BUILDING PEACE THROUGH HEALTH IN THE MIDDLE EAST
This article is part of a special series on cross-border medical practices written, October 16, 2008, for the Common Ground News Service, who distributes it with permission to publish.
For over two decades, international health organisations have offered their services to people in regional conflicts throughout the world. While health initiatives alone have not and cannot achieve peace, especially where political, cultural or religious tensions might abound, they often serve as the last point of contact between conflicting parties.
Health programmes also serve to increase understanding between divided peoples, demonstrating the power of sustained cooperation in hostile political environments. During the 1980s, violent clashes between Nicaragua’s Contras and Sandinistas impressed upon the conscience of the international community, rousing the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the regional office of the World Health Organisation (WHO), to initiate „Health as a Bridge for Peace,‰ a plan aimed at providing healthcare to populations living in war-torn areas in Latin America.
Their work resulted in so-called Days of Tranquility for 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 both the government officials and the rebel guerrilla forces. Concern for public health was a common ground.
The same approach was later used in other regions of the world. Since its founding in 1988, the Association of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights has created two funds to address the normalised medical neglect of Palestinian and migrant workers’ children: The Palestinian Children’s Medical Care Fund and The Children of Foreign Workers Medical Fund. The organisation also conducts training activities for Palestinian health professionals, and has become a leading advocate for health and human rights in the region.
Many new health groups began developing and providing health services to the Palestinian people in the years after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo Accords.
In 1995, the late King Hussein of Jordan invited officials from the Canada International Scientific Exchange Programme to conduct a series of activities to foster better collaboration between Arab and Israeli doctors. The high incidence of hearing loss shared by Jordanians and Israelis was the basis of a project to provide audiology tests for infants, which to date has screened and habilitated more than 145,000 infants. The programme has now expanded to promote youth health, maternal nutrition, and infectious disease management.
As a result, Canada, Israel and Jordan have enjoyed a healthy amount of scholarly discourse, and Israelis and Palestinians have worked together on publications and scientific symposiums. In December of 2004, the first issue of Bridges was published under the auspices of the WHO. The magazine features articles written by Israeli and Palestinian health experts, and is a model of success for building bridges of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.
These are just a few examples of what up to now has been a highly active and inspiring collaboration among Palestinian and Israeli health workers. Despite their obvious value, these activities are not universally supported. In 2005, numerous medical groups and health service professionals working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories strongly objected to what they consider an undue pressure to enter into Palestinian-Israeli healthcare cooperation.
According to the dissenters, there is a political agenda behind the “scheme” to force Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate. In addition, they do not believe that professional and academic collaboration can truly contribute to reconciliation “when justice for Palestinians has not been achieved.”
Although there is some validity to this position, peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not be achieved overnight. It is only through an incremental approach that reconciliation can occur between both peoples. In the words of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, „Peace will be built slowly, day by day, through modest deeds and countless spontaneous details.‰
What better way is there to build peace between Arabs and Israelis than the living testimony of thousands of women, men and children? In any region plagued by lack of confidence, mistrust, and violence, building health bridges is the best antidote to war.
*Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights. He is also the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).