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Friday, April 12, 2024

Gainesville Sister Cities: Supporting Israeli and Palestinian communities

Gainesville retains partnerships with Kfar Saba, Israel & Qalqilya, Palestine

For the past 26 years, the city of Gainesville has fostered international connections with its local government by partnering with the cities of Kfar Saba, Israel and Qalqilya, Palestine through the Sister City Program of Gainesville, Inc. With the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the program is needed now more than ever, according to Gainesville officials. 

The organization acts as a bridge connecting local community leaders in Gainesville to individuals and groups in another city.  

Steve Kalishman, 70, founder and president of the Sister City Program of Gainesville, Inc. contacted both Kfar Saba, Israel and Qalqilya, Palestine in the face of the Israel-Hamas war, he said.

“Kfar Saba said they had seen a few rockets, but everything was quiet,” Kalishman said. “In Qalqilya, they said that a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed by the army. Then they closed the city because Qalqilya is inside of a wall.”

When he heard news of the boy and the city closing, he contacted the city but did not receive a response.

“They’re in a really difficult situation and they know that we love them and trust them and we’ll do anything to help them. But I don’t want to keep trying to make them tell us what’s going on,” Kalishman said.

Kalishman said anybody in Gainesville interested in the international situation or any other sister city is welcomed in the program. There are no fee requirements, and people do not have to be on the board of the organization to become a member. 

The Sister City program offers exchange programs where people can participate in visits to either city. 

“If you go as a part of the sister city delegation, you’re going to be an honored guest in that city,” Kalishman said. There is supposed to be a trilateral relationship between Gainesville, Kfar Saba and Qalqilya, Kalishman said. Instead, Gainesville participates in a dual-track relationship with the two cities separately. 

“It’s really unfortunate because the two cities are only about two miles apart. But there’s a wall between them so nobody from either city has gone to the other in the last 20 years,” Kalishman said.

Except for workers coming from Qalqilya to Kfar Saba, who have to come home at night.

Kalishman heard news of a rocket that hit Qalqilya Oct. 12. He did not receive an answer from the sister city when he reached out to them. 

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“We‘ve been going to these two cities; we have friends in both cities and we’re just concerned,” Kalishman said. 

Last October, former Mayor Lauren Poe and two former city commissioners, Adrian Hayes-Santos and David Arreola, visited both cities, Kalishman said.

Poe is the president and CEO of Greater Gainesville International Center, which works closely with the Sister City Program of Gainesville, Inc. He was able to represent the city at international conferences at sister cities, including Kfar Saba, Israel and Qalqilya, Palestine.

He attributed these experiences to gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for the citizen diplomacy, direct exchange and economic opportunities exchanged between Gainesville and its various sister cities.

“It really got me motivated to try to put more of an emphasis and more resources towards solidifying first and then expanding opportunities between Gainesville and some of our partner communities around the world,” Poe said. 

Gainesville’s sister city partnerships have origins and roots centered on citizen diplomacy, Poe said. Today, its mission is to celebrate, elevate and empower local international communities.

This is seen through economic empowerment services, educational programs, international virtual and in-person exchanges and direct assistance to new residents in the community, he said.

The Greater Gainesville International Center has maintained an open dialogue with both its Palestinian and Israeli sister cities and has offered condolences to them. 

Poe said that their goal is to work toward greater understanding, mutual prosperity and security. 

“I’d like to remind our neighbors here in Gainesville, that when you talk to our Israeli and Palestinian friends in both of those places, what they want more than anything is peace,” Poe said.

Poe believes the best way for local residents to get more involved and offer support to affected international communities is by personal words and actions.

“We have to lead by example, even though this is a very difficult time for so many of our neighbors,” Poe said. “We let them know that we’re here for them and that we can support them.”

Additionally, he encourages the local community to take advantage of resources and opportunities at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, which teaches individuals and groups how to effectively address conflict resolution. 

“People might not know how to process and deal with everything they’re experiencing,” Poe said. “It’s easy to default towards anger and hate and the center can help provide resources that teach people how to process emotional responses.”

Kalishman clarifies that the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding does not have any direct programs in Israel or Palestine.

Any local residents can contact sister cities through its website or Facebook, or contact the program through the Greater Gainesville International Center.

Contact Kat Tran at Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 

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