You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

For Sick Palestinians, An Unexpected Lifeline

On the road with the Israeli ambulance drivers who save Palestinian lives

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At 6:30 a.m., the Eyal border crossing is a picture of human misery. The official name is “border crossing”, but nobody uses this term. Israelis and Palestinians alike say “Makhsom”meaning barrier or roadblockwhich reveals the psyche of movement between Israel and the West Bank.

Thousands of Palestinian workers, mainly men, who have made it through the rigorous security check via steel pens, are looking for a bus, pickup truck or employer that will take them for a valuable day of work inside Israel proper. The narrow road leading from the crossing to the main road and on to the centre of Israel is gridlocked. Israeli police and border patrol are watching from a distance while it seems every traffic law is disregarded. It can take hours in overcrowded conditions, facing petty tyranny from the guards, and there is no guarantee of being allowed to the other side.

Behind rows of buses is a policeman from the Palestinian Police Force and Leila, his three-year-old daughter, who suffers from high blood pressure. They are on their way to Tel HaShomer hospital, near Tel Aviv, for treatment for the little girl. They are foreigners in this countryfrom Israel’s estranged neighbours, no less. Yet amid the car engines, horns and general mayhem, the father and daughter sitting on a rock appear to be the calmest people around. They are comfortable in the knowledge that someone is coming to pick them up. That someone is my brother, Amir Adar, a software engineer, a 60-year-old Israeli citizen and a volunteer for Road to Recovery, a group of Israelis who drive sick Palestinians to Israeli hospitals from Israel’s borders with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since the Six-Day War in 1967. Although there are hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza, they are not as well-equipped as the ones in Israel. Many people with cancer, people who need a transplant or children who need dialysis have to go to Israel for life-saving treatments. While the Israeli health system is not responsible for the health of Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority pays high tariffs for any treatment for its citizens (as well as those in Gaza), which makes the Palestinian patients welcome and valuable guests. The problem is getting them into Israel, and to the hospital, in the first place.

Today, both the West Bank and Gaza are fenced and Palestinians require a permit to enter Israel. There is some cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, which runs civil matters in the West Bank, but the Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, is committed to the destruction of Israel.

Following the collapse of the Oslo Accords and peace treaty in the 2000s, the short journey from Gaza to an Israeli hospital is now a Herculean task. Sick Palestinians need to see a local doctor, who will refer them to a specialist, who then may ask to send them for treatment in Israel. From there, the Palestinian Authority Health Office will need to authorise it, get a permit from an Israeli coordination officer, find the right hospital, and send a commitment to pay the bill. This process alone can take weeks or even months.

With relationships between Israel and the Palestinians at a nadir, each case is scrutinised by both sides. To get the permit to enter Israel, Palestinians may be asked to work for the Shabak, or Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security forces. This makes any travelling patient a suspected traitor in local Palestinian eyes, while equally the Israelis fear a breach of security. The patient is only allowed one person to accompany them and that person must be cleared by the security services. Many, mainly young men, are not allowed in, so the burden falls on grandmothers and grandfathers to put a child at ease. Each journey in and out is a long haul of bureaucracy, checks and border crossings, and fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Palestinian patients make their way to the crossings from the West Bank and Gaza, clear all the checks, and then need to make the much longer, expensive and intimidating way across Israel. This is not a time when a Palestinian can feel safe inside Israel.

This is why my brother is here today.

Ordinary volunteers like him take sick Palestinians from border crossings to Israeli hospitals and back again. Without them, patients like Leila would have no option but to take a taxi into Israel, which is too expensive for most Palestinians. Road to Recovery’s 500 volunteers provide them with a free ride and the company of an Israeli to ease their fears.

Thanks to the morning rush hour, the 30 km drive takes three hours. The journey takes us through some of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Israel, a world away from the living conditions in the West Bank, and, traffic aside, there are no further problems or delays. “Shukran,” says the father warmly (thank you in Arabic). “No thanks needed,” answers Adar in Arabic. “It is my duty. It’s also an opportunity to brush up my Arabic.”     

5:30 a.m., Haifa

It is dawn the next day. I am at Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, in the north of Israel by the sea. In a battered white Citroen people carrier named Junky are two girls from Gaza, and one mother and one father. The driver is Yuval Roth, the founder and engine behind Road to Recovery.

