Moments after being granted passage through a heavily armed IDF checkpoint at the security barrier outside the West Bank village of Ni’lin, near Ramallah, Dr. Raphael Walden, deputy director of Sheba Medical Center, smiled.
“Welcome to Palestine,” he said to the roughly two-dozen Jewish and Israeli- Arab doctors, nurses, pharmacists and administrators traveling with him from Jerusalem in an oversized white van to treat ailing members of the village’s community, free of charge.
Ni’lin’s main road, littered with hundreds of plastic bags hanging from cacti, discarded debris of all kinds and the skeletons of rusting vehicles, initially evoked the dystopian imagery endemic to many of the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank.
Yet there were also several indications of self-sufficiency and progress.
As the van slowly climbed the village’s main road leading to its center square, hundreds of freshly skinned animal carcasses hung from meat hooks at numerous butcher shops, and produce stands selling fruits and vegetables were well-patronized.
Mechanics at auto body shops casually worked on dilapidated cars, as onlookers smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee.
“This is a relatively affluent village,” said Walden, without a hint of irony.
After exiting the van upon arriving at our destination, Walden was immediately embraced by the village’s burly chief of security, as an elderly Arab woman missing a few teeth joyfully exclaimed “Hello doctors!” in broken English.
The controversial leader of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Walden has been to the village with his mobile clinic before, and his arrival was clearly appreciated. “We have been waiting for you,” said Ni’lin’s mayor, Nader Hawaja, with a warm smile and outstretched hand.
Now in its 25th year, PHR-Israel’s mission is to provide medical treatment to impoverished Palestinians in the West Bank lacking proper healthcare, as well as to indigent Israelis and refugees. The NGO is comprised of roughly 3,000 volunteers – including Israeli Jews and Arabs – half of whom are medical professionals.
All are unpaid volunteers.
DESPITE WALDEN’S trim, diminutive build, the 71-year-old balding man with intense, speckled hazel eyes is unequivocally a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, he is a survivor, with an indisputable track record of getting things done against formidable odds.
Walden was born in France’s Dordogne region to a middle-class Zionist family.
His mother, Rina, was a doctor and his father, Josef, an agronomist. Both parents were raised in Warsaw and came to France after universities in Poland began limiting the number of Jews allowed to study there.
The Waldens were forced to live under an assumed identity during World War II, and subsequently immigrated to Israel in 1951. Raphael, known to his friends as Raphi, went on to become a Harvard- trained vascular surgeon, achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of an IDF MASH unit. He served as a paratrooper, fighting in three wars, in one of which he continued to fight after being wounded.
In 2009 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award, in recognition of his leadership within PHR and his contribution to Israeli- Palestinian reconciliation.
Yet, perhaps most intriguing about Walden is that he is the son-in-law and longtime personal physician of President Shimon Peres. He has been married to Peres’s only daughter, Tsvia Walden, a linguistics professor at Ben-Gurion University, for over 40 years.
Notwithstanding his humanitarian efforts, Walden has been called “an accomplice to terrorists” by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, as well as numerous other prominent right-wing MKs.
An open critic of the Israeli government and right-wing political parties – whom he has described as “racist” and abdicating “Jewish values,” particularly with respect to compassion to non-Jews – Walden has called the Israeli occupation “the mother of all sins.”
Despite accusations of sedition and attempts to thwart his work with PHR, he and his team of physicians continue to successfully operate the organization unabated.
Indeed, in September PHR-Israel marked its 25th anniversary.
Primarily funded by European donors, every Saturday highly trained specialists and assistants travel in a mobile clinic to impoverished Palestinian territories to treat around 400 Arabs within one day, also providing medications at no cost.
PHR also offers intensive training for Palestinian doctors unable to attend medical meetings to update their expertise.
According to Walden, PHR’s efforts have provided a “small light at the end of the tunnel” with respect to profoundly acrimonious and distrustful Palestinian/ Israeli relations.
“For the first time, Palestinians encounter an Israeli in an experience that is not threatening or violent,” he said. “Most of their encounters with Israelis are with soldiers, whom I also pity, spending hours at checkpoints in the heat. Or the settler who chops down their olive trees, or the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] man who pulls their father out of bed at two in the morning.”
Walden continued: “This is an opportunity for them to see a different Israeli – an Israeli with an outstretched hand.
And because the 400 people have families and neighbors and friends, we touch the hearts of thousands of people.”
Still, Walden added, he has no illusions about the impact of his work.
“We make no pretense of changing the health situation in the West Bank, or even in small Palestinian villages,” he said. “But we have succeeded in creating a small light at the end of the tunnel. We have performed an act of human solidarity.”
