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Local couple seeks peace in the Mid-East


As the Israeli army and Hezbollah continue their bloody struggle and the death toll escalates on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border, one San Diego couple is heartbroken. For years, they hosted groups of Jews and Arabs at their home to talk peace. Now, there is just mounting despair. KPBS Radio's Gil Griffin has the story.

In several ways, Doris Bittar and Jim Rauch have a story like other American married couples. They fell in love as high school sweethearts. They raise children, manage careers and dream of a stable and safe future for themselves and their family.

But in at least one way, they're rare. Bittar is Lebanese-American, of Palestinian ancestry and Rauch, her husband, is Jewish. They also call themselves "peaceniks" and have long campaigned for harmony between Jews and Arabs.

Bittar is an artist and Rauch teaches economics at UC San Diego. The couple and their two young sons spent the first six months of 2005 in Lebanon, researching and teaching at the American University there.

This is the Lebanon Rauch remembers:

Rauch: "Imagine taking a drive out of a dense urban center, that's Beirut and you go up a mountain and on your way you pass an old Roman temple and then another few miles up, you're in 8,000 ft. high mountains with knee-deep snow and you're going snowmobiling. To me this was what Lebanon was all about."

Bittar spent her early childhood living in a suburb of Beirut is a visual artist and activist. While she says she's no fan of Hezbollah, she says its portrayal in mainstream American media as a terrorist group is inaccurate and unfair.

Bittar: "I don't know what terrorist means anymore. (Hezbollah) has an agenda. They don't want anybody on their borders. They don't want israel punishing them. And they don't want the Palestinians being hurt. So if they're a terrorist organization, so is the Israeli Government."

Images of the carnage in Lebanon deeply affect Bittar. She has extended family members living there. She says she's communicated with them by e-mail - when the bombing hasn't interrupted their electricity. It has also affected friends she and Rauch made while they lived there.

Rauch: "To see all our friends now living lives of paralysis and fear, it just makes us terribly sad and also feel terribly helpless because it seems that our government has abandoned the region and they're just letting things go."

The couple is united also, in blaming of the U.S. government for not taking an active role in pressing for peace. In fact, Bittar says the current administration is fanning the flames of the conflict.

Bittar: "All of the waponry israel uses is American-made. All those bombs and missiles falling on Lebanese civilians are made in the USA. If we want to be honest peace brokers, that's not how we work."

For five years Bittar and Rauch were themselves peace brokers. For five years, they led Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups out of their North Park home. But the groups no longer meet.

As a Jewish American, Rauch recognizes the need for Israel to ensure its security. But its military response is excessive.

Rauch: "Israel feels that (Hezbollah) crossed the line and so they're just bombing everyone. And i mean at least if they were to retaliate against Hezbollah directly, one could understand it as a kind of war between those two sides, but they've disrupted the life in the entire country."

Bittar beams as she paints an idyllic word picture of her family's ancestral home in the Southern Lebanese town of Kfarhoune. It's a hamlet about the size of Alpine, nestled in a volcanic landscape. Flowers and herbs grow in fertile soil and the aromatic air is perfumed by coffee, mint and thyme. And, she says, it's a rich mixture of Greek Catholics, Shiites, Jews and Arabs - all living together peacefully.

Bittar: "People always come back to lebanon, whether they're Lebanese or not because they know it's where they're gonna be nurtured, cared for, loved."

Bittar and Rauch say American Jews and Arab-Americans in San Diego haven't lost all hope. For example, one group has raised money to buy and send wheelchairs to bombing victims on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border.

The couple says dialogue isn't dead. They just hope their peacenik spirit ultimately prevails, both here and in the Middle East.

For KPBS Radio, I'm Gil Griffin.

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