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"Iranian people's feelings toward Israelis are not as bad as you think," Saeed Kharazi Zadeh, a greying Iranian IT engineer told me after I introduced myself as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post. Zadeh was part of the Iranian delegation which had a booth at the UN Summit on Information Society held in Tunis November 15-17.
I reminded the 48-year-old government employee that in October his president declared that "Israel should be wiped off the map." I told him that many Israelis fear that Iran would indeed try to attack Israel.
Zadeh laughed incredulously. "There have been many terrorist actions before - such as 9/11," said the soft-spoken Iranian. "But how many Iranians were involved in these? None. They were all Arabs."
His colleague, Moosa Khajooie, a stout 38-year-old computer engineer, was more direct. "I can tell you in the name of our President Ahmedinejad nobody wants to kill you," said Khajooie.
Normally the two enemy states are separated by over 1,500 kilometers, loads of vitriol and, recently, threats and counter-threats in Persian and Hebrew.
But in the football-field-sized space, where 18,000 participants at the UN summit milled between hundreds of exhibition booths, barely 12 short steps separated the delegations of Iran and Israel. Members of both delegations could not stem their curiosity about the other and visits began one by one.
The Information Society Summit provided a rare opportunity for many Israeli delegates to meet counterparts from the Arab and Muslim world. The open discussion and the friendly visits contrasted starkly with the Iranian threats against Israel.
"I think the problem is more political between governments, not peoples," explained Zadeh. "Like the problems between the Iranian government and the US government."
When asked if Iran supports the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Zadeh had no certain answer. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe by the government but not by the people. But I really don't know."
Khajooie explained his feelings as a Muslim about Israel. "There is a general feeling of Muslims - not unique to Iran - that Israel - not the Israeli people - is bad," he said adding, "that Israel has taken part of the Muslim world - Palestine - put itself as the government and taken more lands. We have a feeling that that Israelis are not good. Not the Israeli people - it's not your fault where you were born. To be honest we Iranians don't have good relations with the Arabs. This unites us."
He admitted that he was not happy with his country's reputation. "Maybe we are not happy with the attitude that we are the most radical country [in the world]," said Khajooie. "[But] I can tell you that the Arab people appreciate us."
Still he hoped for a solution. "I see everyday on the TV that in the West Bank Israeli soldiers kill people holding signs," he said. "[The conflict] cannot be solved by signing a contract. But I don't have a feasible solution. Maybe collecting everybody together, Jews, Muslims, Arabs and make a referendum. It should be fair. Maybe they will [even] choose [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."
When asked about anti-Semitic TV shows on Iranian television, Zadeh said, "I don't want to explain the actions of my government. I want to explain the feelings of the Iranian people. It's not as you think. I want to say that Iranian people feel something good about [Israelis]. Not like they are the enemy."
That was definitely the feeling that the Israelis got when visiting the Iranian booth. Ushi Krausz, who manages the department for Internet peace projects at the Peres Center for Peace, was first to make the move.
"I stood at the entrance to their booth," said Krausz "and told them I'm Israeli and asked them if it's ok for me to enter. I was really in shock, they were so friendly and open. You know, I thought they wouldn't allow themselves to speak to us."
One of the Iranians asked Krausz for help finding his childhood friend, David Tavakuli who had moved to Israel 30 years ago. "He gave me his e-mail so I can contact him if I find his friend," said Krausz. "They said, 'God willing we will meet in the future in better times.'
"We didn't identify ourselves because we were scared they wouldn't talk to us," said Itsik Cohen, a Finance Ministry official who discussed e-learning technology with the Iranians. "At the end we told them: 'We're from Israel.'"
Cohen's voice rose in excitement as the normally strait-laced computer expert described how one of the Iranians pulled out a basket of candies from under the table. "We were so surprised," he said. "It was a real sign of respect."
Later the Iranians came to visit the Israelis at their blue and white-colored booth.
"I met an ayatollah guy who was dressed in the same hat and clothes like Khomeini," said Krausz. "We chatted and it turns out we studied the same topic: The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He translated him to Persian."
Looking back the conference was "like a dream," said Cohen. "But it actually did happen. It was real."
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