The 60-year-old white-haired Israeli is a semi-retired maker of stilts for performance artists, a former juggler who taught generations of Israeli jugglers, and son to a Holocaust survivor father. In 1993, he lost his brother Udi, who was kidnapped and shot by a Hamas unit on his way back home from a reserves service in Gaza. Roth’s reaction was to join the Parents CircleFamilies Forum, a joint group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. There they can share their pain and discuss ways to improve the situation.

In 2006, he was asked by Muhammad Kabah, a fellow member of the forum, to drive his brother for cancer treatments in Israel.

“For me it was just like a helping a neighbour,” says Roth, when he starts the 160-km journey south to the Erez crossing into Gaza. “I’m from Pardes Hanna and he is from a village near Jenin. There is a border between us but we are still neighbours. That was the start and then I had more requests, so I’ve asked for help from family and friends.”

Roth began driving sick Palestinians on a regular basis, with others soon joining his cause. Word of mouth spread, and six years ago Roth received a donation of US$10,000 from the singer Leonard Cohen, and Road to Recovery was born.

“His donation pushed me to found the trust and enabled us to increase the number of volunteers,” he says. The resulting media coverage has brought the organisation to the awareness of like-minded Israelis and in 2015 it was able to make more than 8,000 patient trips, covering over 550,000 km, with an operating budget of 570,000 shekels ($150,000). The proposed 2016 budget is double that, at 1.17 million shekels, raised largely from donations from Israel and abroad.

The greatest sacrifice the volunteers make is not the missed sleep, the snail’s pace of their drives or the waiting. It is losing the option to turn a blind eye to suffering. While most Israelis don’t want to know about the hardship of Palestinians, let alone sick Palestinians, Road to Recovery volunteers are brought face to face with the misery of the conflict’s most vulnerable people.

“I do it for many reasons,” says Adar. “First, to help people who need it the most. For me it’s not a tall order, nothing too demanding. It’s also a political act and I want to set an example for my children. This is the place I’m living in. If I close my eyes the problem will still remain. For any chance of an agreement in the future we must have a better day-to-day life right now. I owe it to myself as a human being not to sit idle.”

These are the last days of spring in Israel. Jacaranda trees are in full purple bloom, huge flocks of storks and pelicans are making their way back north to Europe, and the hills are still green before the harsh summer will turn them dry yellow. But the land is under a cloud. The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians has been deteriorating constantly since the breakdown of the Oslo accords, and today it is arguably worse than ever. Most young Israelis and Palestinians have no opportunity to meet each other; fear and hate are the prevalent feelings.

These are the days of incitement and a poisonous atmosphere. In April 2016, Bezalel Smotrich, a right-wing member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, said that he would not want his newborn child to be taken care of by Arab staff at an Israeli hospital. The remark revolted many Israelis. Israel is a highly divided society but the fact that an active member of parliament would say such a thing was shocking. The Israeli health system is supposed to be a meritocracy, with many Israeli-Arab doctors and nurses. Jews and Muslims and other minorities are meant to receive treatment without discrimination.

“Indifference drives me mad,” said Arnon Rotbart, 51, a lawyer in Tel Aviv, and a fellow Road to Recovery volunteer. He wishes the Israeli public would give more thought to the living conditions of Palestinians. “These people need help,” he told me when we met in his office. “They can value the goodwill of Israelis to show compassion and empathy and they can spread it around them. The hateful, aggressive approach, the utter indifference, is something that I want to make a stand against. When a member of the Knesset says that he doesn’t want to be near an Arab baby in the maternity ward because in 20 years time that baby will grow up to be a murderer, I want to ask why we won’t give that baby the tools to be our friend.” 

I also met Road to Recovery’s coordinator with Hamas, who did not want me to publish her name. Her day job is in a factory, but in her spare time she works with Road to Recovery because, she says, every child deserves medical treatment and shouldn’t pay the price for the conflict. “I feel that Israel is responsible for the condition in the Gaza Strip, the hospitals and the lack of facilities. I can’t ignore it,” she told me.

