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Joint Medical Teams Help Propel Healing Process in the Middle East

Society: Scores of Israeli-Palestinian projects provide health care to the needy while planting the seeds of coexistence.


IDNA, West Bank — Sarah Capelovitch gently clasped 2-year-old Khalil around the waist, then motioned his anxious grandmother to join the group already kneeling around him on the floor of the health clinic in this West Bank village.

"Grandmothers like to be close," the Israeli physical therapist said reassuringly, and asked a Palestinian colleague to translate her words.

Smiling broadly, Malika abu Dabbou knelt on a green exercise mat beside her daughter and grandson, whose small legs dangled listlessly, his feet turning out.

Capelovitch slowly stretched the boy's back and legs, demonstrating to his relatives and to Palestinian health care worker Tagreed Masri how to help him learn to stand.

Just outside the room, other families waited in the clinic's crowded reception area, eager for their children to be evaluated by the Israeli-Palestinian medical team that comes once a month to Idna, a village of about 15,000 in the rural West Bank.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 18, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 4 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Mideast--A May 20 report on joint Israeli-Palestinian medical projects gave an incorrect number of participating organizations. Sixty-seven groups are involved.

The visits are part of an innovative project uniting Israeli and Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists. Now more than a year old, it is aimed both at identifying and treating Palestinian children with developmental disabilities and at training the Palestinian health workers who will provide them with long-term care.

The project also has deeper goals, participants say: to break the psychological barriers that still separate Israelis and Palestinians, and to plant seeds of cooperation and coexistence. And at those objectives, too, it is succeeding, the participants say.

Nearly seven years after signing their first interim peace agreement, the landmark Oslo accords, Israel and the Palestinians are still struggling to reach a permanent peace. Despite years of negotiations, they often seem no closer than ever to learning to live together or to solving the complex issues at the heart of their conflict.

But far from those formal negotiations, small but heartening signs of progress are emerging.

A new study indicates, for instance, that joint Israeli-Palestinian efforts in the medical and health fields, including the one here in Idna, are more common than might be supposed. Many have managed to endure despite the ups and downs of the peace process, according to the study carried out by the Israeli branches of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York-based aid agency, and Al Quds University, a Palestinian institution in Jerusalem.

During a two-year period, the researchers studied 148 cooperative projects, ranging from doctor training programs to cancer research efforts to workshops on allergies and asthma. An estimated 4,000 people and 167 organizations were involved, the study found.

Participants in the projects cited a variety of factors motivating them. Numerous Israelis and Palestinians said they wanted to contribute in some way to ending the long conflict between their peoples. Many others, especially Palestinians, hoped either to improve their professional skills through their efforts or to help build the underdeveloped health care system in the Palestinian territories.

"These were not only peace activists who got involved and wanted to work together," said Tamara Barnea, the main Israeli researcher. "We found that people recognized that there are many professional and other benefits from these projects too."

The researchers found that the projects had continued despite funding problems, political tensions and logistical difficulties, the latter often linked to the peace process as well. For example, many Palestinian respondents said their ability to take part was hampered at times by the difficulties they faced obtaining the required travel permits from Israel or by closures imposed on Palestinian areas by the Israeli army during periods of high tension.

Two-thirds of the Palestinians and a third of the Israelis said working on their joint projects had changed their attitudes toward coexistence, with most--70%--describing the change as positive. Many others said their attitudes were positive to begin with.

And many said the cooperative efforts had given them the chance to learn, often for the first time, about the other side, to replace views based on stereotypes with firsthand observations. Both Israeli and Palestinian respondents said they were surprised by their partners' knowledge and the quality of their work, as well as by their enthusiasm and goodwill.

The project in Idna grew out of a dialogue session in 1996 between peace activists from the Israeli city of Rehovot and from the Palestinian village, which lies just west of the divided and often tense city of Hebron. Several of those who engaged in the dialogue were doctors, and one came up with the idea of starting a grass-roots program in which they could work together to provide better health care in Idna and promote peace at the same time.

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