President Barack Obama has indicated that the Middle East situation will be one of his priorities of his new term in office. An essential component toward a peace agreement is to overcome the barriers of distrust among Israelis and Palestinians because of ignorance of each other.

The first step is to increase cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian professionals in the health area and expand those contacts to other areas of common interest.

While health initiatives alone cannot secure peace, particularly where political, cultural psychological and religious tensions abound, they often serve as a useful point of contact between conflicting parties. Binational health programs have served to expand cooperation between divided peoples, demonstrating the power of citizens’ communication in hostile political environments.

During the 1980s, violent clashes between Nicaragua’s Contras and Sandinistas roused the interest of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO). As a result, PAHO implemented the “Health as a Bridge for Peace” strategy aimed at providing health care to populations living in war-torn areas in Latin America.

Their work resulted in the “Days of Tranquility” in El Salvador and Peru, during which thousands of children were vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and measles.

Most notably, PAHO’s activities enjoyed the backing of government officials and rebel guerrilla forces. Concern for public health was a common ground.

The same approach has been used in the Middle East. Since its founding in 1988, the Association of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights has created two funds to address the medical neglect of Palestinian migrant workers’ children: The Palestinian Children’s Medical Care Fund and The Children of Foreign Workers Medical Fund.

The organization also conducts training activities for Palestinian health professionals and has become a leading advocate for health and human rights in the region. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, several new health groups were created, providing health services to the Palestinians.

In 1995, King Hussein of Jordan invited officials from the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program to conduct activities to foster collaboration between Arab and Israeli doctors.

The high incidence of hearing loss suffered by Jordanians and Israelis was the basis of a project to provide audiology tests for infants, which to date has screened and rehabilitated more than 180,000 infants. The program was later expanded to promote health for youths, maternal nutrition and infectious disease management.

Canada, Israel and Jordan have enjoyed a good amount of academic exchange, and Israelis and Palestinians have worked together on publications and scientific symposiums.

Cooperation is not limited now to the medical field. In music, two orchestras formed by Arab and Israeli musicians have been performing in several countries: one, the Orchestra for Peace, created by Argentine musician Miguel Angel Estrella, and the other, the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which was cofounded by Daniel Barenboim, the Argentine-born Israeli conductor and Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American professor.

In addition, several individuals and small groups have been tirelessly trying through their work to increase understanding between the two peoples.

To these actions, now should be added the exchange of popular musicians and other artists as well as teachers and students, technical personnel of different disciplines and sports idols playing on mixed teams of Israelis and Palestinians.

I propose a massive effort by both governments — which will surely find wide international support — to break down the psychological barriers separating their citizens. So much money has been spent trying in vain to hurt the other side that a smaller effort could be devoted to create an atmosphere conducive to peace.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not be achieved overnight, but it is only through a massive effort involving the citizenry that reconciliation and cooperation can occur between both peoples. In a region plagued by mistrust, deep-rooted fear and violence, building citizen’s bridges is the best antidote to war.

The proposed actions by themselves will not bring a permanent solution to the conflict, but they will create the conditions that will make peace inevitable between Israelis and Palestinians.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.