What can a city do when its sister is in trouble?

Amidst the Israel-Hamas war, these Midwestern cities maintain ties to Israel and Palestine

Jeff Lipman, a member of the sister cities commission of West Des Moines, said visitors from the government of Mateh Asher, Israel, went tailgating at a Hawkeye game. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lipman.

John Dabeet knows what it’s like to be told he can’t go home.

He was raised in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank. After completing his studies in Business and Economics at Bethlehem University, he moved to the United States to continue his education.

Dabeet thinks it was 1994 when the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia sent him a message that he needed to come in for an interview. During that meeting, Dabeet was told that the Israeli government had decided he couldn’t return home. That was confirmed when Dabeet’s mother visited the U.S. to get her green card. While here, she had two major medical issues. Dabeet flew back to the Middle East with her because the doctor advised that she couldn’t travel back alone. He was detained by the Israeli government for almost two and a half weeks. 

“I’m sure my political activism has something to do with it,” Dabeet says.

Today, Dabeet teaches economics at a community college in Muscatine, Iowa, a city nestled against a crook in the Mississippi River. He’s also the president of the Muscatine Board of Education and an advocate for Palestinians.  

And he’s still connected to Ramallah, and not just by his roots. It’s because of him that Muscatine formed a sister city relationship with Ramallah. Dabeet even brought the agreement to Ramallah for its mayor to sign. 

What is a sister city?

Muscatine isn’t alone. According to Sister Cities International (SCI), there are five U.S. towns that have sibling municipalities in Palestine. Another 28 U.S. cities have sister city partnerships with Israeli metros. And that’s just a fraction of the nearly 500 communities with sister cities programs in the SCI network, with relationships in more than 140 countries, a movement going back to when Toledo, Ohio, paired up with Toledo, Spain, in 1931.

What exactly is that relationship, though? At its simplest level, it’s a partnership between two communities in two countries. Each sister city relationship is unique to the metros involved. A city might establish business ties, share their culture and ideas, or help their counterpart in a time of need. Representatives from local governments can visit their sister city and return with a better understanding of another culture. Anyone who wants to get involved can reach out to their city about its sister city relationship. 

“I’m a firm believer that citizen diplomacy is a strong tool [we can] always use in order to understand each other better,” Dabeet says. “[Also], to get the actual and the full story and narrative of the other side that we, in most cases, don’t get on the mainstream media.”

Often, the areas of collaboration in a sister city partnership can begin with similarities between the two cities, according to SCI. These include population size, industries, academic and cultural institutions, pre-existing relationships, and corporate, historical, or ancestral connections. West Des Moines, Iowa, and Mateh Asher, Israel, have not too dissimilar population sizes, rural areas, and have a shared interest in the agricultural sector, according to Jeff Lipman, a member of West Des Moines’s sister city commission. 

In an attempt to foster peace, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower started SCI in 1956, according to SCI interim president and CEO Ricki Garrett. SCI is a membership organization for sister cities, counties, and states across the United States. Eisenhower had seen the devastation of war as a general, Garrett says. He believed that if individuals or a community developed relationships across national borders, “it would be very hard for those countries to go to war,” she says.

Traditionally, cities have formed relationships with other cities abroad; however, there has recently been an exception. In October 2021, the city of Longmont, Colorado, forged a relationship with the North Arapaho Tribe, KUNC Radio reported. It was the first sister city relationship between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. city. In 2022, the first Longmont student delegation visited the reservation

When do sister city relationships affect peoples’ lives? 

Like many sibling relationships, sister cities tend to support each other through good and bad. A city might choose to provide expertise or emergency aid when their sister city needs some help. 

Ramallah needed to train special education teachers, so Muscatine invited five teachers to visit for training, Dabeet said. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the community donated money for Muscatine’s sister city, Drohobych, and the city itself donated ambulances it no longer wanted. 

In Kansas, the city of Leawood approved a donation of $25,000 to support their Israeli sister city of Gezer, television station KSHB reported in November. The money was planned to purchase a portable bomb shelter for kindergartners who had not consistently attended school since the start of the war on Oct. 7. The city used funds that had been earmarked for visits to Gezer, but those visits didn’t happen during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Of course, sister cities can benefit from business relationships as well. Dell Gines is Chief Innovation Officer at the International Economic Development Council. He’s had firsthand experience with the community service organization Black Men United in Omaha, Nebraska, which has been working to get a pairing with a city in Ghana. 

“These are formal ways to connect economies that may not naturally be connected,” Gines says. “And oftentimes, that’s what it takes to kind of facilitate things like increased trade, increased tourism, developing projects… Vehicles like sister cities can create kind of this formal and trusted structure by which to do that.”

Gines thinks sister city relationships have the potential to uplift disadvantaged communities. He said the Black community in Omaha has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and the businesses are small. He’s interested in helping Ghanian and Omahan businesses sell to one another. To look at the sister city as more than a way for big business to connect, people involved can break the relationship down to the local level and create solutions based on training, education, and technology, Gines says.

“How can a sister [city] be one of those conduits towards that really high-quality, localized economic development that benefits entrepreneurial ventures owned by Black and [Latino] people?” Gines says. 

 With Ghana, there’s a cultural element, too, an opportunity to connect to history that was lost during American slavery, he says. 

“My specific experience in Omaha has seen the potential that [sister cities] can have, and I would love to see more of them,” Gines says. “And I [would] love to see more of them very focused on leveraging their potential for historically disinvested communities, be it urban or rural communities.”

When should sister cities break up? 

If tensions escalate between two parent countries, a city might cut off its relationship with its sister. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chicago and other cities moved to suspend relationships with their Russian counterparts, the New York Times reported. In June 2022, during a video address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized several American sister cities for not severing their Russian ties. 

“What do those ties give to you? Probably nothing,” Zelensky says. “But they allow Russia to say that it is not isolated.”

Duluth, Minnesota, has a sister city relationship with Petrozavodsk, Russia. The relationship has involved work on videos showing similarities between particular aspects of Russia and the U.S., Christy Rounds says, as the executive director of Duluth Sister Cities International. This includes a student film about living near Lake Superior in the U.S. and living near Lake Onega in Russia. Duluth maintained their relationship with Petrozadosk despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Not because we agree with what’s happened in Russia,” Rounds says, “but in any relationship, if you give someone the silent treatment, how often does your partner suddenly go: ‘Oh, I understand what you’re saying! You gave me the silent treatment, so now I can come around to your point of view, right?’ …We needed to maintain that relationship [with Petrozavodsk] for global peace.”

There have been times where citizens have called for a city council or board of aldermen to sever their relationship with a city in Israel or Palestine, SCI’s Garrett says. But she isn’t aware of any cities where that has been successful. 

“I think the more conflict there is, the more needed Sister Cities International is, and the more important our work is to try to build relationships between these countries,” Garrett says, “so that’s what we’ll keep doing.” 

According to the World Health Organization, health ministry numbers say over 34,000 people have died and close to 77,000 have been injured in the Gaza Strip as of April 20. 1.7 million people have been displaced—three quarters of the population. 

Muscatine might send aid to Ramallah, Dabeet said in Urban Plains’ interview with him on Feb. 29. Dabeet said Ramallah would help “any of our sister cities that are suffering,” whether the cause is a war or a natural disaster. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Dabeet says. “Our job is to help our friends in all of [the] sister cities.”


  • Andrew Kennard

    I work on social media for Urban Plains. I have experience reporting on Indigenous issues, state government and news at my school, Drake University. In the fall, I worked on social media for Disability Rights Iowa and gained knowledge about making social media content more accessible for people with disabilities. 

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