For Zehava Ben, it's always been the most natural thing in the world. "I grew up listening to Arabic music - it was part of my life from an early age," the famed Mizrahi singer told The Jerusalem Post last week. "I knew all the words to Umm Kulthum's songs from the very beginning, she was huge" she added, referring to the late, legendary Egyptian singer known as the "Star of the East," who has remained a huge influence on every emerging oriental singer, despite her death more than three decades ago. Ben, along with Sarit Hadad and Israeli Arab singers Lubna Salame and Riham Hamadi, who all owe a debt to Kulthum, will be paying her and other influential Arab singers Fairuz and Leila Morad tribute next week when they join forces at the closing night of the inaugural Gilboa Coexistence Festival taking place throughout the Gilboa region from August 26th to 28th. The singers will be accompanied at the Ein Harod Amphitheater on the 28th by the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra and the Nazareth Orchestra. "I think that music can be a bridge to peace, both here and in general," said Ben, who is occasionally invited to perform in Palestinian towns, where she is held in high regard. The younger, more pop-oriented Hadad offered similar reason for performing at the festival. "I look forward to standing in front of a Jewish and Arab audience and singing the songs of the legendary vocalists I grew up on," she said. "These songs speak to everyone." The statement, in a nutshell, was all the impetus that Gilboa Regional Council head Danny Atar needed to garner support for the first of its kind three-day festival, which will also include main attraction, classic rocker Joe Cocker on the 26th, an evening of Israeli and Arab duets featuring Amir Lev and George Sama'an; Hadag Nahash and Palestinian rappers DAM; David Broza with Yair Dalal and Ibrahim Eid on the 27th, and other cultural events throughout the festival such as the national finals of a Koran-Bible quiz for children, an open food market in Taybe with noted chefs, outdoor activities for families at Ma'ayan Harod, and performances by Saba Tuvia (Tuvia Tsafir) and Yuval Mebulbal. "I think Arab-Jewish relations are the number one problem in Israel. And in the position as a regional head, I see in the festival an opportunity to advance both the interests of the region and of the country by helping people learn more about each other," Atar told the Post. "Despite the fact that we have both Jews and Arabs living here on one piece of land, we really don't know anything about each other's culture. The festival is a tool to enable people to meet over their culture - whether it be music, food, crafts or going to each other's homes and sitting together. Ultimately, it connects people, breaks down barriers, increases knowledge. Most people live here without smelling and tasting each other's food or listening to their music. By exposing this human side with introducing any national elements, it results in deeper recognition and better neighbors." Atar has spent years touting coexistence in the Gilboa region, located on the slopes of the Gilboa mountain range. With more than 22,000 residents in 38 settlements, it has proven to be a microcosm of neighborly relations between its Jewish and Arab populations. "In the Gilboa, coexistence is our reality and proves that a way of life of brotherhood and equality form a solid foundation for cooperation, understanding and mutual recognition that we believe can be established in all of Israel and beyond," said Atar. One of the highlights of the festival for Atar is the fact that the performers won't just be playing their own music one after the other but will be appearing on the stage together, performing each other's material and singing Hebrew and Arabic in the same song. "I think the most important accomplishment of the festival is that for one of the first times, it's bringing together Jewish and Arab artists on the stage together in collaboration - together in the same song," he said. "The cooperation has been amazing. Getting Zehava Ben singing on the same stage with Lubna Salame - it's amazing. For me, it's the realization of a dream." According to Atar, since it was first announced, artists have been pounding at his door clamoring to appear in the festival. "They started calling me from day one, saying 'I have to appear!'" he said, a claim backed up by the festival's musical producer, Carmi Wurtman. "We've had an amazing response - all the artists we approached were totally into it," said Wurtman. The producer of last year's Jerusalem Rocks show, as well as the popular Festival B'Shekel series throughout the country, Wurtman stresses the importance of integrating music with social awareness. "I believe that music and culture is a great way to break down societal borders, and hopefully this festival will help achieve this goal. Atar has raised the coexistence flag high, and I am very proud to be part of this initiative. I want to congratulate the Gilboa Regional Council for taking this on - it's one of the biggest productions that any regional council has ever undertaken with their own funding," he said. A good part of that funding is undoubtedly going toward paying the steep fee demanded by Cocker, the gravel-voiced veteran equally at ease belting out bluesy rockers like "With a Little Help from My Friends" or tackling ballads like "You Are So Beautiful." But according to Wurtman, a top draw like Cocker was exactly what was needed to get the festival on the map and to the attention of the media. "The idea of bringing in Joe Cocker was to make some kind of splash - get some media attention and an anchor for the festival in the shape of an international star," he said. "After going through the names of artists touring this summer, Cocker seemed like the best one out there. He started his career through Woodstock, and he's remained a socially aware artist. He's coming here from Germany, where he's playing at a Support the Agriculture festival, so our festival is right in line with what he's doing." Cocker, who last performed to soldout concert halls in Israel in 1995, will likely still pack them in, despite the out-of-the-way location of Ein Harod. However, Wurtman cited the venue as one of the treasures of Israel and one that audiences will be thrilled to see a show in. "The Ein Harod amphitheater is the largest stone amphitheater in Israel, about double the size of Caesarea," he said. "It's a great place to see a performance." With all the tumult surrounding the festival, what about the people of the Gilboa region? Wurtman maintained that they are at the forefront of the organizers' minds. "The people in the region are getting excited and definitely buying into the idea of a coexistence festival celebrating their area," he said, adding "All the local residents of the Gilboa region get 25 percent discount on all the performances and events." Atar, who has been a big Cocker fan ever since seeing the film Woodstock, agreed that the Sheffield native and current Colorado resident is the perfect attraction for the festival. "Against this backdrop of the need to build coexistence, who better to bring over than Joe Cocker - one of the symbols of Woodstock and its message of peace and love? Today, that message is even more important."