Antidote to Cynicism: the Gilboa-Jenin Connection
By Kenneth Bob
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 Organizations and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues sponsored the intimate event. 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.
I know that some of the readers of this piece are thinking “this is a nice development, but it is no substitute for peace negotiations.” I agree, but I have always felt that these efforts are essential so that on “the day after,” peace has a chance to take hold and the neighbors who in this case live “meters apart” already have some positive experience with coexistence. I believe Qadoura’s analysis confirms this belief.
I will leave the last words to Atar, who has no illusions that this is easy:
“The effort to build peace is as great as conducting a war. We need to address the challenge of the relationship with the Palestinian state rising next to Israel. We don’t have the luxury of failure with so many watching us.”