Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 60, 61

California Chronicle

Southern California Arab Americans Honor House Whip David Bonior

By Pat McDonnell Twair

Leaders of the Los Angeles Arab-American community turned out April 11 to hear Rep. David Bonior (D-MI) speak at a buffet gathering in the Los Feliz home of Mahmoud and Hanan El Farra. On hand for the event were Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, and Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News.

Bonior, who was elected House majority whip in July 1991, quipped that when he won the post it sent a signal to Congress that his position (a balanced view of the Middle East) isn't necessarily the kiss of death.

Although critics sometimes charge that Bonior dares to embrace an even-handed U.S. Middle East policy because Detroit, his hometown, has a huge Arab-American population, very few Arab Americans live in the 12th congressional district, which he has served since 1976.

Bonior explained to the more than 100 guests that in fact it was participation in a 1982 congressional fact-finding mission to the Middle East during the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that showed him the light.

"We talked to all factions in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt," he explained, and in Beirut he walked the streets during a lull in the Israeli strikes. "My eyes were opened to reality as I saw the aftermath of cluster bombs and a hospital that had been hit just hours before."

Bonior said he still is haunted by the memory of an encounter outside the rubble of a house which had been hit the night before. Bonior talked, through a translator, to the owner, his wife and two children and learned that another son had died in the bombing. When Bonior explained he was a U.S. congressman, the teen-aged eldest son tried to attack him, blaming him for the death of his brother.

"I still wonder where that young man is today and how he feels about the U.S.," Bonior told the Arab-American audience.

He also met in Israel with its leaders, and came away disturbed from his sessions with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, present Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and extremist minister Ariel Sharon. Ever since, he said, he has been trying to convince his congressional colleagues of the dangers to Middle East peace and U.S. Middle East policies of what he saw.

"The establishment of a homeland for the Palestinians is one of the main struggles of this century," Bonior stated. In reference to the hard-line Israeli argument that Palestinians should go to Jordan, he quoted Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "My country is not a suitcase and I am no traveler."

Bonior outlined a three-step program for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He calls for the cessation of Israeli settlements and for an interim Palestinian self-government leading to elections. "There should be no restrictions on candidates or who gets to vote," he said. "We in Congress must speak out for an electoral process." And, lastly, he envisions a fully autonomous Palestinian state.

The Michigan solon admitted that Americans with no direct exposure to the Middle East have difficulty imagining the suffering of Arabs. "We see this in the case of Iraq, where Americans have absolutely no perception of the tremendous loss of 100,000 dead from starvation and disease," he continued. "On the other hand, Americans have empathy for their own, be it a kid in a well or hostages."

For that reason, Bonior says he often admonishes Americans "that each dead Iraqi was somebody's Terry Anderson." That is why he is co-sponsoring a resolution to unfreeze frozen Iraqi assets for medicine and food.

During a question and answer session, Bonior was asked why presidential hopefuls Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown from his own Democratic Party have taken extreme pro-Israel stances while the American public at large has such a dim view of the Zionist state.

"It's unfortunate both are locked into this position and that's why I'm not endorsing either of them," he said. "I had hoped we'd have someone more balanced, such as Kerrey, or Tsongas as he was in the beginning."

When asked what Clinton's scenario for Middle East peace would be if he were elected president of the United States, Bonior said: "It's painful for me to say. It would be a much more difficult uphill fight. I'm not comfortable with his position, but it would be foolish for him to allow a breakdown of the peace talks."

Answering a question concerning current redistricting in Congress and the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel's Washington, DC lobby, Bonior told the Arab-American audience:

"You can be sure Mr. [AIPAC Director Thomas] Dine will immediately organize in each congressional district. Israel sympathizers will lend offices for campaign purposes and will knock on doors. You must do the same thing. It is very rare to have such a large turnover as is taking place in this election. There may be as many as 135 new congressmen and most of the challengers seem to have a more balanced view and aren't automatically buying into the old lines. AIPAC will be everywhere in this election. It's your job to be everywhere as well."

Lebanon's First Lady Meets Barbara Bush While Raising Medical Funds

With the exceptions of Jehan Sadat, wife of Egypt's late President Anwar Sadat, and Jordan's American-born Queen Noor, wives of Arab heads of state generally tend to keep a low profile, to the point of being nonidentifiable. A new exception is Muna Hrawi, who has personally spearheaded humanitarian, medical and educational projects in the two years her husband, Elias Hrawi, has served as president of Lebanon.

The first lady of Lebanon arrived in Los Angeles March 21 to appeal to the estimated 90,000 Lebanese Americans living in Southern California to contribute to a center she is establishing in Beirut for children suffering from chronic diseases. Her visit coincided with that of Barbara Bush to Los Angeles, and the two discussed mutual concerns for youth during a private session at a March 24 scholarship benefit.

The tall, elegant Hrawi also addressed the Los Angeles World Affairs Council the same day. Fielding questions at a press conference, she explained the economic hardships Lebanon is undergoing in the aftermath of its 16-year-old civil war and the Gulf war, which destroyed the livelihood of thousands of Lebanese and Lebanon-based Palestinians formerly employed in Arab states of the Gulf. Noting that Lebanon's national income is only 40 percent of its 1974 level, she said that 800,000 people, one-quarter of Lebanon's population, have been displaced from their homes. And while a Bechtel study called for a $1.5 billion investment in Lebanon's public sector for recovery, the country's usual benefactors, oil-producing Arab states, have little to contribute until they have paid off their own Gulf war debts.

"Our middle class has all but disappeared and the need is critical for the poor to be educated concerning health care for their children," Hrawi said. "This is why, as a Lebanese woman, I could not be a passive witness [to untreated sick children]. Instead, I took the initiative two years ago and founded the Lebanese Permanent Committee for Coordination (CLPC).

"We must help the children because they are the future of our country," Hrawi said. She has honed in on two chronic diseases threatening the youth of Lebanon: diabetes and thalassemia. She said there are approximately 1,000 children under the age of 15 suffering from each of these conditions.

Hrawi explained that thalassemia is a form of anemia caused by a double-gene defect commonplace in in-clan marriages in the Arab culture. Initially diagnosed in the Bekaa and the south, it has been noted throughout Lebanon.

The average monthly cost for treatment of thalassemia (desferal injections, blood tests, transfusions and pumps and filters) is in excess of $300, while the minimum monthly wage in Lebanon is $150. The monthly cost for treating diabetics with insulin, syringes and blood tests is $145.

Since neither special institutions nor hospital programs exist for the 2,000 Lebanese children suffering from one or the other of these two diseases, Hrawi spearheaded a drive to establish a medical center in the Baabda suburb of Beirut. It is located on the road to Damascus and is easily accessible from other parts of Lebanon without passing through the congested capital. The land has been purchased and now Hrawi is seeking funds from the overseas Lebanese community to pay for the clinics, labs and medical specialists necessary to complete the center.

The CLPC also has established kindergartens in severely damaged areas of Beirut to encourage displaced people to return. It also has issued 596 scholarships, at a value of $163,000, and has helped to settle 578 hospital bills, at the cost of $126,000.

Lebanon's articulate first lady, who taught English before her 1961 marriage, also is helping lay the foundations for restoration of Lebanon's tourism industry. She has served as vice president of the Anjar Festival Committee, which has sponsored cultural events in that historic Armenian town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley near the principal Lebanese-Syrian border crossing. 

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in southern California.

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