Building Bridges for Peace in the Middle East

Image by Candice Seplow.

There is a small ray of hope today in the Middle East. In a region ravaged by violence. there are now several examples of Jews and Arabs working together to prevent further violence, and to ameliorate its effects. Bedouin residents in the South of Israel are searching for victims of the Hamas’ attacks. Bedouin Women for Themselves, an NGO in Segev Shalom, a Bedouin town in Israel’s Southern District, is providing psychological support to local Bedouins and Jews in distress.

I had the opportunity to see small examples of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Arabs and Jews growing up in Tucumán, a city in Northern Argentina. Tucumán received numerous immigrants (among them my father) who emigrated from their countries at the beginning of the last century; many were citizens from Arab countries. The city also had a substantial Jewish population.

This collaboration was seen in a stretch of several blocks populated by dozens of shops owned by both Arabs and Jews who coexisted peacefully. I don’t remember a single incident of violence between them. Shop owners from both communities worked together because of shared commercial interests. Hugo Japaze, an Argentinian physician whose father had a well-known store on that street, recently told me, “Both Arabs and Jews were immigrants in a new land, and they realized that they had much more to gain by working together in a friendly atmosphere than by reviving old animosities.”

In the 1950s, my father, together with two friends, founded the “Cultural Atheneum Gibran Khalil Gibran” named after the famous Lebanese writer. The main purpose of the organization was to present lectures by noted speakers of national and international prestige to students, professors, and the general public.

Most of the lectures were given at the Sociedad Sirio Libanesa (Syrian and Lebanese Society.) At the time, there was considerable unease among the Society’s directors about permitting Jewish intellectuals to attend the lectures.

Because of my father’s efforts, Jewish students and teachers were allowed for the first time to participate in those events, and new bonds were developed between Arabs and Jews. In both cases, commercial and cultural common interests allowed both communities to collaborate, overcoming a history of distrust. A common-interest goal had been developed, one leading to a peaceful relationship.

There have been few times before where the animosity between Palestinian and Jews is as acute as it is after recent events; thousands of dead and injured are a tragic reminder of the profound chasm separating both communities. However, I dare to reason, if common interests were shared before, can one be created now in the Middle East based on the common urgency for peace? I believe it can, but only if each side of the conflict is able to see the other in real terms, not in the usual demonizing terms created by decades of antagonism.

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 develop 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 led the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO) to implement the “Health as a Bridge for Peace” strategy aimed at providing health care to populations living in war-torn areas in Latin America. This work resulted in so-called “Days of Tranquility” in El Salvador and Peru. During it thousands of children were vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and measles. PAHO’S activities enjoyed the backing of government officials and rebel guerrilla forces. The common ground was concern for public health.

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, which provide health services to the Palestinians.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not be achieved overnight, but it is only through a massive effort involving civilians that reconciliation can occur between both peoples. In a region plagued by mistrust, deep-rooted fear and violence, building and strengthening citizens’ bridges is the best antidote to war. This kind of actions, by themselves, will not bring a permanent solution to the conflict, but they will create the conditions that will make peace in the Middle East not only desirable but inevitable.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”