In hospitals, schools and businesses, Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians are working side by side to forge a better future
In a world of conflict, confrontation, deadlocks and dead ends, few crises are as protracted as the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But however inauspicious a situation, pockets of humanity can always be found.
Within minutes of arriving at the emergency wing of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem with severe chest pain, a 58-year-old heart attack patient is lying on an operating table. A cardiologist and a team of three specialist cardiovascular nurses stand over her.
In a room behind a glass screen beyond the operating table stands the head technician, Siham Sheble Masarwa, an Israeli Arab, who monitors the operation, directing a team of Jewish and Arab medical experts.
Masarwa monitors x-ray images on a screen that show where the blockage is in the woman’s left coronary artery. She has been a nurse at the hospital for 20 years and now runs the catheterisation lab in the intensive cardiac care unit.
The Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital sits on what was an Arab village that was cleared when the Israeli army attacked it in 1948 and the Arab residents fled. Today the hospital is a rare island of calm where Jews, Israeli Arabs and some Palestinian staff work together to treat patients.
Outside, there is a sea of distrust and growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, with divisive political rhetoric on the rise and the loudest voices pushing for nationalism and more division.
Next door to the lab is the cardiology ward, where Rashad Rizeq, 32, a Palestinian from Ramallah, has been selected for a residency.
His grandmother died 10 years ago aged 65 after a heart attack because there was no interventional cardiology treatment in the Palestinian territories. He has vowed to take what he learns back to Palestinian public hospitals, which still have few cardiology facilities.
At Hadassah Rizeq does his rounds, speaking to Palestinian patients in Arabic, most of whom are heart attack patients transferred from the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority pays for Palestinian patients treated in Israeli hospitals. The EU picks up some of the bill, paying £20.5m for hospitals in East Jerusalem to treat Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza in 2015.
Rizeq says his residency at the hospital has been smooth – while there are growing divisions on the streets of Jerusalem, he does not face animosity within the hospital grounds.
“The only real challenge I face is passing through the checkpoints. This is hard and frustrating, I have to leave the house by 4am, to reach the hospital by 7am, and sometimes I don’t get home until 8pm,” says Rizeq.
Sometimes he spends up to three hours travelling each way from Ramallah to the hospital on the south-western side of Jerusalem.
He has been given permission by Israel to work and use his Palestinian-registered car.
“Travelling on Israeli transport didn’t work – if my wife called me on the telephone I would speak in Arabic,” he says. “People got tense. A couple of times they wouldn’t sit next to me or would leave the bus. But here in the hospital it’s super professional.”
Prof Chaim Lotan has directed the heart institute at the hospital for 15 years. He selected Rizeq for his placement and believes ties between Palestinian and Israeli hospitals will continue to strengthen.
“For me it doesn’t matter who someone is, once they are here they’re people. I don’t care about ethnicity or age,” he says.
Lotan started his medical career just a month before the Yom Kippur war in 1973. He had been discharged but when the war broke out he returned to the army to try to reclaim Mount Hermon from the Syrians.
“The Yom Kippur war was the biggest trauma that I think the Israelis have had. In my case it established a lot of what I think,” Lotan says. “I feel we have to find a solution – at the end of the day young people are killed for nothing, in the name of nothing.”
He says he has treated many Palestinians who have carried out attacks inside Israel.
Masarwa, from Kafr Qara, an Arab town south-east of Haifa, believes the hospital is a rare model of freedom.
“The way we do things in the hospital is the future for this country – we have to start somewhere,” she says. “My two children go to a bilingual school for Arabs and Jews. We have to start there, with education. We are doing the same thing in this hospital.”
Masarwa’s two children attend Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, on the “green line” between the Jewish neighbourhood of Patt and the Arab neighbourhood of Beit Safafa.
The school has a mix of Jewish, Christian and Muslim pupils.
“We’re not here to solve the conflict, but we aim to create change,” says the school’s principal, Nadia Kanani, an Israeli Arab. “It’s easier to not do something – to ignore the other side and say: ‘We’re here, they hate me, I hate him, I don’t see them, they’re far away.’ But we chose the harder way.”
Nadira Hussein, from Beit Safafa, has been teaching at the school for nine years and her two children are among the students. There are 10 Muslims, five Christians and four Jews in her class.
“I am proud of being here, and being part of this,” she says as she ushers out a group of excitable 10-year-old girls. “I think differently, I speak differently and I see it with the kids too, even my own children.”
She believes Jews and Arabs coming together in the classroom is a vital step in living together peacefully.
Guy Aloni, a Jewish film teacher, agrees.
“Sometimes an epiphany takes time. If I was walking down the street and I had an argument with an Arab, I would never see him again. There is no dialogue, I stand in my position and he stands in his. But here, at the school, there’s a process. I think we need to create a new perspective, a new narrative about how we want to see each other. It happens slowly and it’s stronger when it doesn’t happen overnight,” Aloni says.
The school has seen an unprecedented demand with 200 students on a waiting list across six Hand in Hand schools in Israel. This is despite a rise in violence. The “knife intifada” has seen 34 people killed by Palestinians, including two American nationals.
The organisation aimed to have a network of up to 15 integrated bilingual schools, which would engage a wider community of up to 20,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs.
“The harder it is outside the bigger the demand to join the school is,” says Kanani.
For two years Sikkuy, made up of Jewish and Arab citizens, has been running tours for Jews to Arab towns in Israel. During Ramadan, the group held 50 tours for more than 1,500 people, to 10 Arab towns and villages.
“Despite the fact that the opening night was the day after the attack in Tel Aviv’s Sarona market, we didn’t experience a trend of cancellations. People have cancelled, but not in significant numbers and not different than any other year,” says Sikkuy’s co-director, Gili Re’i.
This year groups have been taken to Nazareth’s market, the white mosque, and have gathered in an old mansion to talk to residents and owners as they break their daily fast.
Forsan Hussein, a Muslim Israeli, and his Jewish compatriot Ami Dror startedZaitoun Ventures nearly two years ago to help build and support Jewish-Arab startups.
“I spent a lot of my life working in the area of coexistence and economic development in one way or another,” says Hussein. “I always knew that I wanted to create a company that not only maximises return to investors but also does something that is socially aware and meaningful.”
Israel’s technology sector has been widely lauded as one of the country’s major success stories, but it is not diverse; few startups involve Arabs or Palestinians, minority groups, anyone over 40, women or ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Forsan and Ami decided to invest in companies co-founded by Jews and Arabs or that would benefit the world in some way. In the first year, they invested about £14m and plan to increase that to £75m this year.