At a time of renewed hostility between Palestinians and Israelis, it is imperative to look for areas of common interest between both peoples. The enormous disparities in access to good quality health services offer such an opportunity. It could become the start of wider collaboration in other areas, and the lowering of tensions that so much damage has caused in the region.
The Palestinian health system suffers from a shortage of medications, medical equipment, specialized physicians and a widespread lack of health personnel. This is explained by the scant economic resources devoted to health care. While Palestinians spend $248 per capita on health care, the Israeli government spends $2,046, an almost 10 times difference.
This is reflected in life expectancy, where there are 8-10 years difference between Israelis and Palestinian men and women. Infant mortality is another way to determine the quality of health services. While in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) that figure is 18.8 baby deaths for 1,000 births, in Israel it is 3.7, one of the lowest in the world. An important reason for this difference is that 55 percent of Palestinian infant deaths are caused by preventable infections.
Edward Kaufman, a Professor in the Dept. Government and Politics in the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, at the University of Maryland, told me recently, “The medical profession, both Israeli and Palestinian, has been an example of professional ethics, putting ahead of any ethnic and political differences their the commitment of saving human lives across the divide.”
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 and effectiveness of citizens’ communication in hostile political environments.
Historically, there are several successful examples of such collaboration. 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 kind of approach then continued with the so-called “Days of Tranquility” in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Peru. During those wars, ceasing hostilities made it possible that thousands of children could be 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 a concern for public health.
In the Middle East, since its founding in 1988, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel 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.
During the 2014 War, the Shiva hospital ran out of many specific medicines. Physicians for Human Rights (which include Jewish and Arab doctors) helped transport medicine into Gaza. 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.
One should add the need for increased exchange of 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 aware of the difficulties of carrying out these activities, and how some previous attempts have failed. But I also believe that nothing short of a massive effort by both Israelis and Palestinians to break down the psychological barriers separating their citizens can overcome their differences. So much money and effort have been spent in trying, vainly, to hurt the other side that a smaller effort should be devoted to creating an atmosphere conducive to peace.