Keeping flying sparks to a minimum, Palestinian and Israeli representatives faced off at the Law School last night in a discussion of the past months' riots in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.
At a forum sponsored by the Harvard International Law Society, Zvi Bar-El, a Washington correspondent for Ha'aretz, Israel's largest daily paper, and Khalil Jhahsan, assistant director of the Palestine Research and Education Center, spoke to an audience of 50.
Bar-El said the present uprisings are far from unique in the past 50 years of Israeli history. "Shootings, tear gas, mass detentions, curfews, and even burying people under piles of dirt is not a new phenomenon," he said. "The increased volume is significant but it may just fade away into the normal life of the occupier and the occupied."
But Jhahsan said the riots are unusually widespread and sustained, and that they have brought about a new unity among the Palestinian factions. "Never before has there been this level of morale and cooperation. It is totally unprecedented," he said.
Bar-El said recent events in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip might lead to "a necessary re-thinking of the whole frame of Israeli-Palestinian relations," but that the conservative Likud government in power has not shown signs of making any such shift.
Jhahsan disagreed with Bar-El's opinion that a Labor government would offer a better chance for a peaceful settlement. "Labor is not divorced from what is taking place," he said. "From where we stand it really doesn't make a difference."
The Palestinian speaker, who recently met with Secretary of State George P. Shultz as a representative of the Council of Presidents of National Arab-American Organizations, said he expected little from Shultz's upcoming mission to the Middle East.
Jhahsan said Shultz would fail in any effort to improve the chances for peace because he refused to acknowledge "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to choose their own leadership, [Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)] or otherwise."
"These two things are really the bottom line for any successful peace initiative," said Jhansan.
Bar-El said that despite Shultz's position, compromises might still be possible on the issues of Palestinian self-determination and Israeli refusal to negotiate with PLO leaders.
"Self-determination can have many meanings," Bar-El said. "Why can't we just create a type that is new and more acceptable?"
Palestinians will continue their refusal to negotiate through any channels except the PLO, said Jhahsan. "The people under occupation don't want to play local games," he said. "These are national issues and their national leadership is the PLO."
But Bar-El criticized local Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories for refusing to meet with Shultz. He said that in doing so, "they are playing right into the hands of the Likud who say there is no Palestinian partner to talk