I ponder this in the back of Roth’s car, as I talk with Maisa, the mother of Lian, a three-year-old girl. They live in Rafah, in the south of Gaza. The girl has had a liver disease and had to undergo a liver and kidney transplant. “I did some tests in Rambam and I was found eligible to donate a liver lobe. It was a very easy decision for me,” says Maisa in fluent Hebrew. “First she had the liver transplant and later the kidney and she is, praise God, all right. I’m also, praise God, well. We come every month or two for a check-up or if there is an emergency.”

Roth is driving the children to the borderthe Eyal crossingso they can get back home to Gaza. That is relatively far away from Haifa or the West Banka taxi would have cost the families around 500 shekels. A journey to Haifa from the Gaza border can last six hours, including inspections, but Maisa says that recently it has become much better. “We only have to go through a security check once. The staff at Rambam are very good to us. For me, it’s like a second home. We lived there for three years, and it’s like a family to me now. They give with all their hearts with true love to children and parents. They wake up in the early hours and they do good for people, for sick children. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

As our journey to Rambam goes on, Roth’s two phones ring every few minutes. The garage is calling about a repair for his other car, Muhammad Kabah is looking for work, and there is a barrage of calls about a juggling festival Roth is organising in the next week during the Passover vacation.

“I used to be a mediocre juggler but I’m proud to say that I’ve raised generations of wonderful Israeli jugglers,” says Roth. “Everybody can be one and I taught many who became world-class. The key point is to throw the item correctly to the right place. Yes, gravity will bring it down but much later then you think. If you throw it right you make more time for yourself. So don’t panic! Once you understand it there is no stress and you can juggle away.”

I ask how many balls are in the air running Road to Recovery. “Today it’s about seven,” he says. “Manageable.”

The other girl in the car with us is Afnan, a charismatic nine-year-old from Gaza City. She is perhaps the organisation’s best-known patient, following an Israeli TV piece two years ago about the 2014 conflict known as Operation Defensive Shield. Afnan, then bald from cancer treatment, was on her way back home from Haifa with her father when, following a Hamas missile attack, the roads and crossing were closed. Staying in Haifa was the safe option, but Afnan was homesick after not seeing her mother and brothers for nine months. 

The decision to turn back led to tears and heartbreak as Rothalso the driver that nightended up detouring to Kibbutz Hatzerim near Beersheba, 200 km south of Haifa, where he grew up. With Israeli Air Force jets taking off from the nearby base on their mission to bomb in Gaza, and Beersheba targeted by Hamas rockets, Afnan met Israeli kids her age in a shelter. It was surreal. “They show that TV programme at universities now, in courses about conflict solving,” says Roth. “After just a few questions about the conflict, the kids started to play with her normally. Kids are clean, not yet corrupted by hate, and we need to learn from them.” A few hours later, the crossing opened and Roth was able to drive Afnan and her father to their home, albeit to a war zone.

8 a.m., near Jaayus

Halfway to the Erez crossing, on the motorway to avoid the metropolis of Tel Aviv, you can see the olive-tree-covered hills of Samaria on one side and Greater Tel Aviv on the other, with the barrier, sometimes fencing and sometimes the infamous wall, separating Israel and the West Bank. I peer out the car window to the east, where, just a few kilometres away, is the village of Jaayus. Two days ago there, I met Naim El Beida, Road to Recovery’s Palestinian coordinator for the West Bank. He, alongside Roth, is one of two indispensable people to the operation.

El Beida works as a building site manager in Israel (“I helped build the country,” he said with pride). He is always with his phone and a big black diary, organising trips to hospitals and making sure there are no last-minute problems. El Beida, a peace activist, was referred to Roth when a poor relative was looking for transport for his sick son. The father knew that El Beida was well connected in Israel and a mutual friend told him about Roth. “I immediately liked the activity,” he told me. “I believe it is the path for coexistence, without violence or wars. These two people can’t separate; nobody will take us so we have to live together.

“One patient led to another and now I don’t have a moment for my own. My number is passed from sick person to another. My wife told me, ‘It’s the phones or me,’ but because of my belief in my work and the help it provides for my people I told her it will be the phones!”

Today, El Beida’s number is available in every Palestinian hospital and with every medical secretary. He is one of the first people a seriously ill Palestinian would call after receiving grave medical news. He helps in many waysas a translator, a fixer, smoothing out small problems that get in the way of a patient getting treatment. He sees the families before the first trip and after it. The difference is huge.

