Neighbors in the Galilee

Categories: Israel
       By Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

Last August, I spent an evening with a small group of people sharing our summer experiences. At first glance, not material for an article about some of the most pressing issues for Israeli society – but these were Arab and Jewish residents of the Galilee discussing the Hizballah-Israeli War in Lebanon, its effect on their personal lives, on the country and on their work. All of the participants in that evening’s gathering are members or staff of Schenim – Neighbors for Joint Development in the Galilee (“Neighbors”), a non-profit organization established in 2002 and made up of professional architects, urban and regional planners, environmentalists and mediators. Even for a group with long-standing personal and professional ties, the conversation was not easy. Disappointment and anger about the support Hassan Nassrallah seems to have among Israeli Arabs were countered by expressions of shock at the death and destruction caused by Israel in the name of self-defense. A strong enough common ground was found, one based on a shared respect for the lives and rights of Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians. And our differing viewpoints on the war did not weaken even slightly our collective commitment to creating greater cooperation between Jews and Arabs in our region. On the contrary, this summer’s difficult events seem to make Neighbors’ joint planning vision more relevant than ever. While one reaction to Islamic fundamentalism and violence is giving up on any attempt at dialogue, ours is the opposite: we must minimize any sources of conflict that are in our power to change, and thus strengthen forces of moderation and coexistence. Now is an important moment for this kind of effort. After the varied Arab and Jewish Galilee populations found themselves under rocket attacks and the local economy came to a standstill, government programs for the development of the region continue to be formed, and are being promised increased funding in the aftermath of the war. Will these programs correct past inequalities and provide an opportunity for a new beginning for Arab-Jewish relations? Or will they only add to existing alienation and polarization, increasing the risk of violent conflict in the region?

Two major projects on which we are working address these pressing issues, through the development of a planning process that has community work at its center. In the first, “Planning for a Shared Landscape” Neighbors will work intensively with residents of two pairs of neighboring Arab and Jewish communities, Tamra and Mitzpe-Aviv and Sachnin and Yuvalim. Residents will undergo a deep dialogue process and then form work teams to create plans for the lands that lie between them and to initiate cooperative endeavors in fields such as tourism, crafts, small-scale industry, and culture. Younger members of the four communities will also be involved through outdoor landscape art and design projects that they will envisage and create together.

The second project takes a wider and more long-term view of the region, and is devoted to the development of a Master Plan for the Heart of the Galilee region. The Master Plan will map out the future development of the region in all aspects of life, such as the growth of existing communities, the creation of new ones, the location and scope of regional educational, commercial, industrial, cultural and medical centers, as well as roads, water systems, and more. It will be based on an approach to the region as one planning entity, populated by many different ethnic and cultural groups, living in equality and mutual respect. It will create cooperative ventures and agreements between the myriad of Jewish and Arab populations living here: new immigrants and veteran Israeli-born, traditional and secular Jewish communities, and Bedouin, Moslem, Druze and Christian Arab communities. The Plan will strive to minimize socio-economic gaps and maximize common interests to all of these communities. This integrative model will promote centers that serve all of the populations, thus providing a more efficient use of the land that will maximize open green spaces. Thus we fuse our environmental concern for the land together with our social concern for the well-being of the communities living on it and the relations between them. While the Master Plan is to be developed by professional teams, inclusion of the public will be at its core, through resident planning teams that will accompany each stage in the process, beginning with strategic planning in the fields of education, environment, and employment. Parallel to work with the public, the organization will work relentlessly to bring government planning bodies into the process, work that has already begun through discussions with members of the relevant ministries and local governments.

The two projects described here exemplify our approach to regional planning, one that does not attempt to erase cultural and other differences between communities, but rather, as the name “Neighbors” suggests, gives expression to the common elements and interests of the various populations living here, while respecting the particular qualities of each of them. Our decision to devote ourselves to planning issues stems from our belief that issues relating to the distribution of resources, land in particular, have the potential either to tear apart our beautiful landscape, or, with careful and thoughtful work, to make it one of the most prosperous and fascinating places to live in.
For more on Neighbors, see www.neighbors.org.il

About Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

American-born Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov lives in the Galilee community of Eshchar with her family. She is a professional painter and part-time writer and fundraiser for Neighbors.
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One Response to Neighbors in the Galilee

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