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Local Jews, Muslims say peace deal will be hard

January 04, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Tri-State area Jews and Muslims interviewed Tuesday expressed hope for peace in the Mideast and doubt that it would be easily achieved.

Rabbi Janice Garfunkel, of Congregation B'nai Abraham in Hagerstown, said she was hopeful that Israeli and Syrian diplomats would make progress during peace talks being held in Shepherdstown, W.Va. But she said she also is realistic.

"I think it's neat that they're (talks) happening in our back yard. It's exciting," she said. "It's exciting that they're happening at all."

But as a former resident of Israel who has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, Garfunkel said she worries about the consequences of returning to Syria the Golan Heights, a strategic piece of territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

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"I personally am rather skeptical of the idea of purchasing peace," she said. "As an outsider, I don't know what guarantees can guarantee Syria is not going to attack Israel again."

Some local Muslims questioned whether Israel is placing too many demands on Syria at the beginning of the process.

Imam Omar Baloch, the religious leader of the Hagerstown-based Islamic Society of Western Maryland, cited Israel's insistence that Syria stop independent terrorist groups. He questioned whether Syria has the ability to do that.

"When you're talking peace, you don't give conditions," he said.

Baloch said he understands Israel's concerns over security. But he criticized one suggestion that Syria move its troops north of the capital, Damascus.

"If you put your army north of Damascus, there's no defense of Syria," he said.

Whatever their differences, people on both sides of the Mideast question expressed a desire to see Israel and Syria resolve their decades-long conflict.

"It's interesting that the talks are being held in Shepherdstown, which is, of course, a biblical term," Baloch said.

Baloch said both countries must be willing to make major concessions for peace to succeed.

Garfunkel said her congregation has invited members of the Israeli media and the country's delegation to services on Friday.

She said Americans - including Jewish Americans - tend to be more willing to favor trading land for peace. But she said many Americans do not appreciate Israel's size.

For example, the entire Golan Heights, which is about 12 miles wide, can be seen from a helicopter. The country, itself, is roughly the size of New Jersey and has slightly more people than Maryland.

"I think it really does help to be there, physically," Garfunkel said. "I think visitors, in general, are always surprised by how small it is."

When Garfunkel lived in Israel, she coordinated a program that brought children from Britain to Ein Gev, a region just south of the Golan Heights.

"If the peace doesn't work, they're the ones that will bear the brunt of it," she said.

Hagerstown resident Risa Strauss, who lived in Israel for nearly 10 years, said the Golan Heights has been developed over the last three decades. She said giving the territory back to Syria would uproot hundreds of families.

"I can't imagine it. If they can work it out, great," she said. "There's a lot of Jewish history as well as Muslim and Christian history. And people live there It's been a part of life for more than a generation."

Strauss also noted the psychological toll past wars have taken. She recalled how during the Gulf War "the house shook every time one of those Scuds hit and I had to put my kid in an oxygen tent."

But she said she hopes to see peace.

Abdul Waheed, a Pakistani-born Muslim who lives in Hagerstown, said he also is hopeful. He noted that Islam's holy month of Ramadan ends this week.

"We are praying a lot for peace in the world at this time, anyway," he said.

Baloch said the differences separating the two nations are vast, but added that he believes both have reached the point where they recognize the need to negotiate. He noted that most other Arab countries already have recognized Israel.

"I think the more countries that come to peace with Israel, the better it will be," Waheed said.

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