Israeli Army Doctors Heal the Enemy

Blech.  Cheezy.  This feels like too much of a public relations plug for Israel.

...these were my thoughts as I hung up the phone after I was briefed on a potential story involving Israeli army doctors and their benevolence toward Palestinians.

The media will never buy this - or the readers.   Oh, what the hell... I'll make a few calls.

By the time I seated myself in a stiff plastic hospital-issue chair opposite 14-year-old Shadi Sani's bed three weeks later, my skepticism had dissipated.

Shadi is a bit goggle-eyed and he has lost the ability to speak.  But his father Abu Shali, seated at Shadi's bedside, says his son understands bits and pieces of conversation.  Shadi's food intake comes via a drip tube, he has trouble breathing and it's tough for him to sit upright.  He has undergone brain surgery to relieve pressures of brain damage and through rehab he is re-learning to walk. 

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As I chat with his father via an Arabic-to-Hebrew interpreter from Gaza City, Shadi occasionally offers up broad beaming smiles - the kind that prompt an urge to squeeze his hand and give him a hug. 

Shadi has been in Israel's Alyn Orthopedic Rehab Facility for Children since January and his mother Tamam, seated on his other side, says the family doesn't know when he'll be released home to Ramallah. 

For now they're relieved that he's alive. 

Over cappuccino at a Tel Aviv café, Dr. Eran Poran told me Shadi's story, which began at the Halamish army base in the West Bank, where he serves as an IDF army physician.  "It was December.  Raining and cold outside.  I got a radio call to come to the gate. Urgently. The guard told me a taxi with a few Palestinians had pulled up and that they were screaming for help. A boy had been hurt.

"So I went with another officer.  We got to the gate - we can't take the chance of letting Palestinians inside the army base for security reasons  - and the officer turned pale. I knew it wasn't good. 

"At first glance I saw a kid who looked to be about twelve.  He was pasty, unconscious and bleeding from his face. He was clearly in critical condition so I called for an entire team to come help me. We worked on him on the ground right there outside the gate."

As Poran and fellow army docs and medics administered CPR and stabilized the boy, the cousin who drove the boy to the base relayed details: while home alone in his Ramallah village, Shadi had fallen from the railing-free 3rd floor of his home directly onto his head.  The cousin had found him lying on the ground unconscious and brought him to the army base because he had heard there was a doctor and medical facilities on the grounds.

"I decided to radio for a military helicopter and evacuate the child to an Israeli hospital," Poran continues.  "He had clearly suffered brain damage and needed the type of acute care he couldn't get at Ramallah Hospital.  It was a risk - having a helicopter land there outside the gate. There's vulnerability to sniper fire and attack from surrounding hillsides.  We were all at risk working on him out there in the open surrounded by Arab villages.  "

But the Orthodox Jewish physician made a life-saving medical decision based upon professionalism. "Yes, I am religious," he quietly offers, eyes slightly clouding. "But if I see a wounded 14-year-old boy it doesn't matter that he's Palestinian.  I don't ask questions.  It was as if he was my own son. You don't not take care of a kid."

The Halamish Israeli army base is surrounded by rolling hillsides covered with lush vegetation in spring and characterized by craggy, dry sparseness in summer.  Single level homes amidst olive groves evoke postcards of the Greek Islands. 

But road signs indicating Jewish settlements - Shiloh, El Khana, Beit El - and to the Palestinian University Bir Zeit serve as reminders: This is political turf.  "Occupied territories" to some, land appropriated by divine right - and the Israeli government - to others.

Halamish base was set up in the late 90's to protect a thousand or so Jewish settlers at nearby Halamish Settlement.  It also serves as a sortie point for military operations. Although what the soldiers get up to on outings is classified information, the fact that a military doctor accompanies each operation is not.  Physicians are on call to administer emergency first aid to soldiers when needed.

On base, the medical clinic is housed inside former British Police barracks dating back to pre-1948 Israel statehood.  Narrow in procedural capabilities, the clinic offers only life-saving measures - it's a place to buy time. 

And Palestinians, since the start of the millennium, have been using it for just that.

It was in 2000, says Brigade Chief Medical Officer Sivan Biton, a doctor-in-residence on the base set a precedent by treating a Palestinian who pulled up to the gate.  Word got out among local villages and now the army docs treat up to half a dozen emergency Palestinian cases - heart attacks, work accidents, car accident injuries, etc. - per month.

"We're the only army base in the country offering this service to surrounding Arab villages," the M-16 toting young woman says.

This notion elicits a slew of questions.  Why on earth would Palestinians opt for an Israeli army base rather than head to the closest Palestinian hospital?  Why would Israeli military doctors permit treatment there, presumably endangering an entire base?  And hang on just another minute: Isn't this supposed to be war?

"You would think there would be a stigma attached to coming here," Halamish base Chief Medical Officer Dr. Itay Wiser replies, shrugging his shoulders.  "For villagers we're closer than Ramallah Hospital.  And sometimes, quite frankly, families come here hoping we'll refer them out to Israel's hospitals.  They know the treatment is better."

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Young Shadi Sani's Gaza interpreter confirms Wiser's words.  "We know medical treatment in Israeli hospitals is better.  The situation in Gaza and the West Bank prevents us from getting superior care."

As for endangering entire brigades, Wiser says treatment becomes a judgment call.  "I had a young psychotic man show up here with a few friends.  He was yelling, waving his arms and frantic; we were extremely cautious in treating him because we thought he may be a suicide bomber," Wiser recalls.  But eventually he was sedated and referred out to Ramallah Hospital for treatment. 

But what about war?

"My presence here is what makes the difference for my army, my people and my being here.  I treat Palestinians as a doctor because first and foremost we're administering medical treatment.  That's why I'm here," Wiser explains, emphatic that his motivations have nothing to do with guilt.

 "It's to show who we are as Israelis, first and foremost," Wiser says. "We all read the papers and know what's happening in the news.  But we're human beings.  And that's not to be forgotten."

Stephanie Fried is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv. Her personal blog is Stefanella's Weblog. http://stefanella.wordpress.com/