Middle East affairs stir divisions - Catholic Courier

Middle East affairs stir divisions

ROCHESTER — The enmity between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants of southern Lebanon came to a head July 12, when the two factions began a bloody 34-day war. Although both parties have adhered to a United Nations-brokered cease-fire since Aug. 14, the clash sparked heated debates around the globe, and strong differences of opinion still remain locally.

David Saranga, consul for media and public affairs with the Consulate General of Israel in New York City, recently visited Rochester as part of a media tour throughout the consulate’s territory, which covers the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. During an interview with the Catholic Courier, he touched on a number of subjects, including Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Dr. Aly Nahas, a founding member of the Islamic Center of Rochester and a signatory of the 2003 Catholic-Muslim Agreement, also recently shared his views on issues affecting the Middle East. Saranga and Nahas differ substantially in their perspectives, underscoring the division between deeply held beliefs and viewpoints of people around the world.

Saranga asserted that there could be peace in the Middle East if Israel’s enemies wanted it. He noted that Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel. Were it not for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept a deal brokered by President Bill Clinton, Israel would be at peace with the Palestinians as well, he said.

“Every Arab country who wanted to have peace with Israel succeeded,” Saranga said during a Sept. 14 interview at the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester.

Nahas, on the other hand, said he does not believe there can be peace in the Middle East while Israel still occupies Palestinian land in the West Bank. Arafat could not have agreed to Clinton’s deal, Nahas said during a Sept. 26 interview, because he knew Ariel Sharon — who would soon become Israel’s next prime minister — would not support or adhere to the deal.

Saranga also defended Israel’s use in the recent war of cluster bombs, which eject submunitions, or bomblets. Human-rights activists have opposed the use of such bombs because of the large number of civilians harmed by them. Because these bombs do harm to so many civilians, Nahas believes they violate the Geneva Conventions, which protects civilians and grants them freedom from indiscriminate attacks.

Catholic News Service recently reported that Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to United Nations agencies in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a statement lamenting use of the bombs in Lebanon and called for a moratorium on their employment in war.

“(The use of cluster bombs) tragically demonstrates to us evidence of a humanitarian tragedy unfolding before our eyes,” the archbishop said Sept. 1.

Yet “the munitions that we are using are the same munitions used by every other country,” Saranga said.

He said that if civilians were harmed by Israeli bombing, it was because Hezbollah located its bases and arms depots in areas populated by civilians and “cynically” exploited their deaths for propaganda purposes. He also asserted that Hezbollah deliberately targeted Israeli civilians with thousands of missile attacks during the war. Deliberately attacking civilians has been a tactic used by terrorist groups based in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, he added.

Nahas said many Lebanese civilians were killed because Israeli forces struck bridges, roads, airports, gas stations and other places that were crucial to the country’s infrastructure. This meant that attacks occurred in places where civilians — instead of strictly Hezbollah militants — were gathered, he said.

“When you hit roads, there are civilians and cars in the roads. When you hit bridges, there are pedestrians and cars on the bridges. What does this have to do with Hezbollah?” Nahas asked. “Israel was out to destroy the infrastructure of Lebanon, which they succeeded in doing. It will take billions of dollars and years to rebuild, and … (the attacks) killed a lot of civilians.”

When queried about Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Saranga said the Iranian leader was “not only a threat to Israel, he’s a threat to the Western world.” The Israeli diplomat noted that Iran has missiles that could hit Europe, and called on the international community to continue pressuring Iran to reconsider its current policy.

Nahas, meanwhile, said it was somewhat hypocritical for Israelis to accuse Iranian leaders of developing nuclear bombs, since Israel itself is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons.

“How can somebody with … nuclear bombs talk about somebody who is accused of trying to develop nuclear bombs? It’s like a millionaire who is trying to attack a young guy who is trying to make a buck,” Nahas said.

Contains reporting by Rob Cullivan.

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