by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President
The Palestinian medical system has been in the news a lot lately. When US President Joe Biden visited east Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital in July, he announced a US $100 million boost to six hospitals that he called the backbone of healthcare for the Palestinian people. Access to quality medical care, opined the US head of state, is necessary to living a life of dignity. But the current state of the Palestinian hospital network—both in the Hamas–run Gaza Strip and Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank (Judea and Samaria)—is clearly unable to provide that access.
Unfortunately, America’s act of generosity unleashed a firestorm of accusations against Israel from some pro-Palestinian quarters. Israel was accused of blatant disregard for Palestinian lives, of refusal to supply the necessary entry permits, of holding sick people up for extended periods at checkpoints and finally that Israeli doctors lack any desire to work with their Palestinian counterparts.
In an article in the peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, Israeli doctors expressed their concern and their frustration over the existing situation. Many Israeli doctors are ready, even eager, to work in cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts, but the roadblock comes from the Palestinian side. Under the 1995–96 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are responsible for their own healthcare. There are actually two Palestinian governments: the Gaza Strip under Hamas control since 2007, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) controls the West Bank. Both parties have taken the position that any cooperation with the Israeli medical community amounts to normalization with Israel, which they vehemently reject. Consequently, Palestinian healthcare professionals are forbidden to interact with their Israeli colleagues.
It would seem then that medical cooperation is simply completely out of the question. But it does happen, despite Palestinian attempts to stop it.
COVID–19 provided an opportunity for the Israeli medical community to offer assistance. When the pandemic hit, a team from Sheba Medical Center held a training course for about 20 medical workers from Gaza. A second group of doctors and nurses was later allowed to leave Gaza for training at the Medical Center. A third training session for 10 doctors from Gaza and 10 from Jericho addressed medical measures needed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Israel was lauded by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for its strong cooperation efforts during the pandemic and for delivering 13,000 test kits, thousands of pairs of gloves, thousands of masks, hundreds of liters of sanitizer, and protective suits for Palestinian medical workers.
And that’s not all. The Peres Center for Peace, located in Jaffa, is committed to sharing Israel’s innovative and pioneering medicine by establishing comprehensive medical training programs, sharing Israel’s knowledge with their Palestinian neighbors. Outstanding Palestinian medical professionals receive training in Israel for a period of several years, with every physician mentored by an Israeli senior physician. Once their training is complete, the doctors become leaders in Palestinian healthcare. To date, over 200 doctors and medical personnel have been trained in various fields, in turn treating over one million Israeli patients. This program is ongoing.
The Peres Center also treats Palestinian and Syrian children in hospitals throughout Israel, providing them with complex and often life-saving medical treatment. So far, nearly 13,000 children have been treated. Beyond the vital humanitarian aspect of saving lives, the program creates a unique meeting point between families, medical teams and hospitals—building bridges of hope and peace. Center doctors say, “This is the clearest example of the value of tikkun olam [repairing the world] in action—in the hospital where patients, families, and medical teams unite in one purpose: saving lives, regardless of religion, background, name or community.”
Save a Child’s Heart is another Israeli organization committed to saving the lives of children. In 2021, an 11-year-old boy from Gaza became the 6,000th child saved by these Israeli doctors. Their mission is to improve pediatric cardiac care through surgery, medical missions and medical training. Of those 6,000 children saved by Israeli doctors, 50% were Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank. Tragically not all lives have been saved. In 2020, as a team of pediatric specialists stood prepared to perform urgent cardiac surgery on a baby from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority refused to coordinate the hospital admission with Israeli officials. As the doctors waited helplessly, the baby died.
An unlikely area of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is blood: the donation, processing and dispersion of not just blood and blood products, but also rare blood types and cord blood. “A few years ago,” says Dr. Asher Moser of Magen David Adom (Israel’s ambulance service), “it was considered that Arabs wouldn’t be willing to donate and very few did, in part because they thought the blood would be supplied to soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces. We clarified that most of the blood is supplied to civilians and that we need them to donate so we have enough for everyone.” Dr. Moser continued, “Today blood is the one area where there is good coordination and cooperation between Jews and Palestinians in the territories.”
Dr. Moser explains that from time to time, a donor asks that their blood be marked specifically for an Arab or Palestinian recipient. “We explain,” he says, “that there is no such thing as Arab blood and Jewish blood. We take from those who will donate and give to those who need. Period.”
He loves to tell the story of a suicide bomber in 2006 who set off a bomb in Israel and presumably didn’t know he had a globoside-deficient P2K phenotype, one of the rarest blood types in the world. Magen David Adom arrived on the scene, but the man’s rare blood type posed a serious problem: his family members and compatible donors were over the border in the West Bank. Special arrangements were made with the Palestinian Red Crescent that allowed a Magen David Adom phlebotomist team to meet the family members at a border crossing with a mobile blood unit. There they collected seven units of compatible blood and saved the bomber’s life.
These are but a few of the Israeli healthcare initiatives that are reaching out to the Palestinian community, using their expertise to improve the Palestinian quality of life. It is clear that healthcare providers on both sides recognize that caring for the physical needs of the community, alleviating suffering and saving lives build deep bonds of trust and friendship, erase stereotypes and even lay the groundwork for real peace.
As one Israeli physician commented, “We are trying to use our privileged position and gift as health professionals to establish productive discourse and interaction, with health and dignity as a bridge to peace, so that ultimately both peoples—Israeli and Palestinian—can live side by side with the ultimate security that comes from abiding peace.”
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Photo License: IDF and Red Crescent
Photo License: Doctor training Palestinians
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