Using fighting words to seek peace

DeWayne Bartels
Shaher Mizyed, a local businessman and Palestinian, wants to start a local dialogue about the war in Israel. He said he hopes by calling Jews "Nazis," he can inflame passions and create discussion.

Shaher Mizyed’s eyes are piercing. They narrowed to slits as he began to talk about Israel Jan. 13.     

“The Israelis have become the new Nazis,” he said.

Mizyed — a Palestinian by birth and now a naturalized U.S. citizen — said despite his blunt speech, he harbors no hatred for Jews or Israel. Mizyed said he simply wants to bring attention in Peoria to the misery in the Middle East. He said if President Barack Obama is going to bring about change and hope it is going to take average citizens doing their part. Mizyed is ready to step up.

“We don’t hear any opposing voices here,” Mizyed said. “I’m going to speak out.”

The local front

Mizyed is an affable North Peoria business owner, the type who refers to customers by name and offers an easy smile.

In recent days, however, the smile has not come so easily for Mizyed. His mood has become darker since bombs began falling more than three weeks ago from Israeli jets into the Gaza Strip and Palestinian civilian causalities began to climb.

As of Jan. 13, Israel reported killing at least 300 Hamas militants, but the civilian dead added up to 600. The Christian Science Monitor reported that morning, Hamas — considered by Israel to be a terrorist organization raining rockets on Israeli civilians — insisted it had not been seriously hurt by Israel’s military action and blockade of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

But, The Christian Science Monitor reported, suffering among civilian Palestinians is high and that re-building the region could take five years.

“The Palestinians are like a mouse in a trap. This is how the Nazis did things,” Mizyed said.

“The world is not paying attention to these people. Hamas is shooting off rockets to get the world’s attention.”

Mizyed said he is shooting verbal rockets here for the same purpose.

“Let my words inflame passions locally. We need to take a look at it locally.”

Mizyed said he wants people locally to view the situation from the middle, not from the side of the Palestinians or the Israelis alone.

“We need people to take a look at this situation from a neutral standpoint. Look, I have no love for Hamas. They got voted in because they provided humanitarian aid and hospitals,” he said.

“Both sides lie, lie, lie until it becomes the truth.” 

Sue Katz, the director of the Jewish Federation, shook her head when she heard Mizyed’s quotes.

“A person who says they want to start a dialogue by calling us Nazis contradicts himself,” Katz said.

Tal Popkov, an Israeli in Peoria serving as an intern in the Jewish Federation’s North Peoria office, pulled up some videos on his laptop, one showing Palestinian children in a school play dressed up as suicide bombers while adults clapped.  

“Israelis mourn the death of civilians. But, Hamas put them in harm’s way,” Katz said.

The charter of Hamas, Popkov said, calls for the destruction of Israel.

Katz added that Iran funds Hamas.

“Israel’s war is with Hamas, not the Palestinians. It’s not Israel’s fault Hamas chooses to shoot rockets and hide among civilians,” Katz said.

“You can’t sleep with a bomb under your bed and then act surprised when you wake up without a house.”

For Mizyed, this effort is very personal.

“I have relatives in the West Bank, including my mother,” Mizyed said.

“My father died of a heart attack in an ambulance trying to get to the hospital through checkpoints.”

Popkov and Katz said they can understand Mizyed’s perspective being colored by what happened to his father.

But, Popkov, who has served in the Israeli Defense Force, said ambulances are stopped because women who claim to be pregnant have been found to be, instead, carrying explosive strapped to their bellies.

The national front

Mizyed said Peoria’s Middle-Eastern population has to speak out if hope of being accepted is to come.

“After 9/11, I did not feel comfortable in my own skin here. What helped me was I don’t speak broken English,” Mizyed said.

“People don’t look at me as Middle Eastern. This is my country. It takes effort to create change at the grassroots level. To create change, this must start small.”

Mizyed said he harbors hope Obama can bring some even-handed diplomacy to the war-torn region.

“Obama has said he would meet with Hamas. That brings a little optimism. We need to negotiate. It’s not going to hurt anything,” he said.

“I’m not saying Hamas is right. But, who would not resist what the Israelis are doing? This is a humanitarian disaster. The Palestinians are being squeezed to desperation. I hope we can get past closed-mindedness. There is nothing wrong with talking to perceived enemies.”

Mizyed said there is no purpose in demonizing Hamas or Israel.

“The Jews should understand better than anyone else what it feels like to be treated the way the Palestinians are being treated,” Mizyed said.

“I’m not preaching hate against the Jews. I want to see peace.”

Popkov said he wants to see peace as well.

He said, like Mizyed, he would also like to see more dialogue and understanding in Peoria and beyond.

But, Popkov said, Mizyed is likely to be disappointed in that effort.

“It’s not just Peoria,” Popkov said.

“The current way of thinking everywhere today is that if it doesn’t effect me or someone I love, it’s not an issue.”