American Jews Arab-Israeli conflict Israel Israeli Arabs Palestinians

Heartening news from Gilboa and Jenin

If we are to believe the rhetoric of some in the Israel-can-do-no-right crowd, the discrimination faced by Israeli Arabs proves that the majority-Jewish state is already comparable to South Africa under apartheid, and a 2-state solution will only make the situation permanent. In Israel and the territories, though, there are Jews and Arabs who can’t afford to just sit around condemning each other –and each other’s narratives– and have to figure out a way to live together. What follows is a heartening report from the estimable Ken Bob, President of Ameinu, about the growing cooperation between the Gilboa region in Israel and the West Bank city of Jenin.

Note that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was a co-sponsor of the meeting described below, along with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues, another American Jewish group that includes participants from the mainstream community. To some, their involvement means the meeting was inherently evil and the project could not possibly be anything other than a sham meant to hide Israel’s ongoing crimes. Qadoura M. Qadoura, Governor of Jenin, begs to differ. Here is an excerpt from Ken Bob’s report:

It is easy to be discouraged and even cynical about the Israeli-Palestinian track these days. As a matter of fact, on some level you can feel even worse about Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.

With that in mind, it was a welcome break to have the opportunity to meet this week with Danny Atar, the Jewish chairman of the Gilboa Regional Council and his Arab deputy, Eid Saleem, along with the their colleague Qadoura M. Qadoura, governor of the West Bank Jenin Governorate. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization sponsored the intimate event, along with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues. To appreciate this story, one must know that of the Gilboa region’s 30,000 residents, 60 percent are Jewish and 40 percent are Arab. The city of Jenin, the urban center of the governorate, has a population of 40,000 and is right across the green line from the Gilboa region.

Setting the stage for the description of their groundbreaking collaboration, Saleem explained that when he was elected to the regional council in mid-90s, he had every intention to split it into separate Jewish and Arab councils like other regions have done. As he tells the story, he spent a long weekend with Atar discussing the matter, with “Danny convincing me to remain one council, saying if we can’t live together in a regional council, how will we live together in a country?”

With this joint motto, they went about attempting to provide economically and culturally for the citizens, creating a sense of one community. Atar acknowledged that “Jewish-Arab relations are complicated and have not reached a successful path in the state” and there is much work to be done. Saleem actually opened his comments with Theodore Herzl’s famous “Im Tirtzu – If you will it, it is no dream,” signaling that he truly believes in the co-existence approach. For example, the region has instituted an annual Bible-Koran quiz where Jewish and Arab students form teams and compete against each other. It has been so successful that it has spread to other areas in Israel as well. Their recent Coexistence Festival attracted over 80,000 people included thousands of youth from outside of their region. Saleem suggested that they must be doing something right since they were recently both re-elected for a fourth term.

The speakers focused, however, on their joint decision to move the coexistence project across the border and create a bond between the Gilboa region and Jenin, something truly unprecedented since the intifadas.

Qadoura, who previously spent 18 months in an Israeli prison, stated that “no two peoples can exist only meters from each other if one is the occupier and one is occupied, if one has a strong economy and one has a weak economy.” Elaborating, he offered that to create stability in his region, three components are required: personal security, economic development and political progress towards a peace agreement. Atar and Qadoura both attested to the advances made in security in Jenin, once a hotbed of radicalism and street violence. The centerpiece of the economic partnership is a new industrial zone that will provide jobs to thousands of Palestinians and Israelis. It will include olive oil production and an agricultural packing house operation for export to Europe of West Bank produce.

I asked Qadoura, a recognized leader of Fatah, how other West Bank leaders view the Gilboa-Jenin relationship. He replied that the younger leadership that gained ground within Fatah at the recent conference want peace and want progress like this project. He then smiled and said “our neighbors want to see whether the leaders of this initiative have their heads chopped off” before jumping in.

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