Commentary / World

Breaking down the barriers to peace in the Middle East

by Cesar Chelala

Recently in Israel, collaboration among Israeli, Palestinian and American doctors saved the life of a Nablus teen. Jummana, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl, had been suffering from a rare but serious endocrine problem. Her Palestinian Authority doctors referred her to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where she underwent a successful operation. This was part of a new model of treatment called “Bring the Patient, Bring the Surgeon.”

Professor Dov Tiosano, an Israeli pediatric endocrinologist, had examined Jummana and diagnosed a tumor related to a genetic disease resulting from consanguinity. Tiosano contacted a colleague in the U.S. National Institutes of Health who confirmed the diagnosis and contacted Professor John A. van Aalst, director of the plastic surgery division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for advice as to the best place to have surgery on the Palestinian teen.

Van Aalst, who has strong professional connections with both Palestinian and Israeli doctors, then suggested that the surgical procedure take place at Rambam Medical Center. He considered that the safest, easiest and overall more convenient place for the operation. The interaction among Palestinian, Israeli and American doctors led to a successful outcome, which can be a learning experience for future similar cases.

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. Bi-national 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. 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 so-called 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 that have provided health services to the Palestinians.

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 is the Orchestra for Peace, created by the Argentine musician Miguel Angel Estrella, and the other is the West-Eastern Divan orchestra co-founded 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.

More exchanges can be added, of 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 am proposing nothing short of a massive effort by both Israelis and Palestinians — which will surely find wide international support — to break down the psychological barriers separating their citizens. So much money has been spent in trying, vainly, to hurt the other side that a smaller effort could be devoted to creating 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. These actions, by themselves, will not bring a permanent solution to the conflict, but they will create the conditions that could make peace inevitable between Israelis and Palestinians.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.

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