Things feel clearer when I’m in Palestine. Perhaps it’s the space created by PHR volunteers, and the communities that welcome PHR activists and volunteers- there are Israelis that would never come, and Palestinians that would refuse to welcome such a group. I stumble through my poor Arabic, and people meet me with clumsy Hebrew. When language fails, the smiles become wider, and brighter to bridge the gap.
What is clear is that the medicine is a small part of what is happening here. When the doctors introduced themselves, one of the family doctors said in accented but fluent Arabic, that “we are here primarily in solidarity with the people of Saffa, and also to provide whatever medical care we can offer.” I don’t remember exatly how Salah, the volunteer coordinator, translated solidarity, but I imagine the Hebrew equivalent not as “solidariyut” but as “akhdut.” We are in this together. Your problems are my problems. If your children are sick with parasites, if your grandfather has sores on his feet from diabetes, then I don’t get to sleep late on a Shabbat morning yet, because things are not ok.
What is clear is that it is not so hard to live together. The friendliness radiated off of the Israeli doctors, the Palestinian Israelis who volunteer as translators, the community leaders of Saffa, who welcomed us, forced upon is multiple little cups of delicious coffee, attempted to offer us some brightly colored fake-pineapple juice-drink, and offered us tubs of chicken, rice, and chickpeas after the clinic.
What is clear is that sometimes things get a little better. Dr. Dani, the pediatrician I was shadowing remarked that when he began volunteering in 2007, a significant number of children were brought in for wetting their beds at night, and today, not a single patient of his was wetting his or her bed. Dr. Dani considered this a sign of decreasing levels of stress and trauma among the children.
Some things are not getting better. The head of the town council told us how the village had lost some of their lands in ’67 and was losing a lot more to the security fence. What jumps out very clearly in a pediatric clinic is that this is the children’s future that is being taken away. Families seem to be getting by, but when Dr. Dani checked their conjunctiva, many of the children had signs of low iron. We only saw one child with Giardia, but we heard it was common among the children, suggesting a lack of access to safe water sources. And then there is the lack of economic resources, compounded by the loss of land. PHR can write referrals for the sort of medical care that they can only get in Israel, and they can generally get permits for the children and their families to enter Israel. But they will have to pay for the care, up to tens of thousands of dollars, because they are not included in Israel’s health insurance program, and the PA ministry of health will generally not cover such expenses. One little boy was 6 months old, born with a hole in his heart that was repaired at Tel Hashomer Hospital. His doctor at Tel Hashomer recommended that he receive a special series of vaccines given to vulnerable infants throughout their first winter to protect them against respiratory infections, but Dr. Dani advised against it- he did not believe it was worth the cost to the family, or that they would be able to get an appointment before winter was over.
What is clear is that I am sick of the Golda Meir quote that never seems to fall out of circulation for long, about how there will be peace when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate ours. I can’t stomach this line, especially after seeing the mothers, fathers, uncles, and grandmothers in the clinic today with their children, or after coming in to the pediatrics ward in the morning and seeing parents, Jewish and Arab, sleepless by their children’s beds. I can’t stomach it after last week, when no one could soothe the fears of a Bedouin father who had lost one baby girl, and whose second daughter was hospitalized with a serious infection. With antibiotics, the girl recovered, but not before her father drove the entire ward staff crazy demanding to know if she was going to die. By the time the girl was released, the father had not calmed down, but the girl was all bright eyes and smiles and playing patty cake with hands that had been swollen and too painful to touch the week before.
There is something special that happens in the medical world, where I see a microcosm of what could be, that makes me believe that there will be peace when we learn to love their children as much as we love our own.