David E. Kaplan
Driving seriously ill Palestinian patients to hospitals in Israel
“How come the general public is unaware?” I asked the former chairman of Israel’s Labour Party, General Amram Mitzna about his participation as a volunteer driving seriously ill Arab patients from Gaza for lifesaving treatment at hospitals in Israel, mostly in Jerusalem. Harping back to the title of a classic sixties western, his reply reflected the unsavory reputation of contemporary journalism – “anything good is considered boring to report, so the focus is on the bad and the ugly.”
A strange thought crossed my mind as I sat down for this exclusive interview in the modest apartment in north Tel Aviv of this former general who received the ‘Medal of Distinguished Service’ for his actions during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, both of which he was wounded. Had he, as leader of the Labour Party won the 2003 election, Amran Mitzna would have been Prime Minister of Israel and so my thought was:
“Where else in the world would a decorated war hero, a former political leader, and ex-mayor – Mitzna had been a successful mayor of two Israeli cities, the northern city of Haifa and Yeruham in the southern Negev desert – physically volunteer one day a week to help the very people who think him an enemy.”
Only in Israel!
“Where We Come In”
Amram Mitza volunteers for an organization called, ‘Road to Recovery’, that has over 600 Israeli volunteers from all walks of life who drive Palestinians undergoing medical treatment in Israeli hospitals to and from border crossings with Israel. “We mostly drive children with severe ailments for whom medical treatments and procedures are unavailable in the West Bank or Gaza. For these children and their family guardians, logistics and travel costs to Israeli hospitals are prohibitive, particularly for patients requiring regular and recurring treatment, so this is where we come in and drive them free of charge to the designated hospital,” explains Mitzna.
Taking The High Road
Every Monday morning, long before most Israelis have woken for school or work, this man in his seventies who could have been Israel’s Prime Minister, is already in his car driving to the Erez Crossing located at the northern end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Israel.
“My beat is collecting the patient and his family from the checkpoint in Gaza and driving them to a hospital in Jerusalem.”
In addition to ferrying Palestinian patients to hospitals across Israel, Road to Recovery assist those Palestinians with limited means to acquire specialized outpatient medical equipment.
“Although I volunteer as a driver, there are others that organize special rehabilitation and retreat days for Palestinian patients and their families at Israeli recreation facilities,” says Mitzna. One such facility is the Lower Galilee ‘Jordan River Village’, a unique camp for children living with chronic, serious, or life-threatening illnesses and disorders. Officially opened in 2011 with acclaimed actor Chaim Topol as Chairman, the Village offers fun and medically safe experiences to all children living with serious or chronic illnesses in Israel at no cost to their family.
The only programme of its kind in the Middle East, the Jordan River Village invites children between the ages 9-18 with a wide range of illnesses – including Cancer, Cerebral Palsy, Crone’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Epilepsy, Heart & Cardiovascular Diseases, Juvenile Diabetes and kidney and liver transplants – to participate in medically supervised recreational activities.
When the camp first opened, the Hamas Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip refused to allow the children who had been undergoing treatment in Israel to attend. Their attitude was:
“Treatment, yes; a fun vacation, no.”
Road to Recovery turned to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who had experience in negotiating with Hamas, notably his role in securing the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011. “We asked him to explain that these are very sick children who won’t survive the year, to tell them that this is a completely humanitarian mission, with no politics involved,” recalled Roth.
Baskin spoke to Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, who refused, declaring “It’s cooperation with the enemy.”
A shocked Baskin retorted, “Do you want to tell me an organisation in Israel cares more about your children than you do?”
Despite the Hamas ban, the families made their way on their own to the Erez crossing and were able to pass through on their medical passes. The following year, Road to Recovery presented the camp as “medical treatment” and not “fun and games,” so the process went smoothly, and children from Gaza attended the camp.
Since the founding of Road to Discovery over 8 years ago, “it has brought about an estimated 40,000 person-hours of interaction between Palestinians and Israelis,” says Mitzna, “thereby forging personal bonds in the context of every-day life.”
Road to Recovery is as much “about the recovery of mutual respect, trust, dialog and friendship among Israelis and Palestinians as it is about the physical recovery of individual patients,” says Mitzna.
Long and Windy Road
For two years now, Amram Mitzna volunteers every Monday. “I wake up at 5.00 am, drive from Tel Aviv before the early heavy morning traffic to the Erez Crossing on the border with Gaza, where I pick up my young patient and members of his or her family, and drive them across the width of the country to a hospital in Jerusalem. Mostly it’s Hadassah Medial Center or sometimes hospitals in east Jerusalem. It’s usually about a three-hour roundtrip.” Mitzna does not have to wait, as another volunteer from the Jerusalem area will drive the family back to Gaza after the medical treatment or operation. Similarly, “If a Palestinian patient from the West Bank is brought for specialized treatment at a hospital in Tel Aviv, I could then be called upon to drive them back,” says Mitzna. There are on-line coordinators in regions across the country organizing volunteer drivers, like Mitzna, to pick-up, take and return Palestinian patients.
He cites other volunteers like “my two sisters, who introduced me to the project” and a well-known public prosecutor. He notes that “last year we – that is Israeli drivers and Palestinian families – collectively covered 30,000 kilometers together; that is 30,000 kilometers on the road towards peace.”
Hardly politically naïve, Mitzna admits “I know it will not bring peace as such. However, it does bring more understanding between ordinary people. Peace agreements are signed between leaders, not the people they represent, and you have to always wonder – are the people behind it?”
Too often, asserts Mitzna, “mistrust remains, and agreements fail to bring people together. On the other hand, a project like Road to Recovery that operates below or maybe ‘above’ politics can ‘drive’ people from across the divide together.”
It proves, asserts Mitzna that “ordinary people can succeed where politicians fail.”