ON THIS sunny Saturday morning in early March, Walden was eager to begin treating patients.
“Let’s get started,” he said to his team, as he energetically clasped his hands together.
Seconds later, dozens of large plastic containers carrying hundreds of medications to be distributed by PHR’s pharmacists were unloaded from the van and piled up in the village’s nearby square.
Once there, Hawaja formally welcomed the medical team with chocolate- covered cookies, small cups of strong black coffee, and bottles of water. White vests were provided to all the volunteers to identify them to members of the community.
The mayor then commenced a lengthy speech detailing the plight of what he claimed was once a thriving village.
According to Hawaja, since 1948 approximately 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) of Ni’lin’s land, now encased by a barbedwire fence and surrounded by five Jewish settlements, has been confiscated by the Israeli government.
Due to the loss of the village’s agricultural industry, he said Ni’lin’s economy has been rendered anemic; devoid of once abundant natural resources, including olive trees and farming land.
Hawaja said every Friday hundreds of the village’s 6,000 residents participate in non-violent protests near the security barrier, which he claims has resulted in the loss of an additional 300 hectares of land.
In terms of healthcare, Hawaja said one small clinic supplied by the Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry operates erratically only a few hours at a time, three days a week.
“The situation is not easy because of population growth, high unemployment and no university education,” he said.
“People are not getting the treatment they need.”
Following Hawaja’s remarks, Walden stood to address members of the village through a translator.
“We have come here for two purposes: One, to provide medical treatment for people who we know need it very much.
And, equally, if not more important: To express solidarity with the Palestinian people, so they can live with dignity.”
Walden continued, “We hope to one day come as neighbors and friends, and not as enemies.”
The doctor then divided his team into a four-pronged mobile triage unit, based on specialty and severity of illness. In life-threatening cases, Walden said he arranges the necessary paperwork via the IDF and the Health Ministry to transport patients to Israeli hospitals.
“In most cases, permission is granted within two weeks,” he said. “In some cases it’s not, because the patient may be related to a member of Hamas.”
OVER THE course of the day, Walden, aided by an Israeli-Arab nurse who also served as a translator, met with dozens of patients in a small, makeshift office with a mattress supported by six chairs used as an examination table.
During a seven-hour period, he and his team steadily treated hundreds of the villagers, none of whom were in dire health.
Most patients simply needed prescription refills, or the assurance that they were not seriously ill.
Walden’s patients included a woman in her 50s suffering from abdominal pain, a man in his 70s complaining of pain in his left leg, an octogenarian woman missing her right eye who needed several prescriptions, and a 43-year-old man who had lost an eye to a rubber bullet fired by an IDF officer, complaining of chronic headaches.
“There are usually not a lot of surgical patients,” said Walden during a brief break.
He emphasized that when PHR volunteers are not treating patients, its leaders lobby the government to allow Palestinians greater freedom of movement and medical personnel. This, he said, is as important as the treatment itself.
“Israel has a responsibility as an occupying power for the health of Palestinians,” he said. “We don’t say the government should undertake all responsibility, but it should provide more help. These people are very poor and cannot afford medication as a result of the occupation.”
According to Richard Thunder, PHR-Israel’s resource development director, most of the funding for the NGO – which also treats refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, as well as impoverished Israelis –comes from the EU, private donors and the Norwegian Embassy.
He said an annual budget of approximately NIS 5 million is raised and judiciously allocated for all operations.
“We treat between 5,000 and 6,000 patients a year without any funding from the Israeli government,” he added. “Twothirds of it comes from European countries, including Scandinavia, Holland and Germany, while the rest comes from private donations.”
WALDEN SAYS the weekly clinics serve as an important “microcosm of friendship and goodwill,” which engenders a far more positive image of Israelis among Palestinian children, who are raised and educated to view Israelis as hostile occupiers.
“We are creating some hope – showing there are other Israelis who have solidarity with them,” he said. “Schoolchildren see that not all Israelis are that bad, and that we can live peacefully together.”
Asked if the visiting doctors changed her perception of Israelis, Sondos, a 14-year-old girl from the village, said no.
“The doctors are just doing their jobs,” she said. “The Israelis are still living on our land and taking it away from us. It’s not going to change the way we think about them. This is a political issue.”
The sentiment that the doctors’ work and the Israeli occupation are mutually exclusive was also echoed by the vast majority of those interviewed, young and old.
“Yes, these are good people who are helping us who are also Jews, but it does not change the fact that the Israeli government is stealing our land and making us live like animals,” said a middle-aged man sipping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes as dozens of men, women and children eagerly surrounded the “pharmacy” with prescriptions in hand.
