For Israelis and Palestinians, a glimmer of hope in the darkness

As an unprecedented wildfire swept Israel last week, rendering thousands homeless and hurling thousands more into shock and uncertainty, an unexpected spark of hope also emerged from the flames.

It has become ever clear throughout the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that any recipe for true coexistence requires a system of mutual faith and respect, of stepping out of the political arena and into the personal, toward a shared future. Trust-building measures and cooperation are the key elements for building the foundation necessary for the two-state solution that is essential to ending this ongoing trap of violence and hatred.

While there are concrete examples of such cooperative measures already in place, these are nearly always overshadowed in the media and on the part of politicians by more tragic realities, death and casualty tolls. Last week, however, it was gestures of friendship that trumped signs of violence.

Unbelievably, thousands of lives were spared in the massive blaze, which ravaged the country from north to south. This miracle is due in no small part to foreign assistance in quelling the flames and evacuating those at risk from imminent danger. The United States and more than a dozen European countries came to the rescue, as did Egypt and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority was also on the front lines, deploying eight trucks and 40 firefighters to stand by Israel’s side as it fought the disaster.

Israel believes that at least some of the fires were the result of arson, and is not ruling out the possibility that they were intentionally sparked, with terrorist motives. If this indeed is the case, it makes the help provided by the Palestinian Authority even more meaningful.

Israeli-Palestinian cooperation efforts are the basic requirements for peace, and thus efforts to that effect have been made in economic and infrastructure development, as well as in the religious, agricultural, and medical fields. During the Second Intifada, many of these cooperative efforts were sidelined due to the impossible task of carrying them out while ensuring Israeli security; in recent years, despite the ongoing threat of terrorism, some have renewed, albeit without fanfare.

In practicality, the richest examples of successful Israeli-Palestinian cooperation can be seen in the fields of public health and medicine, in which professionals from both sides have worked together for decades irrespective of political constraints, and in Israel’s humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.

Despite the security threats and rising terror attacks from the West Bank, over the course of 2015-16, Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) allowed more than 360,000 Palestinians to cross into Israel for humanitarian needs. In the first half of 2016, over 20,500 Palestinians entered Israel from Gaza to receive medical treatment, an 11% increase compared to the first half of 2015. So far this year, COGAT has also facilitated the participation of 800 Palestinian doctors and medical professionals in programs in Israel to help improve the 42 Palestinian hospitals across the West Bank. Today, 160 Palestinian doctors work permanently in Israeli hospitals.

The World Jewish Congress has co-sponsored over the last two years a traveling photography exhibition featuring Israel’s revolutionary Education without Borders program, which in partnership with the SASA Setton Kav Or initiative and World ORT, provide educations to all children who are hospitalized for more than three days, as mandated by Israeli law, in 35 hospitals across the country. Children of all backgrounds – including Palestinians, Syrian refugees, and minorities within Israel – have benefited from this program.

The common quest for healthcare knows no borders, and access to safe medical treatment is essential for economic viability, national security, general well-being, and the future of the peace process. Healthcare is a universal and powerful language that requires cooperation even in situations of conflict, and offers a much-needed opportunity for building bridges between societies, and creating links between governments, the private sector, and NGOs.  It is our hope that both Israel and the Palestinians will begin emulating these efforts in other fields – the infrastructure is already in place.

In 2015 alone, Israel’s Civil Administration coordinated the crossing of more than 15,700,000 crossings of Palestinians from the West Bank into Israel, the majority for work purposes. The higher salaries received by Palestinians working in Israel has greatly contributed to the Palestinian economy and increased stability. Significant income is also generated by the thousands of Palestinians working alongside Israelis in Israeli companies operating in the West Bank.

In the agricultural field, Israel has installed 81 agricultural gates to ensure that Palestinian farmers have access to the supplies they need to successfully harvest their land. During the 2015 growing season, the Civil Administration coordinated the distribution of more than 26,000 tons of cucumbers cultivated by Palestinian farmers. This produce was sold across Israel and resulted in revenue of approximately $21,000,000. Additionally, the jobs created by the project contributed another $7,000,000 to the local Palestinian economy.

In 2011, bilateral trade between Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas reached $4.3 billion, with Israeli exports to the PA amounting to $3.5 billion and Palestinian exports to Israel amounting to $816 million. In August 2016, alone, 16,782 trucks loaded with merchandise produced by Palestinians were exported from the West Bank through approved land-crossings with Israel. From October 2014 through August 2016, 36,498 tons of agricultural goods, textiles, furniture, and other supplies were transferred from Gaza to Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.

Israelis and Palestinians are interdependent on each other, and their day-to-day activities constantly overlap and affect one another. Economic cooperation and direct communication is essential, given the reality that these are two peoples who live alongside each other. Israel has made a concerted effort to try to increase cooperation; it is incumbent on the Palestinians to do the same.

The conflict should not be a barrier for those who understand that economic relations can create a powerful bond that is far more productive than mutual hatred. Israel has no choice but to respond to Palestinian terror with military intervention, and further restrictions, and so, the cycle continues. Until Palestinian violence and unilateral actions stop, it will be impossible to put into place a political process for a viable two-state solution.

At the moment, the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace are, to say the least disheartening. To paraphrase the legendary Abba Eban, the Palestinians have rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, regardless of how many concessions Israel offered to make. And yet, there are glimmers of hope that allow us not give up in despair. Last week, when Palestinians stood with Israelis to fight ravaging fires, we saw one such glimmer. Each time an Israeli doctor treats a Palestinian child, and each time a Palestinian retreats from the rhetoric of hate to cooperate with Israelis economically, we see other such sparks of light and hope. Would that there be more in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

About the Author
Robert R. Singer has served as Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the leading umbrella organization of Jewish communities around the world, since 2013. Prior to that, he was CEO and Director General of World ORT, the largest Jewish education initiative in the world. Singer was born in Ukraine in 1956 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 15.
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