“I know that everybody is afraid the first time. They don’t believe it can happen. If during the previous week a group of soldiers come into your home and mess it around and cause havoc and a day later, I tell them, a Jew will come to the crossing and take you to a hospital, you’ll be confused. Some people have never met nice Israelis like our members. Some of them have just met soldiers and Shabak security serviceonly threatening Israelis. One mother came back from her first ride and couldn’t believe it. She said: ‘These are Jews? The driver spoke Arabic and bought sweets for the kid.’

“I told her that there are many Jews, some are good and some are bad, and it is the situation that caused them to be bad. In a different situation we would have met and become friends.”

“I wake up at 3 a.m. for work,” he told me and four other Israelis who visited him that morning. “I return in the evening and then start coordinating trips until I collapse into bed. It does affect the family, the kids and my health, but it is my calling. I want to sow the seed of respect between the people and help everybody that needs it.”

10 a.m., Moshav Ma’agalim

As our car drives further south we reach the light-brown borders of the Negev desert and turn west towards the Mediterranean. After a rainy winter the colours are a mix of the red soil and the dark green vegetation. The Israelis who live here are in the range of Hamas missiles and have had their share in the never-ending circle of violence.

Moshav Ma’agalim is a small cooperative of religious Jews, and when Roth makes a stop there to deliver stilts to a customer, everybody takes the opportunity to stretch their legs. You can feel the tension. Nobody says a word but some glances are exchanged and when we make the short way to the Erez crossing in less than half an hour, everybody is relieved. 

While Road to Recovery has its supporters, a common reaction is “the poor of your city come first”the Hebrew version of “charity begins at home”. In other words, why are you helping outsiders (and, to some, their enemies)? Roth does actually help poor Israelis as well, as part of his volunteering work outside of Road to Recovery. But that saying follows the volunteers everywhere. “Among my friends there’s a lot of support, but I keep hearing that phrase,” says Amir Adar. “I almost prefer blatant racism to this. I wonder how many of them help the poor.”

Road to Recovery is politically neutral, but the vast majority of the members are middle-class Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) lefties. Some of them were high-ranking officers in the Israeli Defense Force, others were ordinary soldiers who 30 years ago served in Gaza and chased the stone-throwers they now carry in their cars.

There are a low number of Arab-Israelis among them, but a recent TV programme aired in January on Channel 2, the most popular TV channel in Israel, brought Road to Recovery a wave of new volunteers, with new moral conundrums for Roth to deal with.

Roth received a call from the head of Israeli settlers in the Samaria region, saying that they wanted to help. “I almost choked,” Roth tells me as we drive. “I told him that I’d call him back because I didn’t know what to do. I asked other members and they didn’t understand my question – they said yes, of course we should work with them, but it’s still not clear-cut for me.”

This is the kind of dilemma you can find in this crazy region. The settlers want to help but there remains an ideological rift for Roth. “I don’t have a problem with a right-wing IsraeliI’d welcome him into the organisation. But in my world there is no such thing as a nice settler. The fact you are a settler is the problem. Thanks for your will to help but you are sitting on a land that doesn’t belong to you and that’s a problem.”

10:30 a.m., Erez crossing

We can see by now the fences around Gaza and a big wall; yellow signs warning not to take photos of the security facility welcome you to the big crossing at Erez. Despite this, it is a surprisingly modern and pleasant terminal, and our car is allowed to park near it. The kids, Afnan and Yuval, are clearly happy to be near home. Their parents unpack suitcases and plastic bags. Afnan, with a big green Maccabi Haifa Football Club bag on her back, carries a number of boxes of Matzoth, the unleavened substitute for bread for observant Jews during the coming seven days of Passover. She gives a hug to Yuval and the two of them and their parents make their way into the terminal to be examined by the two sets of crossing guards, Israeli and Hamas.

There are three more Road to Recovery cars parked here. One of them is driven by Amram Mitznaa former brigadier general in the Israeli army, the second-highest rank, a former mayor of Haifa, and a former chairman of the Israeli Labour Party.

Among Road to Recovery’s other members are Aluma Goren, a former captain of the Israeli national basketball team, and Eran Schandar, a former state attorney.

