TEL AVIV, June 29 (JTA) Visiting Israel for the first time, Dr. Omar Atiq, a Pakistani-American, marveled at what he found calm in Jerusalem’s Old City and the majority of Palestinians and Israelis trying to live normal, peaceful lives. “We’ve been extremely impressed at what we have seen because the news we get just shows us the killings and bombings and the blowing up of houses and other miseries on both sides, but nobody really shows us the normal life,” said Atiq, president of the American Muslim Peace Initiative. He traveled to Israel with six other members of the organization on a three-day trip that ended Wednesday. At the end of the trip, the initiative, described as an effort by American Muslims to encourage interfaith tolerance, released a statement calling on Palestinians and Israelis to act with restraint toward each other to build confidence and, eventually, peace. “In that vein, we urge our Palestinian brothers to immediately release the abducted Israeli soldier since such acts are counterproductive,” the group said in the statement, referring to Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, who was kidnapped on Sunday and taken into Gaza. The trip was organized by the American Jewish Congress’ Council for World Jewry. The group has been working closely with Pakistani-Americans for the last few years, contacts that led to meetings between Jack Rosen, the AJCongress’ chairman, and Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, who addressed a meeting of Jewish officials organized by the AJCongress in New York in 2005. “This visit continues and strengthens the relationship that has sprung up between” the two men, said AJCongress official David Twersky. For Atiq, a Pakistani-born oncologist who has befriended many Jewish doctors through his work, reaching out to the Jewish community was a natural step. “We wanted to break the taboo of Muslims and Jews talking to each other,” he said. The group met with senior officials such as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat; Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem; Aharon Barak, president of Israel’s Supreme Court; Aharon Abramovitch, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry; and one of the most prominent members of the Druse community in Israel, Gen. Yosef Mishlev, the government’s coordinator of activities in the West Bank. They also met with former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met his Pakistani counterpart in Istanbul last September, the first-high level contact between the countries. AJCongress officials say their work with the Pakistani-American community helped facilitate the connection. Atiq said seeing the situation on the ground was instructive for the group. “The message I am taking back is that we need to redouble our efforts of reaching out to each other,” he said. “The Palestinian issue is not a zero-sum game. It is not that one has to lose for the other to win. It’s a very complex issue.”
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