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Jewish, Muslim Flareups Taking Center Stage At Racism Conference - 2001-08-30

The World Conference Against Racism has not even started yet in Durban, South Africa, but there already have been several flare-ups between Jewish and Muslim groups. Hope is dwindling that the two groups will use the conference as an opportunity to talk about their differences.

For the second day, a shouting match erupted between Muslims and Jews over the situation in the Middle East. It happened at a related forum for non-governmental organizations in Durban, South Africa.

Several Jewish groups called a news conference to discuss what they called the hijacking of the racism conference agenda. But a small group of people from Iran began shouting at the speakers.

One onlooker burst into tears at the scene. She said she was upset at the emotion and bitterness that always seems to erupt whenever people try to discuss the Middle East.

The protesters insist that Zionism equals racism, and that Israel is an apartheid state.

Those allegations have been at the heart of a thorny debate over the racism conference agenda for the past several months.

The United States has chosen not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Durban because it objects to the what it calls anti-Israeli rhetoric in the declaration due to be adopted at the end of the conference.

Eleven months of unrest in Israel and the occupied territories have fueled the already contentious debate. Some had hoped that both sides could use the racism conference to discuss their differences and move toward a solution. But at the grassroots level, that seems unlikely.

A leader of the South African Union of Jewish Students, David Kramer, says he is willing to listen to the other side. "My thoughts are this is a conference to speak to each other, this is a conference for dialogue," he said. "Every time Jews want to get up and speak at this conference we have the exact same thing happening, where they come in, they barge in and start shouting at us. And you're not going to achieve anything. This is a conference to speak, to find solutions. Shouting at each other is not going to get anywhere."

But some Palestinians say the Israelis are trying to distract attention away from their own human rights abuses. Tayseer Arouri is a Palestinian from Ramallah. He is in Durban representing the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.

"I think it's something usual for international conferences. Every group, of course, tries to defend its position, whether it is on the right track or otherwise," he said. "And this is he case with the Israelis. The Israelis are occupying force. And they are trying to use this international conference to show as if they are the victims and not the victimizers."

The World Conference on Racism begins Friday and lasts for one week. Thousands of delegates are expected to participate from around the world.