Building better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through health

The Chair of Project Rozana USA, Kenneth Bob, gives editorial comment for the Feb/Mar 2019 Project Rozana Newsletter

Kenneth Bob

In progressive political circles I am sometimes asked why I work on initiatives like Project Rozana when peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are non-existent… wouldn’t a singular focus on affecting political change be more effective? A harsher criticism of the work we do is that it “normalizes” the unsustainable status quo on the West Bank and Gaza.

I believe that in fact both a political track and grassroots work are essential elements of an Israeli-Palestinian peace strategy. While Project Rozana makes no claims to directly affect the macro-political track we have every hope that we can have impact at the people to people level.

While every conflict has its unique causes and characteristics, I think it is instructive to look at the experience of the situation in Northern Ireland, or “The Troubles” as they were called. After many years of seemingly intractable political conflicts and violence, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there were 5,000 co-existence projects underway between Catholics and Protestants. The agreement needed to be approved by voters across the island of Ireland in two separate referendums and experts agree that the existence of grassroots support developed through these contacts was essential for the wide margins of passage.

It is important to note that the funding for much of this effort came from the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) and there are proposals pending in governmental venues around the world, including in the U.S. Congress to establish a similar International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

In a study entitled “A future for Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding,” Ned Lazarus, a Professor at George Washington University, lays out the case that such mimicking the North Ireland experience would be meaningful in the case of the Middle East conflict. He points out that there are currently 164 co-existence organizations operating in the Israel-Palestine realm, and only 39 with a budget over $1 million.

Jonathan Powell, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and the chief British negotiator during the Northern Ireland Peace Process, wrote that,

“The IFI prepared the ground for peacemaking – it began its work 12 years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed. And it made peace sustainable.” He adds that “by following the successful precedent of the International Fund for Ireland, the proposed new Fund would provide a consistent, sustainable and transparent funding source equipped to bring to scale the successful models and the best practices discussed by Lazarus.”

I would further suggest that Project Rozana is a perfect application of this approach as it contains three key elements of successful initiatives, according to the research.

A significant number of people are touched by the activity, and there are repeat engagements. The sad fact is that many of the patients and chaperones transported by Road to Recovery drivers to appointments at Israeli hospitals are on a regular schedule of radiation, chemotherapy or some other treatment. These repeat contacts between driver and patient families, between doctors and patients, build over time and develop into durable relationships.

Secondly, the engagement through our training programs creates strong bonds between hundreds of professionals on both sides of the Green Line, who in turn have extensive personal and professional networks who can be influenced by their experiences.

Finally, the objective of the strategic training initiatives is to build healthcare infrastructure and human capital in local West Bank and Gaza communities. This will create societal building blocks that are critical when a peace agreement is ultimately reached.

Unless we build constituencies and cultures of peace among both Israelis and Palestinians, future peace negotiations will not have the environment and public support they will need to succeed. Therefore, a parallel approach of governmental and grassroots engagement is essential for reaching last peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Kenneth Bob, Chair Project Rozana USA