Rozana offers vision of peace

A baby from Gaza with congenital heart disease being treated at Sheba Hospital.

The Middle East is littered with well-intentioned proposals to end the long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

The euphoria that followed the Geneva Conference, Camp David and the Oslo Accords lasted about as long as it took for the ink to dry on the paperwork. Today, the commonly-held view is that peace will be something for the next generation to deal with. For now, most would be happy with quiet.

But peace, and quiet for that matter, does exist. I’ve seen it. And it is as remarkable to me as it is unlikely to others. Every day, peace and mutual respect are practised among people who are dealing with a common enemy.

Walk into almost any hospital in Israel and you will discover a world envisaged by the architects of every meaningful peace initiative since 1973. Health is the only area where Israelis and Palestinians find common ground.

It’s not a Kumbaya moment by any stretch, but it is a safe place where the health and welfare of loved ones who are dealing with a medical need trumps politics and religion. In Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, for example, no one blinks an eye when they see the hijab or the shtreimel.

In every department, from maternity to oncology, they’re as common as white coats and stethoscopes. Left to their own devices people talk to one another. It’s not uncommon for the parent of one child to keep an eye out for the child of another parent when circumstances require it. It may be a small step, but every footprint leaves its mark.

The president of Hadassah Australia, Ron Finkel, felt it served no purpose for this quiet diplomacy to fly below the radar. So in 2013 he established Project Rozana, whose purpose is to raise funds to transport critically ill Palestinian children from checkpoints on the border with Gaza and the West Bank, treat them at Israeli hospitals and train Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists in Israel so they can return and build the health capacity of their own communities.

I joined Ron, Project Rozana board members Gareth Andrews and Barry Bloch, and World Vision Australia’s Tim Costello on a four-day visit to Israel, Abu Dis and Ramallah in the West Bank as a member of the Project Rozana board.

I arrived in Israel a few days earlier to visit Ziv Hospital in Tsfat, which is treating the largest number of critically ill Syrian children. Not all the children are victims of the war, but all face significant health issues because of the lack of medical care in the lawless border region between Syria and Israel. An infection that would be treated by a local GP in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, can easily flare into a life- threatening event when there is no medical care.

Since February 2013, Ziv has treated almost 1000 Syrians, mostly children. Treat, rehabilitate, repatriate. But where do you return them to? It’s an ethical dilemma, a heart-breaking decision that never gets easier for Ziv’s medical staff or hospital administration. Project Rozana will play a role, most likely in funding equipment that is needed for the Syrian kids.

It’s not only to ensure their continued care, but to free up equipment that is shared between Ziv’s current patient cohort and the Syrians. The Syrian situation is the latest development in the Project Rozana story. That story can trace its origins to Hippocrates, who called on the physician to dedicate his or her life to upholding the rights of patients under their care.

But politics, sadly, has a way of intruding on the idyllic. This became abundantly clear when we met with a passionate Palestinian who heads the Project Rozana initiative in the Palestinian Territories. On the day we visited him at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, there was a demonstration staged by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Their grievance was the passing of a law giving Israeli settlers the right to claim ownership of private Palestinian land. Our plan for 4th and 5th year medical students from Al Quds to undertake clinical rotations at Hadassah Hospital was shelved because, frankly, the safety of our friend couldn’t be guaranteed if it went ahead. Building bridges to better understanding between Israel and her neighbours is more than a slogan. It’s an imperative that has the potential to retard the anti-Israeli bias that has become fashionable in many European countries and globally in centres of higher learning.

At a practical level it can mean life and death to a child whose only crime is geography. To be born beyond the Green Line or in Gaza almost certainly guarantees a lower standard of health care.

One story, more than any other, brought home to me the extraordinary gift that Israel can give to these children. A baby from Gaza, barely six months old, arrived at Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan with a congenital heart defect. Had she stayed at home, she would have died. In Israel, she had a pathway to a healthy future.

Timing was everything; yet the permit system that needs a sign- off from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel for the child to visit Israel can take months. This child was clinging to life and had, at best, a matter of days before she became another statistic in a futile dance between warring interests.

She was barely visible as the medical equipment that surrounded her was monitoring, treating, inspiring her fragile body to fight. The children’s hospital in the Sheba compound has 200 beds. Typically, 50 per cent of those are taken by children from Gaza. Not just on the day we visited, but every day. And around 60 new patients are admitted daily.

Most of us are completely unaware of the close cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. It might only be in the health sector, but where there’s health there’s hope.

Michael Krape is a member of the Project Rozana board.