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A change of mind about Israel

Hekmat Serhan passes evenings in a friend's shoe store in the capital of Qatar, sipping honey-laced tea and swapping stories. The two Palestinians have lived the consequences of a half century of hostility between Arabs and Israelis.

Both left Gaza after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict and ended up in Qatar, a country that promised nothing more than a renewable residence permit. Yet Mr. Serhan, now jobless and the father of 10, is surprisingly conciliatory when he talks about Israel. "Forget the political people. We want to live in peace with everybody, the Jews and the Christians, even the Buddhists," he says.

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Serhan is typical of a generation of Arabs who, analysts say, have been exhausted by the struggle with Israel and are desperate to end a conflict that has racked the region for a half century. The change in attitude, which has been gaining momentum for several years, may be one factor contributing to renewed interest among several Arab countries and Israel in reaching peace.

Such revived interest has already resulted in a new deal between Israelis and Palestinians, which was signed Sept. 4 in Egypt, heightening Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's role as a key player in the peace process.

And that is not the only peace track to be revived recently: Syria has also indicated it could be willing to resume negotiations with Israel.

"War has produced little but more war, devastated economies, and no solutions to problems," says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and co-director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"People are tired, and there has been a change of generation, she adds. "The vast majority of Arabs were born since Israel was established, so it is 'normal' in the region."

What led to hostilities

What Israel celebrates as its 1948 war of independence, Arabs know only as al Nakba, the disaster. The humiliating defeat of the Arab armies gave birth to a new generation of Arab leaders that advocated Arab unity and the destruction of the new Jewish state.

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Arabs rallied around the cause of the estimated 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel - the first of several waves of refugees.

But four Arab-Israeli wars and five decades later, the mood has begun to change. "There is a wide range of opinion in Arab societies about Israel, but since Oslo I [the 1993 peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians], most Arabs are prepared to accept Israel and to be at peace with Israel once the Palestinian problem is solved," says Ms. Kipper.

There are many signs of closer relationships in the region. One recent example is the presence of Israeli athletes in the World Youth Handball Championship in Qatar, which concluded over the weekend. It was the first time Israel competed in a sports tournament in the Gulf, and the first time the Jewish state had an entry in the youth handball tournament.

But the event had bumps along the way. In a sign that not all Arab countries overtly embrace a change of attitude about Israel, three Arab states - Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia - boycotted the games in protest of Israel's inclusion.

Yet in often small but significant ways, Arab-Israeli cooperation appears to be growing, frequently as a result of peace deals that Arab countries have already made with Israel. In Muscat, the capital of Oman, Israel is among countries that jointly operate a water-research institute. Arabs from several nations receive regular agricultural training in the Jewish state. Jordan operates an industrial zone with Israel. As part of a peace agreement the two countries signed in 1994, Jordan receives a portion of its water supply from its Jewish neighbor.

Regional trade also has increased. Between Israel and Egypt, non-oil-related trade has increased from $23 million in 1993 to $71 million last year. Between Israel and Jordan, combined exports and imports increased from $5 million in 1996 to roughly $40 million in 1998.

In some people's eyes, it all adds up to a picture that looks hopeful. "We don't want any more problems," says Serhan, the Palestinian. "I'm dreaming to go back to my father's land to build a house and live with my sons in peace."

Sharing some of Serhan's sentiments is Ghassan, a Lebanese now living in Doha who didn't want his last name used. Ghassan has swung from rejoicing at Egypt's surprise attack upon Israel in 1973 to building a friendship with Israel's trade representative to Qatar last year.

"I had met Israelis before, but I could not sit and talk with them the way I could with this guy," he says. "I dealt with him as a human being."

Viable options

The desire to end violence may reflect Arabs' viable options. "People are worn out and want to get on with their lives," says Thomas Mullins, the executive director of the Contemporary Arab Studies Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "This does not mean that the Arab peoples accept Israel ... only that outright war is no longer a realistic option."

Some, however, are skeptical of a lasting peace between Israelis and Arabs. Even if Israelis and Palestinians forge a final settlement, "I'm afraid what we'll have is bloodshed and conflict," says Hisham Sharabi, director for the Center of Policy Analysis on Palestine and emeritus professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington.

Adnan, a Syrian who works at a small restaurant in Doha, also has reservations. "With Israel, things will never be changed. If there is a peace, it will be a temporary not an eternal one," says Adnan, who didn't want his last name used.

But others are more optimistic. On a balmy night in Doha, seven Egyptian men, who send remittances from their construction jobs to families back in Egypt, sit at cafe tables playing a game called tawla and watching wrestling matches on television. Except for the shop's manager, they all profess hope for the peace negotiations.

"Gamal Abdel Nasser [the Arab nationalist leader in Egypt beginning in the 1950s] said anything taken by war must be seized back by war," says Attiyah, who also didn't want his last name used. "After that we suffered and lost. We've felt pain inside. Now we are trying to stop this. Let us stop it."

*Ned Parker writes for The Peninsula, a newspaper based in Qatar.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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