Simona Bar-Haim lives about 40 miles from her friend Akram Amro. Both scientists are focused on helping teenagers with cerebral palsy.
Despite their proximity to one another and the nature of their research, their cooperation is a controversial academic partnership.
Amro is a Palestinian from Hebron in the West Bank and works at Al -Quds University. Bar-Haim lives on the other side of the border in Beer-Sheva, the capital of the Israeli Negev desert region. She works in the basement of one of Ben-Gurion University’s modern buildings, constructed of lush Jerusalem stone. The walls in her lab are washed with a distinctive bright blue paint. Amro’s lab works just fine, but it’s not as fancy as his Israeli colleague’s and he doesn’t have access to some of the medical equipment that she does.
The pair can’t drive to see each other, not even when relations between the Palestinians and Israelis are at their best. “Even our president can’t drive in Israel,” says Amro, “so I usually take several forms of transportation depending on the level of permit I have.”
Amro’s permit now only allows him to exit the West Bank through five checkpoints. The lines are often very long in the morning because of commuting migrant workers so he has to be strategic about his choice of checkpoint. When he arrives at the border he leaves the Palestinian bus to be screened by security officers. “It’s not a pleasant experience,” he says. Once he’s cleared the checkpoint there’s another bus waiting on the Israeli side for his onward journey.
Almost everything on this border is political and scientific cooperation is no different. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which was started ten years ago by a group of Palestinian intellectuals, says in a statement that the shunning of Israeli academic institutions applies a much-needed “form of pressure against Israel.”
Bar-Haim and Amro are equally adamant that peaceful cooperation is the only way to move beyond the perpetuating cycle of conflict. “Peace is about action, not just talking,” says Amro.
Amro and Bar-Haim began working together in 2006, the same year Hamas won its landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. “I met him in a rehabilitation center for children with cerebral palsy in East Jerusalem,” says Bar-Haim.
The researchers are testing two methods of helping young adults aged 14 to 20 years old with cerebral palsy in both Palestine and Israel. In each country, there’s a group of patients receiving group physical therapy—an inexpensive intervention— and another group using treadmills—a more expensive treatment. There are two types of treadmills the researchers use. One is the conventional sort found in a gym and the other is custom built with a split belt, which forces each leg to move at a different speeds.
The Middle East Research Cooperation program of the United States Agency for International Development supports the research. The program has also financed other joint Arab-Israeli efforts, including research on encouraging people to quit smoking, reducing children’s lead exposure and protecting important agricultural crops from disease.
Amro and Bar-Haim have conducted their research for three years with 120 teenagers in total, noting whether they walk faster or walk more and if their brains learn new motor functions. They hope to determine which form of intervention is the most effective.
The research duo has until now always found one way or another to circumvent boycotts and conflict, but the current war in Gaza has brought their project to a halt. They remain optimistic, it is only a temporary lull.
Al-Quds University doesn’t have a split belt treadmill and some of the necessary medical-imaging equipment. “The Palestinian patients were supposed to come to my lab in August to use it and have MRI scans,” says Bar-Haim. “I hope we can do this later, but there’s no way of knowing. No one knows when normality will return.”
“Attitudes towards [cooperation] have taken several steps backwards since the war began,” says Amro. “I have to be very diplomatic when I present myself as someone who is working with Israelis.”
Since the war between Hamas and Israel began in Gaza five weeks ago, there have been eight attempts to break the violence. The latest ceasefire extension announced on August 13 is wobbly at best—rockets were fired into Israel just hours before the extension began. Al-Fanar Media has reported in detail on the educational toll of the Gaza war, which has seen at least three universities bombarded and many more schools.
Amro confesses the war has placed a strain on their friendship. “I cannot discuss Gaza with Simona because I don’t want it to become personal,” he says, “I can’t deny it makes me feel upset inside, even though I know none of my Israeli colleagues support what’s happening. At the same time they know I’m not celebrating when Israel suffers.”
Bar-Haim acknowledges a similar confusion of feelings. “I’m a big lefty and I have been cooperating with Arab colleagues for many years, but I’m also an Israeli and I have a son in the Army. Everything is mixed up right now.”
Rachel Rubin, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a supporter of the American Studies Association boycott, praises Bar-Haim and Amro’s project. “What they’re doing is marvelous, we celebrate those kinds of collaborations between individuals,” she says. “It’s very different than foreign universities working with Israeli institutions that discriminate against Palestinians.”
Bar-Haim disagrees with the boycott. “I’m helping more than those who are boycotting,” she says. “They don’t understand the situation and how those of us who live here are trying to find solutions together.”
So far their research has shown promising results. “Palestinian children improve much more than the Israelis,” says Amro. “It could be that Israeli teenagers have reached a ceiling; they’ve been under treatment for many years,” he adds. The reality is that Palestinian teenagers haven’t had access to the same quality of health care as the Israelis in their earlier years.
The scientists are not finished, but hope to publish results in the coming months—though they will still have to contend with conflicts and boycotts. So why do they continue to bother? “I see it as my responsibility to be part of a peaceful effort going on between our two nations,” says Amro.
Bar-Haim agrees: “Science should be without borders.”