David Buskila
David Buskila Photo by Ilan Assayag
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A four-day conference that seeks to "search for sustainable and healthy alternatives to the military option" on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border opens today at Sapir College, near the Negev city just a kilometer from that border. But the event - "Gaza-Sderot: Moving from Crisis to Sustainability" - is creating controversy even before it begins.

Sderot Mayor David Buskila, who was due to greet participants this afternoon, decided not to show up after receiving an angry letter from a right-wing organization protesting the participation of "extreme left-wing" groups.

Among the organizations raising the ire of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel are Zochrot ("Remembering" ), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. Zochrot is described on its website as "a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948."

In a letter to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev, local government heads and Sapir College itself, the forum opposed a state-funded college holding "one-sided political conferences at the leftist edge of the Israeli ideological spectrum" without permitting the participation of "balancing figures."

Buskila said that after receiving the letter he looked into the groups behind the conference and discovered they were "'human rights' organizations that don't necessarily reflect the interests of the residents of Sderot and other border communities that have undergone difficult experiences for many years."

Some of Buskila's colleagues, however, still plan to attend. Eshkol Regional Council Chairman Haim Yellin said that as someone who grew up in a military dictatorship (Argentina ), he recognizes the importance of expressing opposing ideas. "I fight on the borders of Israel and prepare my council for military escalations to come, and no extremist, on the left or the right, will silence me," Yellin said.

According to Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council Chairman Alon Schuster, "I'm happy to take part in a conference that tries to look at the conflict through different eyes. I totally reject the letter; the conference participants and discussion topics are within the legitimate scope of public discourse in Israel, and that's why I accepted the invitation with love."

Sapir College said in a statement that while the forum's positions are as legitimate as the opposing voices attending the conference, the demand to cancel the conference expresses a desire to silence voices and create a thought police that violates the essence of academia.

Among the organizations behind the conference are Kol Aher (Other Voice ), Collot Ba'Negev (Voices in the Negev ), the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy and the Arava Institute.