Health as a bridge to Middle East peace

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — For more than two decades several projects have been carried out between conflicting sides in several regions around the world that have improved public health as a common denominator in the search for peace.

Although these initiatives will not by themselves achieve peace, they are significant points of contact between conflicting parties. They have benefited thousands of people and increased understanding among them, and showed that sustained cooperation can be achieved despite violent disputes and a hostile political atmosphere.

Since its founding in 1988, the Association of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights has brought together Israeli and Palestinian health professionals. Following the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, a new set of players — aside from nongovernment organizations and human rights groups — came into action over the next four years, focusing on developing and providing health services to the Palestinian people.

In 1995, following an invitation by the late King Hussein of Jordan to officials at the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program, several measures were carried out to foster collaboration between Arab and Israeli doctors. The high incidence of hearing loss among Jordanians and Israelis became the basis of a project to provide auditory tests and improve the hearing of infants.

Since then, there have been many scholarly exchanges among Canada, Israel and Jordan; many Israeli- Palestinian publications have been created; and several scientific symposiums have been conducted.

To date, more than 145,000 infants have been screened and treated for hearing loss and their hearing has considerably improved. In addition, the program has expanded to youth health promotion, maternal nutrition, and the management of infectious diseases.

In December 2004, the first issue of the magazine bridges was launched under the auspices of the World Health Organization. The magazine accepts contributions from both Israeli and Palestinian health experts, and is another example of the value of building bridges of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Under the leadership of Dr. Mary-Claire King, who identified the first breast-cancer gene, scientists from Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Seattle teamed up and found several genes responsible for hearing loss. They did it despite the shutdown of university facilities, blocked shipments and other inconveniences.

These are just a few examples of what up to now has been a very active collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli doctors and health workers. Despite their obvious value, these activities are not universally supported. In 2005, medical and health service providers and members of research and training institutions working in the Occupied Territories strongly objected to what they considered to be strong pressure to enter into Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in the health area.

According to them, a political agenda is the driving force in the forced cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, they don’t think that Israeli-Palestinian collaboration in the academic, scientific and professional spheres can truly contribute to reconciliation as long as justice for Palestinians has not been achieved.

Although there is some validity to their position, peace will not be achieved overnight. It is only through some incremental steps that reconciliation between both peoples will take place.

As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated when awarding a UNESCO peace prize: “Peace will be built slowly, day by day, through modest deeds and countless spontaneous details. It will be built, step by step, by people.”

There is no better way to do this than through collaboration in the public health area on issues of common interest. The better health of thousands of women, men and children is a living testimony of the effectiveness of such approach. In a region plagued by lack of confidence and trust, health is the best antidote to war.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.