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Germany

The Broken Triangle of German, Palestinian and Jewish Relations

Middle East Violence has silenced the Trialog project. The partnership program with Cologne, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv was started years ago, but since the Intifada, parts of the project have literally gone up in smoke.

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When is help on the way for the Middle East?

Four years ago Bethlehem received a shiny new ambulance from the city of Cologne. It was intended to transport sick and injured to the hospital as quickly as possible. Today it stands abandoned in a corner of the city, rusted and shot through with bullet wholes.

Like many other gifts from the Cologne Trialog partnership program, the ambulance was a symbol of friendship between the Palestinian city and Germany. And like other parts of the program, its destruction is indicative of the violence that has severed ties throughout the Middle East.

Three cities, three cultures

Established in 1996, the Trialog project unites three cities, Cologne, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv, in a cross-cultural friendship program. The founder of the project, Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski is a former German state minister and an outspoken advocate of improving ties between Germany and the Arab world.

For many years now Wischnewski has encouraged German politicians and municipal leaders to extend their arms to Israel and Palestine through cultural exchange programs, and to work together with local leaders in the region to bring the two sides together.

Several years ago mayors of the three cities got together in Tel Aviv to discuss possible projects. School children and choirs traveled back and forth to the three cities bringing the message of goodwill with them. Pen pals visited one another and a general dialog or "trialog" grew up among the residents of the three very different communities.

But that’s all over with now.

"The conflict in the region has escalated to a point that makes everything much more difficult," Wischnewski says describing the decline of participation in the city partnership programs.

More than 17 months ago, a Cologne delegation traveled to Bethlehem to celebrate the establishment of the Trialog project with a week long cultural festival. But the two hundred Germans and the popular Cologne band Bläck Fööss were forced to fly back home as the second Intifada erupted in September 2000.

Ever since then Wischnewski and a group of dedicated volunteers have struggled to revive the contact to Bethlehem. They have organized humanitarian goods, food and medicine for the Palestinians in the city. But their efforts are often in vain. Last winter, for example, Israel blocked a shipment of warm clothes and jackets the Trialog organization had collected. Only with the intervention of the German Foreign Ministry could they be delivered to the needy.

Wischnewski insists that maintaining the ties to Bethlehem is even more crucial now than ever before. "The contact is important, we cannot break it off," he says urging local German leaders to support the initiative.

Bitter skeptics

The head representative of the Palestinian Delegation in Germany, Abdallah Frangi echoes Wischnewski’s call for help. "It is madness," he says. "We cleaned up the holy city with the help of Germany and now Israel has gone and destroyed everything."

Frangi supports Wischnewski’s Trialog program, but he is realistic about its effectiveness in the current situation. He sees the tri-city model as an ideal that can only survive in times of peace. "The shadow of the sensitive German-Jewish relations always hangs over the German-Palestinian relations," and dictates the way Germans respond to the situation in Palestine, Frangi says.

After the Oslo Peace Accords, when Israel and Palestine were making strides towards common understanding, Germany was actively and financially involved in helping out the Palestinians. Germans pumped a lot of money into the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1990s. But now after the outbreak of the second Intifada, the helping hand has retreated and the friendship cooled off, says Frangi.

The other half of the partnership has also suffered under the spiraling violence. After Ariel Sharon provoked the Palestinians by visiting the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, members of the Tel Aviv-Cologne exchange program were shocked at the military force Israel wielded against the Palestinians. Several members resigned from the program, and the number of participants willing to travel to the sister city has declined rapidly ever since then.

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