“How did this project come about?” I asked the former general and politician.
“The brainchild of a very special man, Yuval Roth, who had the ability to transcend personal tragedy and channel his grief into something positive, enriching and an example to others.”
Roth is a carpenter and professional juggler from Pardes Hanna in central Israel. In 1993, Roth’s younger brother, Udi, was returning home from army reserve duty when he and a fellow soldier were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. A few years later, to cope with his loss, Roth joined the Forum of Bereaved Families (or the Parents Circle – Families Forum), which brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a close family member through the conflict. The Forum, made up of about 500 Jewish and Arab families, was established by Yitzhak Frankenthal, a religious bereaved father, who believes that “reconciliation between individuals and peoples is possible and a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable peace.”
One day, a Palestinian member of the Forum asked Roth for his help in getting his brother, who had a suspected brain tumor, to Rambam Hospital in Haifa as he had no way to get there. Roth personally drove the brother and soon thereafter, was approached by another family in the same village whose children needed bone marrow transplants.
This time it was to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
It then dawned on Roth that he could create a framework across the country that would be a positive step for reconciliation. Recruiting a few friends, he launched the “travel service” network that subsequently expanded into Derech Hachlama – Road to Recovery.
The first donation for the project came – to Roth’s astonishment – from the late famed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who had read an article about Rambam Hospital that mentioned Roth ferrying Palestinian patients back and forth from the hospital. “That donation was what pushed me to form a proper non-profit organization back in 2006,” Roth reveals.
Another musical giant who supports Road to Recovery, is music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) Zubin Mehta who says, “We are such close neighbours and look at the distance between us in understanding.” Noting how music can build bridges, he spent a day with Eyal Ofek, a volunteer with Road to Recovery where they drove Palestinians from West Bank villages to Israeli hospitals in Jerusalem.
“Well,” remarked the Maestro afterwards, “It was one of the most inspirational days I have spent – EVER!”
(see Zubin Mehta’s Inside Look – World renown philharmonic conductor on his work with Road to Recovery.)
To date, Roth’s 2001 nine-seater Citroen van, has traveled well over half a million kilometers helping to save lives such as the 15-year-old daughter, Hind and the 16-year-old son Karem of Khaffia Bajat from the Palestinian village of Azzun Atma near Qalqiliya for their regular monthly treatment. Then there is Mohammed Darajmeh from Luban Asharkiya, near Nablus, who brings his daughter, Amani, 16, who has also been treated at Rambam in Haifa for years. These patients are Roth’s regular passengers.
Without this pickup and delivery service, “most Palestinian patients couldn’t get to the hospitals,” explains Roth. “The family of an infant that needs daily dialysis in Rambam or Hadassah couldn’t possibly manage this financially,” he says.
Roth says he is amazed by the willingness of his volunteers “to drop everything and drive to checkpoints at unearthly hours” to collect sick Palestinians. Road to Recovery gained international recognition when in 2011, CNN listed Roth as one of its 24 “Heroes” for the year. “It was nice and helped a little with fundraising but not much more,” expressed the modest carpenter. “At the end, the feeling that we did something that really helped is more significant than any award or publicity.”
Some 450 Palestinian families from the West Bank and Gaza are served by Road to Recovery. Some patients come every day, some every few months. Most are children with many travelling to be treated for cancer.
Like Mitzna, another volunteer driver is Anita Steiner a retired social worker.
She’s been transporting patients from the Erez checkpoint at the northern tip of Gaza for almost a year to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba and to Hadassah Ein Kerem or Augusta Victoria hospitals in Jerusalem. Expressing a similar sentiment to the former general, this social worker says, “I’m drawn to the fact that no politics are involved; just human acts of kindness.”
The Right Road
So, despite the increasing terror from Gaza with arson kites and incendiary balloons setting Israeli land ablaze, Amram Mitzna continues to keep his hands firmly on his steering wheel transporting Palestinians patients to hospitals in Jerusalem.
Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ invites the reader to ponder: “Yes, we chose this road, but what if we chose the other?”
There is no such doubt in the minds of the drivers of Road to Recovery.
“We’re on the right road,” says Amran Mitzna.
Next Monday, all being well, “I will be at the Eretz checkpoint picking up a Palestinian family from Gaza.”
- Ahmed Dardona– Israeli news item (7min) on boy from Gaza caught in the conflict between Hammas and the Palestinian Authority
- RTL channel news item (German)– A 6min clip documenting the work of Road To Recovery (Hebrew and Arabic subtitles)
- “The Story Of Na’im” – A 10 min documentary about the construction worker devoting his life to the transport of sick Palestinian children to hospitals in Israel
- Zubin Mehta’s Inside Look– World renown philharmonic conductor on his work with us.
- “Nir’s Story”– A 6-min documentary short featuring Nir Avishai Cohen, a former army and secret-service officer, and currently one of the drivers for “Road To Recovery”
- Video Report in Germanabout Road To Recovery (Hebrew subtitles)
- Yet another interesting Video Report in German 2with Hebrew subtitles.
- The story of Mahmud from Akraba(Hebrew)
- 3:32 minute item(video and article), from The Huffington Post
- “Journey of Compassion”: Channel 2 feature film about “Road to Recovery” – two children, their parents and the volunteer drivers (11 minutes, English and Hebrew subtitles) (2016)
- 2 minute preview of a CNN featureabout us, part of their “CNN Heroes” program
- 10 minute documentary(Hebrew only), from a local Israeli TV channel
- A moving 12 minute news item from channel 10focusing on Afnan, a 7 year old girl from Gaza (English and Hebrew sub-titles)
- 3 minute video from a recreational daywith the Palestinian families
- 15 minute profile videoon our activities – Hebrew with subtitles in English.