Sister city relationships are intended to be of mutual benefit to partner communities here in the U.S. and in another country. They are long term relationships based on mutual understanding, common interests and a desire to learn from, teach and help one another. They allow citizens and officials on both sides to gain new ideas. They facilitate educational exchanges and often create new economic opportunities. Above all, sistering gives tangible expression to the belief that greater international understanding and cooperation will create a better world.
Madison is a leader among U.S. communities in the breadth and depth of its sister city relationships. Madison has active sister city relationships in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia. Some have focused on humanitarian or educational projects, while others have emphasized cultural exchange. Still others have concentrated on economic ties between communities. Each sister city relationship has some elements of all these themes. Through people-to-people interaction, bridge-building, and the rich diversity these projects bring to our community, sistering has made valuable contributions to Madison and its citizens.
Why a Palestinian city?
In these times of growing conflict in the Middle East, we believe it is essential to reach out, build bridges and strengthen mutual understanding with the region. U.S. relations with Israel are almost uniquely close. More than thirty active sister city relationships linking Israeli and U.S. cities are recognized by Sister Cities International. And beyond these, the U.S. enjoys a wealth of other governmental, religious, economic, educational and scientific exchanges with Israel. Madisonians benefit from these in many ways.
But relations with Palestine, even more than other parts of the Arab world, have been virtually non-existent. Only two U.S.-Palestine sister city relationships are recognized, and other forms of friendly relations with Palestine and Palestinians are limited in the extreme. Fair U.S. media coverage of Palestinian issues and aspirations (beyond the never-ending catalogue of deaths and retaliatory violence) is lamentably inadequate to the needs of an informed American public.
Our group shares with our partners in the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip a conviction that building bridges and developing a mutual understanding through direct personal experience can be of great benefit. Opportunities for Madisonians will be broadened and enriched through this sister city relationship. At a more general level we feel that such programs can contribute significantly to progress toward a peaceful solution to the terrible conflict that has for so long defeated the social, economic and individual aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Rafah is a city of about 150,000 people located in the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. In many ways Rafah is a microcosm of Palestinian civil society, a place where most of the issues facing Palestinians converge:
o More than 75% of Rafah’s residents are refugees from elsewhere in Palestine
o Many of these refugees have been made refugees for the second and third time due to continued military occupation and home demolitions.
o Rafah suffers from a serious water crisis and infrastructure loss, including the destruction of fresh water wells, urban sewage systems, agricultural land and irrigation wells, schools, roads, hospitals, and electrical power systems.
o The closure and blockade of the area has cut food and medical supplies and isolated the residents from contact with family, friends and others: within the occupied territories, in Israel, and in the outside world.
o Checkpoints and lockdowns (“curfews”) restrict travel within the area, keeping families apart, keeping workers away from their jobs, farmers from their land, patients and doctors from hospitals, and generally devastating economic activity.
As a result, Rafah’s humanitarian crisis is as acute as anywhere in Palestine, and among the worst in the world. Yet despite these difficult conditions, Rafah also has a rich and diverse cultural community, where the wish and the hope for peace and a better world to live in is striking, above all among the young. Rafah’s municipal government works under the most difficult circumstances to plan for a better future. Rafah offers Madisonians a rich insight into the varied Palestinian experience and, by extension, the issues at the heart of a situation that affects us all.
Who are our partners?
We are very fortunate to have as our partner the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a widely respected, non-partisan human rights organization. The Mezan Center has fieldworkers stationed throughout the Gaza Strip and engages in sustained individual and group legal advocacy, human rights training and teaching, public education via a resource library, outreach and technical programs, and monitoring of human rights issues. The Mezan Center is a fully non-political, transparent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that receives funding from such groups as the Ford Foundation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the International Commission of Jurists.
With Al Mezan, we will work with Rafah’s Municipal Council headed by Mayor Saied Zouroub and with the leadership and governance groups in the city’s refugee camps where so many Rafah residents live.
Our project is explicitly opposed to violence, and non-partisan. Our long-term vision is of communities, Jewish and Palestinian, living in peace and cooperation to their mutual social, economic and intellectual benefit. We endorse no particular negotiation formulas, parties, or leadership groups. We believe deeply and sincerely that a peace founded in justice and respecting the human rights of both communities is fully as much in the interests of Israel as it is of the Palestinians. We likewise believe deeply in the power of people-to-people, and community-to-community relations and friendship to advance the goal of peace.