Building Bridges Through Medicine


One of the most memorable stories from the three years he served as the IDF’s chief medical officer in the West Bank took place in 2014, when he invited a group of Palestinian physicians to take part in a training course related to trauma, said Adi Leiba, a top medical professional in Israel.

The invitation was extraordinary for several reasons — not only because the invitation came from the IDF, but because it would bring the doctors to the IDF base at which it was being offered, a proposition that might have rankled fellow Palestinians who opposed any ties to Israel. And developments in the region made their participation even more risky, Leiba recalled during a visit to New York.

Shortly before the course was scheduled to begin, the kidnapping of three Israeli teens from the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements shook Israel, leading to an IDF search operation throughout the West Bank, the killing of five Palestinians and the arrest of 350 others before their bodies were found 18 days later. But despite the escalating tensions, among the most heated of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Leiba insisted that the course take place – and to his surprise, he said, “we had doctors from Ramallah, Hebron” and other Palestinian locales.

It’s a story that Leiba has told repeatedly in the past two weeks, during a 12-day, seven-city tour of the United States, and his point in telling it is to emphasize that cooperation between medical professionals transcends politics.

“This is not something you can put on hold whenever there’s a crisis,” said Leiba, a professor of medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and director of the Nephrology and Hypertension Institute at the Assuta Ashdod Academic Medical Center, a new facility in Ashdod. “When there’s a kid with cancer, you can’t put [his treatment] on hold.”

The tour paired Leiba with a Palestinian physician, Khadra Hasan Ali Salami, and was organized by Project Rozana USA, part of a global organization that promotes better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through healthcare. Established five years ago in Australia, the organization is now in the process of forming a U.S. board, said Kenneth Bob, its New York-based chairman, and the tour marked its launch in this country.

Bob, who helped re-establish Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel and who heads Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization, and both physicians spoke in Manhattan last week at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and at a private fundraising event on the Upper West Side. 

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Bob said the organization’s focus is on three key initiatives: bringing Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists to Israeli hospitals for advanced training; the transportation of Palestinian patients from checkpoints on the border of Gaza and the West Bank to Israeli hospitals; and the treatment of critically ill Palestinian children in Israel. The transportation is provided by Road to Recovery, a nonprofit organization and one of Project Rozana’s Israeli partners, which has developed a corps of 1,200 volunteers to drive Palestinians before and after their treatment.

What makes this activity especially unique is that it’s taking place at a time when the chances for peace appear more dismal than they have in years. A significant portion of Palestinians oppose what they call “normalization” with Israel — participation in any venture or initiative, local or international, that brings Israelis and Palestinians together — while Israel’s current government is the most right-wing in its history. But despite the hardening of attitudes, one of the few areas in which Israelis and Palestinians are cooperating is healthcare.

Bob has two theories about why. For one, “the people who get engaged in healthcare want to do good,” a value that supersedes politics.

“The other thing I’m hearing is that for Israelis who want to do something [to change the status quo], this is something they can do,” said Bob. To advance that work, Bob added, Project Rozana provides financial support, identifies medical needs and helps build networks of healthcare professionals within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Its leadership includes Christians, Jews and Muslims.

In their talk at the JCRC, the two physicians discussed the challenges they’ve faced from both sides in the conflict, as well as the often quiet, behind-the-scenes support they’ve received.

“For Israelis who want to do something [to change the status quo], this is something they can do.”

One of the first challenges involves lining up the permission to get patients out of the West Bank or Gaza, said Salami, 38, a pediatric hematology oncology specialist at Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem. In addition to authorization from Israel, West Bank residents need approval from Palestinian officials to receive treatment in Israel while Gaza residents need that same approval and permission from Hamas to cross the border.

In addition, Palestinian children from Gaza must be accompanied by a family member older than 45, Salami said, adding that the rule stems from the Israeli fear that younger Palestinians may be more inclined to commit an act of terror.

Salami is among the relatively few Palestinians, nearly all of them physicians, who are permitted by Israeli authorities to drive from the West Bank to Israel without interruption, she said, but she’s experienced moments at checkpoints at which “a soldier treats me in a very non-polite way.”

Distrust between the two sides can also complicate matters, said Leiba, 46, who served in his West Bank post from 2013 to 2016. One such episode involved a Palestinian child on the West Bank who fell into a vat of boiling jam while cooking with his family and suffered burns over 98 percent of his body. Leiba received a call from a Palestinian physician who said the boy would die unless transported to an Israeli hospital. The Israeli doctor said: “but having a kid die in an Israeli ambulance” would have created problems. An ambulance was eventually found, the child endured more than 10 operations and is alive and happy today, Leiba said.

Along with the challenges, though, come examples of cooperation, understanding and friendship, as Leiba’s own story suggests.

As the IDF’s chief medical officer in the West Bank, Leiba’s primary responsibility was to oversee medical care for soldiers, he said. “But when I analyzed the situation, I realized that with 3 million Palestinians, 350,000 settlers and [thousands of] Israeli soldiers, my main mission would have to be to bring those populations closer and build understanding.”

Although intuition might suggest that such an approach would meet with disapproval from the military, Leiba said, the division’s commanders embraced his thinking, which they believed would contribute to calm.

Salami pointed out that, whatever their private feelings, Palestinian officials approve referrals to Israeli hospitals for 100,000 patients each year, treatment that’s subsidized by Palestinian authorities. She also said that uncomfortable experiences at checkpoints are countered by her warm and collegial relationships with Israeli physicians.

Israel’s Ministry of Health and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs both view the cooperation “as a positive thing,” Bob noted. Leiba added that one of the benefits for Israel is that the Palestinian physicians who receive training in Israel are treating Israeli patients while there. But both Leiba and Salami are quick to point out that the cooperation is mostly on a person-to-person level rather than between governments.

The two physicians expressed a commitment to the work that stems from the oath they take as doctors.

“I’ll continue to do this, no matter what people might say,” Salami said. “This is something related to human beings,” and politics is something else.