Letter from the
Middle East


by John L. Habib '85

As a regular reader of the Scene, I felt compelled to write this letter to relate how one semester during my college years continues to have a significant impact on my professional interests.

I majored in international relations and political science at Colgate and participated in the fall 1983 Geneva study group under the stewardship of Professor Charles Naef. Little did I know that this four-month sojourn would drive my academic and profession-al interests for the next decade and beyond.

In the autumn of 1983 Western Europe was rocked with protests against the deployment of cruise and SS-20 missiles by the United States and the Soviet Union in their respective zones of influence on the continent. Although the events seem to be ancient history now -- as with so many of the ideological skirmishes during the Cold War -- at the time the issues were of enormous magnitude to our group of 25 politically active students hailing from a variety of geographical and cultural backgrounds.

Huge demonstrations were inescapable as the citizens of Germany, Holland and Belgium and other European countries rallied to denounce the superpowers' use of Western Europe as the battleground for what seemed then to be an inevitable "limited" nuclear war, instigated by a tactical strike from either the Soviet or American side. I still review photographs that I took in Hamburg, Germany (after climbing the scaffolding of an eight-story building smack in front of the Town Hall) of former West German President Willy Brandt addressing some 250,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators who had descended on the city.

The supervision of Professor Naef, an expert on nuclear arms policy, energized the debates among study group members, particularly during a two-week field trip to some half-dozen or so European cities to meet with politicians and decision-makers. The candid discussions held during that trip elucidated the difficult process of formulating a coherent foreign policy amid vociferous, well-organized dissent. The protests were nothing short of direct challenges to the integrity of the democratic institutions in place.

As an Arab-American, I also clearly remember the tumult caused in Geneva by a different event having very significant international repercussions --Yasser Arafat's address to the United Nations General Assembly. My Swiss Air jet touched down on the very day that Arafat was to arrive in Geneva, and I recall seeing armored tanks and soldiers with automatic weapons dispatched along the tarmac and throughout the airport.

The 1983 Geneva study group instilled in me an infatuation with the complex interplay between international politics, regional security issues and the rule of law in democratic societies. Now, some 12 years later, this enduring infatuation has brought me to live and work in the West Bank, this time on a very different type of "study group."

After graduating from Colgate I obtained a law degree from Emory University in Atlanta (JD 1990), concentrating in international commercial law and human rights, and serving as editor-in-chief of the Emory International Law Review. Upon completing my studies at Emory, I worked for two years in private practice with a large law firm and one year with a Middle Eastern trade association. In 1993 I joined a small Washington, DC law firm specializing in the representation

of companies and individuals doing business in the Middle East. Having worked for almost two years with that firm, I am now in the middle of a three-month stint as a visiting attorney with our affiliated law office, Qupty, Dahleh & Associates, maintaining offices in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. (Because Israel's annexation of the eastern side of the city in 1967 was in violation of international law and has not been recognized by the US government, the eastern section of the city is referred to as a separate legal entity.)

With five full-time attorneys, three law clerks and two legal assistants, the firm is the largest law office in the Arab side of the city. The attorneys are all Palestinian Arabs but are fluent in written and spoken Hebrew in addition to their native Arabic. The reason for this anomaly is that following the annexation Israel extended its laws to all of Jerusalem. Consequently, the courts operating in Arab East Jerusalem conduct proceedings in Hebrew and apply Israeli law to resolve disputes. This state of affairs for the past 28 years has had ironic ramifications -- many if not most of the Palestinian attorneys practicing in the city have a much stronger command of spoken and written Hebrew than formal Arabic, known as "Fusha."

There is a strong sense that this is a critical period for the region in general, and for the ongoing peace process in particular. While optimism for the possibility of regional economc cooperation in the future remains, and preparations are going forward for the second major regional economic summit (commencing in Amman, Jordan on October 29) in as many years, cynicism has never been greater among Israelis and Palestinians that either side truly wants to make peace in Palestine.

My sensitivity for the daily struggle to keep the splintering peace process alive has been heightened by the fact that the law firm is heavily involved in reviewing pre-existing law and creating new legislation for the autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza. In particular, we are assisting the drafting of enabling legislation for the creation of "industrial estates" in the West Bank and Gaza, to be established by the Palestinian National Authority and the international donor community. (Industrial estates are designed to increase direct foreign investment and alleviate the severe problem of unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank by creating districts that provide substantial financial incentives, including tax holidays, to companies that establish operations in the district.) In addition, I am drafting a detailed study on the existing amalgam of Ottoman Turkish law, British Mandatory law, Jordanian law, Israeli military orders and the new Palestinian law and legal decrees -- all of which are applicable to varying degrees in either Gaza or the West Bank.

The experience has laid bare a few of the traumatic hardships being exacted as the autonomy negotiations limp along at a snail's pace. From the perspective of the Israeli Jews, I have seen from close up the anger, frustration and pain that flows from the reprehensible suicide bombing atrocities, having traveled to the very site of the recent Jerusalem bombing just a few hours after its tragic occurrence and, later, speaking with Israeli Jews at length about the event.

From the Palestinian Arab point of view, I have experienced the degrading treatment by border guards inspecting cars that travel through the roadblocks to gain entrance into East Jerusalem. Because I live in the West Bank and often travel to East Jerusalem by group taxi, I am frequently subjected to inspection by Israeli soldiers questioning the identities of everyone in the cab. I have watched silently as unarmed Palestinian men, women and children have been pulled from these taxis, assaulted and banned from entering East Jerusalem simply for the lack of a special permit entitling them to passage.

I look back on my participation in the Geneva study group as a pivotal moment in shaping my character and political view of the world. Colgate's promotion of international academic study as a valuable supplement or alternative to a more traditional curriculum is one of the university's best assets, and one not to be undervalued. It is just another reason why Colgate remains one of the nation's most effective institutions for inspiring students -- pardon the cliché -- to expand their minds. Despite overuse of the phrase, I strongly believe that such an exercise remains the ultimate goal in the pursuit of a liberal education.