CAIRO: I believe if Israel puts down its arms and weapons it will cease to exist, but if Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza put down their weapons, peace will happen.
These are not words you might expect from an individual raised in 1950s Gaza, whose father was killed by the Israeli army.
Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian, who once prayed for the destruction of Israel, says she changed gradually . However, her eventual transformation was radical.
Four years ago, after a series of conferences held with like-minded Arab-American thinkers, Darwish founded an organization called “Arabs for Israel .
The organization, Darwish told The Daily Star Egypt, is dedicated to peaceful reconciliation in Israel and Palestine, and supports the existence of the state of Israel.
Operating out of the US where Darwish has lived since 1978, her reasons for founding the organization are many, but, she admits, the September 11 attacks, and the accusations of Israeli conspiracies that abounded afterward, were something of a catalyst.
How could we, Arabs and Muslims, accuse people of other religions of something we very well know we have done ourselves? asks Darwish.
It was a sign of Arab paranoia and obsession with Israel as becoming increasingly unbelievable, she later wrote in one of her articles.
Such accusations were the result of ignorance and prejudice in the Arab world, says Darwish, and were the manifestation of a hatred more harmful to Arabs than to Israelis.
She recalls as a young child having to recite poetry in school, her eyes filling with tears, pledging to give her life in jihad against Israel.
And after the death of her father, who had led the fedayeen (resistance fighters) in cross-border raids against Israel between 1951-56, visiting relatives asked her and her siblings who would take revenge against the Israelis.
I felt that hatred does not only hurt [its] object, but hurts the person who hates more, she recounts.
When [the hatred is] left to grow like the way Arabs hate Jews, it can be very destructive to the psyche of the culture that hates, and we now see the fruits of that in Arab culture.
According to Darwish, several Israeli organisations are looking to extend the olive branch, but lack a counterpart in the Arab world. She wants her organisation to spearhead efforts at dialogue.
What are we afraid of? she says. The Jews in Israel are only five million and Muslims are 1.2 billion. Why is Arab and Muslim leadership constantly encouraging Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to fight and never accept peace? Israel, in defending itself, she argues, is in fact fighting for its very existence.
Apart from Israel s defensive measures, however, and its continually uneasy relations with surrounding Arab states, the displacement of Palestinians when the state came into existence is the primary grievance in both Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab world.
After the 1948 war, known in Israel and Palestine as the War of Independence and Al-Nakba (The Disaster) respectively, it is estimated that anywhere between 500,000 and 900,000 Palestinians both fled and were forcefully evicted from the land.
The refugee camps many of them still live in are known to produce a considerable number of the predominantly young men and women who carry out attacks against Israel.
Have we forgotten that 900,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries? counters Darwish, adding that the holy land should not belong solely to Muslims.
Muslims have Mecca and Medina, have Arabs ever thought where is the holy land of Jews? Where did the Jewish and Christian religions start and what are their rights in the Middle East?
Jews lived in the Middle East continuously for thousands of years even before Islam.
It might be a controversial line, but Darwish claims that at least 30 percent of Muslim Arabs in the Middle East are not opposed to the state of Israel, just that they are too afraid to speak out.
Many Arab-Americans, she says, congratulate her for her website, and the majority of supportive emails and contributions to the site come from Muslim Arabs.
I get a lot of fan mail, and a few hate mails, she says with a smile.
The latter were threatening enough to warrant taking a pseudonym – Nonie Darwish is not her actual name.
I do not have to cater to their anger, she says, because I am living in America and simply practicing my right to free speech.
In a civilized society people can respectfully disagree. They have the right to prove me wrong through dialogue.
Certainly there is no shortage of Egyptians who would disagree with her, respectfully or otherwise.
But Darwish insists that her support for Israel does not make her anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian.
I love the Arabs, the Palestinians, and the Egyptians, she says. They are my children and their suffering and poverty in Egypt is difficult for me.
But in order to resolve this problem, we must begin to view the Jews in a forgiving light. There must be forgiveness and justice.
Part 1 of a two-part interview