Syrian ambassador talks Gaza conflict, US media

Not only has the conflict in Gaza provoked strong feelings throughout the Middle East, the tensions resonated all the way to the French Family Science Center Tuesday night.

In an event titled "Syria-USA Relations: a Thaw or a False Start?," Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador to the United States, spent most of his time talking instead about the ongoing struggle between Israel and Hamas.

Moustapha voiced strong criticism of the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza strip which began Dec. 27, 2008 in response to rocket fire from Hamas-the de facto government that is largely considered a terrorist organization in the West.

Speaking to an audience of about 50 people, Moustapha criticized American media coverage for oversimplifying the Gaza conflict. He said the Israeli media has been more daring in its portrayal of the situation.

"Gaza is the world's largest concentration camp... that has been created throughout the history of mankind," he said. "This is a modern-day genocide in the 20th century."

Gaza's access to food, medicine and construction material are subject to the "whimsical" wishes of the Israeli government, Moustapha noted.

"I am not defending any policies, I am reminding you of facts that are never ever relayed to the American public," he said. "There is one nation that is occupying another nation, controlling another nation's destiny... another nation's total existence."

To support his point about American media bias, Moustapha related an anecdote about two journalists at well-respected American publications expressing concern to him that criticism of Israel was censored.

Although he said he would welcome disagreement from the audience, Moustapha's strong statements were met with little dissent from the room. Audience members had the opportunity to engage the ambassador during a question-and-answer session following his presentation.

The event was sponsored by the Duke Islamic Studies Center, the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department and the Focus Program. A large portion of the audience appeared to be from the Islamic Studies department, said Seth Cantey, a first-year Ph. D. candidate in political science.

"I wasn't really expecting anyone to advocate for the Israeli side, but I was expecting someone to challenge him more," he said.

Cantey added that he was unsure how the event was advertised, but he said he found out about it through his Arabic class.

Junior Jeff Fox, Duke Friends of Israel executive vice president, said he found some of Moustapha's claims "personally offensive," but he did not want to challenge the ambassador on the spot. He added that he did not want to speak on behalf of DFI.

"I thought he argued his position clearly and quite well.... Considering where he was coming from, I expected to hear something of that effect," he said. "There were plenty of people in the audience who disagreed."

Speaking on the same day, Hillary Clinton testified before Congress to begin her confirmation process as U.S. Secretary of State. Moustafa said he had reason to believe the new administration would rethink all of its policies toward the Middle East under president-elect Barack Obama.

"The relations between Syria and the administration of President [George W.] Bush were the worst possible... through the history of Syrian-American international relations," he said.

Moustapha mentioned several times, however, that he was optimistic about the future of the Middle East.

"I'm really feeling bad tonight that I am here with such a harsh message," he said. "I really believe that peace is inevitable in the Middle East... at one point the Israelis will reach a tipping point where they understand that."

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