jerusalem Hilton last December, they heard an explosion, followed by running and screaming. In the street next to the cab was the body of a Palestinian man who had blown himself up. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert had been meeting in the hotel at the time, and Israeli authorities assumed that meeting had been the bomber's target but that ``the bomb went off too soon, at least from his standpoint,'' Rotenberg said.

Amra and his father found the body of the missing cousin, whom they believe was killed by Israeli troops. He was helping his father bury the body when an Israeli patrol came by, fired on them, dug up the body and took it away, he said. The Israelis later told the Amras that they couldn't determine who had killed the boy. Later, Amra's younger brother, then 12, went missing. His mother ``almost had a nervous breakdown,'' Amra recalled. But the boy turned up, said he had been arrested and left in a metal cage in the hot sun, then had been released. The family soon returned to the safety of Minnesota.

Rotenberg said his encounter with a suicide bomber ``changed my life. Combined with the fact that my cousin was killed in the World Trade Center, it has brought home to me in a very immediate sense that terrorism must be fought _ everywhere.''

Israeli government spokesmen like to draw a close analogy between Israel and the United States: two nations attacked by terrorists. Washington gave the Taliban a chance to crack down on Al-Qaida, but it wouldn't. Israel gave Yasser Arafat a chance to control Palestinian terrorists, but he encourages, funds and directs them instead.

Rotenberg's conclusion: ``The government of Israel has a moral and legal right to respond _ just as the United States has responded _ with lethal force against the sources of terrorism on its soil.''

Amra said he was just reporting the facts of his family's 1989 experience. ``I'm not going to give you an editorial,'' he said. But his version of events in the Mideast makes clear that he believes the Israeli occupation has been the great injustice and the chief source of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel says it wants to end the occupation, but it has never stopped building and expanding its settlements. Amra said that Israel's plan has always been ``to maintain the occupation in perpetuity by various means.''

Amra condemns acts that murder civilians. ``But the Palestinian suicide bombings have to be taken in the context of a whole generation being raised on nothing but Israeli occupation, murder, torture and the building of settlements. They see no hope that their enslavement will ever end and they take out their anger and their hatred and their wish to die. So I think if we want to talk about terrorism and killing of innocent civilians, then we need to be fair and talk about Israeli killing of innocent Palestinian civilians and that it's been going on for 35 years in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.''

When Israelis say that no discussion of ending the occupation can resume until the terrorism stops, it strikes Amra as analagous to an attacker who is raping his victim. ``The victim is screaming and scratching. The attacker says he's not going to stop raping you until you stop screaming and scratching.''

Rotenberg declined to respond directly to such an analogy. He agrees that the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza live in pitiable and desperate circumstances and that the solution is for them to have a state of their own. But, he said, people in many parts of the world live in desperate circumstances without turning to organized terrorism.

``The deliberate choice to target civilians for death as their tactic of choice lies at the feet of Arafat and his terrorist accomplices,'' Rotenberg said.


A prime example

Amra agrees that for many years after Israel was created, the Palestinian goal was to destroy the Jewish state. But during the 1980s and especially after the start of the Oslo process of the 1990s, he said, Arafat and most Palestinians embraced a new goal of obtaining an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza that would live in peace alongside Israel.

Rotenberg agrees that it was a hopeful sign when Arafat signed the Oslo accords, renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to exist. But subsequent events, he said, have proven that Arafat was lying. If Arafat had been telling the truth, Rotenberg said, he would not have rejected the offers made in 2000 by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which would have ended the occupation and created a Palestinian state on almost all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The story of those negotiations is a prime example of the parallel interpretations of events in the ongoing struggle.

In the mainstream Israeli version, Barak offered the Palestinians almost everything they asked for, but Arafat turned it down, refused to make a counterproposal and instead unleashed the terror campaign that has continued ever since.

To Rotenberg and to most Israelis, these developments demonstrated that Arafat has not really abandoned his goal of destroying Israel, is a liar, a deal breaker, a terrorist and for all of those reasons is not a partner with whom Israel can negotiate a land-for-peace deal, because Israel will likely give up the land but not get the peace.

Amra said the deal offered by Barak at Camp David in September 2000 was not nearly so generous as Israel insists. Israel says Barak offered the Palestinians 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and 90 percent of the West Bank. But that calculation excludes East Jerusalem _ also captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The offer would have provided Palestinian control over some neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, Amra said, but would have left Israel sovereign over others and would have annexed to Israel several big settlements. Then Israel proposed to retain control for a number of years of the border between the Palestinian state and Jordan and imposed other restrictions on Palestinian defense capabilities, water supplies and other aspects of sovereignty.

Finally, Amra said, the deal offered almost nothing to the Palestinian families who lost their homes and property when they fled Israel during the 1947-49 war. Amra said that he and most Palestinians realize that millions of Palestinians will not be moving back to their homes and villages inside Israel but that it is vital for Israel to acknowledge that they have a legal and moral right to return.

Rotenberg said he has heard the Palestinian version about the offer that Arafat declined. ``I think it was more than a pretty good offer. I think it was a workable and viable two-state solution and so did the United States government. All of the quibbling about which neighborhoods of Jerusalem were on which side of the line should not erase the fact that 99 percent of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would have been under Palestinian rule, and billions and billions of dollars of aid would have flowed in from the U.S. and the European Union and from Israel, and there's no doubt that accepting that proposal would have enormously alleviated the desperate conditions that the Palestinian people suffer from.''

Amra said the deal still amounted to an offer that would make Arafat ``like a Quisling, heading a Vichy-style government where he would control his own people for them and in exchange he would have a flag and some policemen and get to pretend he had a state.''

Eric Black is at eblack@startribune.com.


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