Gershon Baskin believes that in the absence of real hope that the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams might actually reach an agreement, it is the local leaders who provide the real hope that peace is reachable and not solely a vision on the horizon that continually moves away from us.
Danny Atar and Kaddoura Mousa, two relatively unknown people, have made great strides on the road to peace and could go much further if their governments would only stop interfering. Atar is the head of the Gilboa Regional Council, elected by the residents of the kibbutzim, moshavim and Arab villages in the Gilboa area; Mousa is the governor of the Jenin District, appointed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They have been working together quietly for the past years to create a new reality on the ground whose success is now being called “Jenin first.”
In this area, the most northern part of the West Bank, the Green Line and the separation barrier are on the same line. The absence of conflict on the territorial issue has enabled these two local leaders to march forward with ambitious plans that if brought to fruition will provide the best chance for prosperity, stability and security for Palestinians and Israelis on both sides of the line.
What they have achieved so far is mainly the building of a relationship of trust which is the most basic necessary ingredient in a recipe for peacemaking. In the Israeli-Palestinian reality, the almost total absence of trust is one of the main reasons why progress in negotiations between the leaders is so slow and tedious. In this conflict, which is so filled with rhetoric and hyper-verbosity, the absence of empty words and high politics is refreshing, especially when it is replaced by actions that build confidence and stability.
In the Gilboa-Jenin area, trust has been built by deeds, not by words. Mousa has diligently worked to bring law and order back to the Jenin area. He is a no-nonsense man who has zero tolerance for Palestinians who believe that they have the right and obligation to attack and kill Israelis. As governor, Mousa has direct authority over the Palestinian police and security forces in his area. With determination, the support of Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, and support from the local communities, he succeeded in turning the area once controlled by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants into the quietest in the West Bank.
Atar’s part in building trust has been achieved by his personal commitment and determination toward the economic and social development plans that are based on creating a new cross-boundary reality. The center of those plans is an industrial zone that will be built on the Palestinian side of the border. A logistical center and a medical center are planned on the Israeli side, and there are talks about cross-boundary projects in higher education and vocational training as well.
The connecting point is the Jelama crossing, which will probably have to be moved and expanded to accommodate the new plans. The plans are ambitious and visionary, and if Atar and Mousa are allowed to move forward without the interference of their governments, Jenin-Gilboa will become a model for moving from conflict to cooperation.
A key element in the success so far is the bridge-building role being played by Eid Salim, the representative of Mukeibila, a small Arab village and a member of the Gilboa Regional Council. Salim is an Israeli-Arab—that is his definition. He has no conflicts regarding his identity. His amazingly rich fluency in both Hebrew and Arabic is only one small indication of his ability to stride both sides of the border and earn the full trust of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Eid’s Jewish colleagues on the council have no questions about his loyalty to Israel. They see him as a vital member, colleague and true friend. When Eid speaks about “our state,” he is only referring to Israel. The Atar-Eid partnership is a model of friendship and leadership based on a joint vision and, perhaps most importantly, on deeds and not words. This powerful duo together with Mousa can transform the northern West Bank into a real success story in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and perhaps lay a new cornerstone in building peace from the bottom-up.
The Gilboa-Jenin development plans will move forward if the local leaders have their way. The central governments have only to facilitate their work. To begin the physical work on the industrial zone, they need final agreements on technical issues concerning electricity, water and access roads. The plans have been advanced; financing is available from Germany and elsewhere. Groundbreaking could take place by January and the process of creating thousands of new jobs on both sides of the border could begin. A meeting of these local leaders and others from both sides took place this past weekend in the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Center in Lake Como, Italy, sponsored by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and the Adenauer Foundation in Jerusalem.
The process could also be stopped by the national governments and by high politics. The Jenin-Gilboa plans will not end the occupation. The Palestinian state will not come into being as a result of cross-boundary cooperation in the North. The situation in Gaza will not be affected by the creation of thousands of new jobs in Jenin. Nor are the plans fostered by Atar and Mousa a blueprint for a more humane or benign occupation.
Both of these local leaders fully support the two-state solution. But these are men of action. They understand that they can achieve nothing through political debates and arguments. They have the tools of local government at their disposal, and they plan to use those tools to build a piece of the peace that we all hope for.
In the absence of real hope that the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams might actually reach an agreement, it is people like Atar and Mousa who provide the real hope that peace is reachable and not solely a vision on the horizon that continually moves away from us.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.