“The Israeli government is the reason we are suffering and in poor health,” said another woman.
However, according Dr. Opher Caspi, an internist from Tel Aviv who treated dozens of Palestinian patients that day, the village’s widespread poor health is the result of unhealthy lifestyles, not occupation.
“This has zero to do with occupation – their nutrition is imbalanced, they don’t exercise and 95 percent of people here don’t have medical records,” he said.
“There is absolutely no awareness of healthy lifestyles and no preventive medicine whatsoever. What’s most urgently needed is a campaign for healthy living, including nutrition, exercise and stress management.”
Indeed, Caspi said the villagers are so ignorant of their medical conditions that “they describe the medicine they need by the size and color of the pills they take.”
Asked if he believes his work would change Palestinians’ negative perception of Israelis, he demurred, saying it merely “changes their experience.”
“I try to make [treatment] as humane and respectful as possible,” he said. “I don’t think that changes anything – it’s too diluted. My mission is not political, my mission is humane.”
Meanwhile, Pnina Feiler, a vivacious 90-something nurse who has worked with PHR-Israel for over 20 years, said she was more sanguine as to the possibility of making inroads.
“I don’t know, I’m a naïve person and I believe that nothing gets lost in life,” said Feiler, as she sat at a table where she had treated dozens of patients throughout the day. “I believe that if they meet people without guns, who talk with them as human beings, something will remain in their hearts and minds.”
Feiler continued: “There is a saying of Che Guevara: ‘Let’s be realistic, but aspire to [do] the impossible.’ This is my motto because it looks now like I won’t live to see peace, but I can do what I can to help for now.”
DURING A meal of roast chicken, pita and humous presented by the village to the medical team before their departure, Walden said the most important thing he can do to improve Palestinian healthcare is lobby the Israeli government to license more Israeli-Arab doctors currently not being certified at unaccredited medical schools.
“Israeli-Arab students who graduate from Al-Quds University medical school are not entitled to take the licensing exam to practice in Israel, because the university is not recognized at all by the Israeli government,” he said. “This only exacerbates the problem.”
According to Walden, the government refuses to accredit the medical school, which has campuses in Abu Dis, outside of Jerusalem, because the university also has a department of social science in east Jerusalem. Recognition of the medical school would represent “a form of Palestinian Authority sovereignty.”
“These graduates are quite capable and terribly needed because there is a huge shortage of Arabic-speaking doctors, especially in east Jerusalem,” he said.
However, despite lobbying for years with other luminaries within Israel’s medical establishment to get the university recognized, Walden said the efforts have been rebuffed by the government.
“The chairman of the Israel Medical Association is among many others who have pleaded for licensing, but they can’t get it because of purely political reasons,” he said. “There are 55 students who have graduated from Al-Quds this year who are desperately needed, but they were not allowed to take the exam because they graduated from Al-Quds.
“It’s absolutely crazy.”
Walden added that a number of Palestinian students are forced to emigrate to get their degrees.
“The price is not just for the students, but the medical establishment in Israel,” he said.
ASKED HOW he responds to his numerous right-wing detractors, including Liberman’s assertion of treason, Walden made himself clear.
“I consider myself a fervent Israeli patriot,” he said. “I fought actively in three wars, I was severely wounded during my service but refused to be released, and continued until I got the rank of lieutenant- colonel with the paratroopers.
“This is hardly the CV of an aide to terrorists.”
Moreover, Walden said while he recognizes the polarizing nature of his work, he emphasized that ultimately PHR’s efforts reflect the democratic nature of the country to which he has dedicated his life.
“Our activities may disagree with certain politics of the actual government, but this is definitely out of sincere concern for the existence of Israel as both Jewish and democratic,” he said. “We feel strongly that we do contribute to a positive image of Israel by freely expressing our opinions.”
In terms of his relationship with his famous father-in-law, Walden described it as “excellent,” adding that Peres “certainly approves of my humanitarian activities.”
FOLLOWING THE friendly and filling meal shared between the PHR volunteers and several of Ni’lin’s residents, the minibus was loaded with mostly empty plastic containers, once overflowing with medications.
As Walden and his team returned their white vests, they were warmly embraced by the mayor and dozens of grateful recipients of their care, before entering the van to leave the village.
Upon arriving at the checkpoint near the security barrier, the van was stopped and searched by officers who asked all the passengers for identity cards.
Thirty minutes later, the soldiers finished their search and authorized the van to continue to Jerusalem.
Asked if he ever tired of the searches, suspicion and general cynical scrutiny associated with PHR-Israel’s mission, Walden smiled.
“No,” he said. “It’s worth the inconvenience.”