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A reflection of troubled times

Sweat cascaded off the face of a high school student Monday, as he led a group of Muslims in a rally denouncing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The protest, held on the corner of 56th Street and Fowler Avenue, comes at a time when a car bombing in West Jerusalem marked the sixth suicide bombing in as many days in the region.

The student, Suhail Rifaie, a junior at The Islamic Academy of Florida – a Muslim school founded by controversial USF professor Sami Al-Arian – stood before a crowd of about 50 Muslims – many of them children – and led chants of anti-Israeli sentiment toward cars passing by.

After the rally, Rifaie summed up the polarized and complex conflict in Israel with a simple hypothetical: “Stop the occupation, and the bombs will go away,” Rifaie said.

Rifaie said the Israeli government is to blame for the bloodshed, as its occupation has afforded Palestinians no other options than to respond with violence.

“(The Israeli government) really doesn’t want peace,” he said. “This war is being fought as much with bombs as it is with politics.”

But soon after 4 p.m., when the rally took shape outside Eckerd drug store, Jewish students from USF emerged to counter the protesters.

Marc Ostroff, a USF sophomore who is Jewish and wore a large Israeli flag on his back, had a solution of his own to counter that of Rifaie’s.

“I think right now we need to duke it out, and Israel needs to win,” Ostroff said.

Ostroff said that since the United Nation’s gave the contested soil to Israel in 1948, all of the wars fought have been initiated by Arab countries.

“(The Arabs) knew what they were doing. They started all the wars. They lost all the wars. They lost the land,” Ostroff said. “Why should they be able to start a war, lose the war and get the land back?”

Temple Terrace Police were alerted earlier in the day that the rally would take place, and about five officers supervised the protest to ensure that it remained peaceful, Capt. Tracy Mishler said.

USF alumna Pilar Saad said as long as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in power, there can be no peace in the region.”All his actions have been militaristic,” she said. “There can be no peace unless the United States pressures (Sharon) to comply with international law.”

On CNN’s political talk show Crossfire, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Monday he believed the Israeli government was responding like the American government would respond if it were hit by bombs six times in less than a week. He said, however, that in order to achieve peace in the region, the United States must take an active role in Israel.

“Unless we’re there, we can’t possibly have any kind of resolution,” Daschle said. “Without any doubt, we’ve got to be there.”

As the crowds began to subside, an older Jewish man and a younger Palestinian man engaged in an argument in which the Jewish man grabbed the Palestinian man by his chest.

As police intervened and broke up the altercation before it escalated, a Muslim woman shouted: “May we all live in peace?”Less than a minute later, Ostroff, who was walking back to his car, loudly asked a police officer: “Do we need to get the bomb squad in here?” as five Palestinian men within earshot walked back to their cars.

The five men, all immigrants from Ramallah – the Israeli occupied town in which Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat is being holed up in his compound by the Israeli army – did not wish to be named, but one man said that Americans do not understand the conflict because the media chooses to lean heavily toward the Israeli side of events.He said, though, that Israel is not to blame for the current chaos, rather it is the United States who is at fault. He said the United States does not care about those countries that do not possess American interests.

“They police the rest of the world, why not Israel?” he said. “Look how fast they fixed Afghanistan.”

The man who earlier was confronted by the Jewish man said he shrugged off the man because he was old.

“If he wasn’t so old, he would have walked away wrapped in his flag,” he said. “He was just ignorant. He can’t help himself.”He also said the comment made earlier by Ostroff that alluded to Palestinian suicide bombers was misinformed.

The man said suicide bombings are misunderstood by Americans. He said the suicide bombers are the Palestinians’ only weapon as they have no army or government in which to protect themselves.

USF junior Aaron Stern stood just off Fowler Avenue behind the shouting protesters, holding up an Israeli flag with a friend. As rush-hour traffic passed, some motorists beeped, while another rolled down his window shouting “Israel! Israel! Israel!

Stern said suicide bombings could never lead to peace in Israel.

“They want justice, but you can’t find justice with a bomb,” Stern said.

“There needs to be a Palestinian state – maybe in Israel, maybe elsewhere – but not with the bombs.”

The rally was called at the last minute late this morning, and news of it spread by word of mouth, one participant said.

Saad said one step in fostering a peaceful environment in the Middle East is educating Americans so they better understand the roots of the conflict.

She said it was a shame that Al-Arian’s World and Islam Studies Enterprise was shut down because it helped generate the understanding she said is necessary to solve the problem in the region.

She criticized the U.S. government for shutting it down in 1995 after one of its members, former USF adjunct professor Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, emerged as the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Following an initial investigation by the FBI, Al-Arian was never charged with a crime.

“WISE was there for informing academia and the general public,” Saad said. “It was OK to shut it down for investigational purposes but not for good.”

Contact Ryan Meehan at