What a contrast, I think, to the two children I am waving goodbye to. They are the most vulnerable people. They live in the harshest conditions under the despotic Hamas regime and the ever-watchful eye of Israel’s Shabak security service.

Even the Palestinian health bodies are not too eager to help such families, according to Road to Recovery’s Gaza coordinator: the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is in conflict with Hamas in Gaza, so the Authority is less than keen to be seen helping people from the Strip. The contrasts between the abject poverty in Gaza and the affluence of Israel, the mayhem of daily life in Gaza and the Israeli bureaucracy, lead to a constant culture clash that can drive even the most committed person into despair. Even among Road to Recovery volunteers there are moments of doubt.

I hear stories of patients’ families turning treatment areas into storage spaces while they gather donationsmoney, goodsmainly from Arabs living in Israel. Roth says he’s heard the stories and can understand it to some extent, as some families come from terrible poverty. “Some of them don’t have anything.”

Yes, he says, there are some times when people take advantage of Road to Recovery, and some do rile him. Like yesterday, when a volunteer drove to Rambam Medical Centre to collect a patient who wasn’t there. It turned out that the family had gone out shopping in Haifa. “They didn’t understand what we are. We are not taxi drivers,” says Roth. “It happens every now and then, but 95 per cent are people who need us and without us they could die.”

“A Gazan is like an onion with so many layers,” said the coordinator. “They will tell you what you want to hear because they attempt to survive between Israel and Hamas. I know what happens in the cars, the relationships that are formed and the understanding that we are the same. That is why Hamas opposes our actions in principle. They are willing to let it happen because they know it is a matter of life and death. But they do it with gritted teeth.” (The Israeli government is more than fine with their activitiesit secures money for the hospitals, after all.)

If running Road to Recovery is juggling with seven balls in the air, cooperating with Hamas is juggling them on a tightrope over a volcano. A lethal conflict is always a possibility, and once in a while there is a breakdown in communication. The last one was over a “fun day”, when the organisation takes sick Palestinian children not to the hospital but to the beach or a festival for relaxation. Hamas deemed this a step too far and “normalisation with the Zionist enemy”. But in most cases the desperate need for life-saving treatments helps ease the tension.

11 a.m., on the road to Haifa

After a short break, Roth collects two young mothers with a toddler each and we head north once again. It’s another 160-km journey but Roth doesn’t show any sign of tiredness. It is a quiet, calm drive, although again Roth’s phones are buzzing with callsat any one time it could be last-minute problems at a crossing or something to do with the juggling festival. But he values the drive. He says it’s time he can spend on maintenance of the most important resourcethe volunteers.

In rare cases when a patient doesn’t turn up, or when a passenger’s family is brusque, Roth does his best to smooth things over. “A week ago a volunteer poured his heart to me after he drove somebody and didn’t get even a thank you or goodbye. They just left. I do understand his feeling. There are people like that but I try to remember we don’t know what they’ve been through at the hospital.”

Sometimes people get too involved. They form a bond with a family, and expectations that may not be met. By the nature of their work, volunteers have to deal with dramatic situations, such as when a nine-year-old boy with cancer had an infection and a high temperature. He had to go for emergency treatment in Israel, but could only go with his grandmother. The boy, fearing for his life, cried that he wanted to die with his mother by his side. Her permission arrived at the last minute, when the boy was at the crossing, allowing the mother and child to travel for the treatment that saved his life.

Naturally, there are also deaths, many of them of children. Road to Recovery volunteers may visit the bereaved. In some cases the relationship forged during the treatment is strong enough to be maintained even during and after a death. As Roth tells me, “We try and visit bereaved families and we are told, ‘Though our child has passed, it doesn’t mean we have to end our relationship.’ When it comes from them, it does give you strength despite the sadness.”

A long day’s work comes to an end as we pull in one last time to Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa. The two mothers and kids complete the journey and check in.

In a perfect world there would be decent hospitals for the Palestinian people. In a better world the Israeli hospitals and the Health Ministry would take care of the crossings and transportation. In the real world it’s up to Yuval Roth and his group. Roth’s next hope is to make Naim El Beida a full-time West Bank coordinator with an office. “That is the dream and it will make a huge change,” says Roth. “In the meantime our job is to drive the needy and by that to create a little hope, some pockets of a better future.”

Some names have been changed.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.