‘Our work begins at no’

In 1984, 20-year-old Jerry White’s leg was blown off by a Golan mine. Now the Nobel laureate is back as to help Israel clean up its minefields.

NJerryWhite311 (photo credit: NSimona Or-Munteanu)
(photo credit: NSimona Or-Munteanu)
Twenty-six years and one month after his right leg was blown off by a land mine on the Golan Heights, Nobel Laureate and Survivor Corps cofounder Jerry White feels like his life has come full circle. He is now back in the country, but this time, he carries a message. The former associate of Princess Diana and King Hussein of Jordan is here to help Israelis save themselves from one of the greatest plagues of post-Cold War society, the very land mines that cost him his own leg and started him on his international crusade.
Israel has a golden opportunity, White says, to begin an organized process of clearing away the thousands of non-operationally-necessary mines that dot its borders and crowd out tourists and farmers from prime land in the Arava, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.
“Israel could be mine free in five to 10 years and for less than $60 million, which is chump change within the defense budget,” White says. Israel, he explains, is approximately a decade behind states such as Rwanda, Kosovo and even neighboring Jordan, which has nearly finished the long process of de-mining its borders. White has come here as the Knesset is preparing crucial legislation to try to catch up.
But the current push to remove land mines did not appear out of thin air; it came at the expense of 11-year-old Daniel Yuval’s foot. Yuval and his 12-year-old sister were on a family trip to the Golan Heights when their parents decided to stop and allow their children to join others frolicking in a snowy field. The parents and children have since said that they saw no warning signs or fencing, and that their first indication that the rare sight of snow was covering a deadly minefield was when the mine exploded, injuring both Daniel and his older sister only a few kilometers from the site of White’s injury.
“I had just finished a board meeting [of Survivor Corps] in Washington DC and it had just begun to snow when I got an e-mail from Dhyan Or [Israel Country Program Member for Survivor Corps] in Israel telling about little Daniel Yuval,” White recalled. “It felt haunting because the tragedy was not necessarily that it happened but that it was preventable. I felt deeply sad – it was a little bit of a flashback – the same type of injury and the same type of story.
“One of the most painful things was that there was the same tendency to blame the victim. The first flush of interrogation is always, ‘You didn’t see the sign? You didn’t see the fence?’ And I was thinking – as a father, taking my children to see the first snow. It’s so innocent what’s happening.
“The only thing that ever made me angry about my own incident was being blamed for it, when people told me that I was a stupid tourist. That makes me angry.
“I wasn’t a part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I wasn’t the Soviet who made the mine, the Syrian who laid the mine, the Israelis who took over the mine and did nothing about it and I wasn’t the sign-keeper in the army who was supposed to make sure that there was barbed wire to keep people out. I was an innocent tourist, aged 20, here to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, camp in the Bible lands and camp outside. I was very much reminded of that sense of innocent. You couldn’t get more innocent than an 11-year-old boy wanting to play in the pure white snow with his family before they went to a Sabbath meal.”
WHITE WAS a student at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students, doing his junior year abroad as part of a Jewish studies degree. He was already something of an exception – an Irish Catholic kid from outside Boston enrolled in Brown University’s Judaic studies program.
“When I went to Brown, I realized that all the smart kids read The New York Times, drank coffee and ate bagels in the morning,” White says. “I followed my new Jewish friends to Judaic studies classes. It suddenly struck me that Jesus was Jewish. I must have thought, growing up Irish Catholic, that he had red hair and freckles. And so I suddenly thought that I had to understand the Jewish roots of my faith, which led me to become the first Christian student to graduate there in the Jewish studies program.
“I was strongly influenced by my Judaic studies professors – how to think. Finally one day my adviser, Rabbi [Jacob] Neusner, said that God doesn’t speak Latin or Gaelic or Greek in heaven. You have to study Hebrew. That’s the language of the heavens and that’s what God will understand. You need to go to the Holy Land and study.”
White received a Dorot Grant to travel to Israel, and enrolled in Hebrew University’s junior year abroad program. Israel and White were an immediate match.
“I was like a kid in a candy store. I fell in love with everything. It’s hard not to fall in love with Jerusalem. I immediately felt at home. I fell in love with everything, with the smells, the language, the food.”
White sought interaction with Israelis to learn Hebrew. Every second weekend, he went to tutor a young paratroop officer in English at Moshav Avigdor. The officer’s family “adopted” the young student, and White still views the moshav as his “home away from home.” Over the course of the year, he grew so close with the family that when he was injured by the mine, his adoptive mother felt a burning sensation in her right foot before she knew what had happened.
On Pessah break, in 1984, White was beginning to wind down his year in Israel. He planned a trip to the North, on which he would visit Tel Megiddo, Kiryat Shmona and the Banyas.
“To get away from all of the tourists, I took the path less traveled. I was with two friends – actually both Christians – and ended up going camping in an unmarked minefield.”
 The three saw Tel Aziziyat, a large mound with a clump of trees at the top, from afar and hiked up on dirt roads. “There weren’t signs and fences, because we just went up and spent the night.” They had a bonfire, spent the night, and when they rose the next morning, they packed their bags to return to Jerusalem. White was walking just in front of his friends when the mine detonated.
“Suddenly everything exploded. I thought it was a terror attack, and Katyushas had fallen at my feet, and that therefore I only had moments to live. Then it was deadly silent and my two friends told me not to move, and turned me over.”
White, still conscious, had a perfect view of his own injuries – his right foot had been blown off and his left leg blown open. “The mine did its job – it’s supposed to tear off body parts and not kill you and that’s exactly what it did.”
In the deadly silence that followed, White says, he and his friends realized that they were in a minefield. One of his friends tied a tourniquet, and they began to try to figure out how to hike out. It was a miracle, White recalls, that they made it out, as he later found that the tel is “infested with all kinds of mines.”
His friends, he says, are also survivors of the mine experience, bearing psychological scars from the terror of carrying him out of the minefield. They found, when they got to the other side, a fence and a kibbutznik who heard the explosion had come with wire cutters. The farmer cut them out of the minefield and brought them in a wagon to an ambulance.
White spent 10 days in Safed’s Sieff Hospital, where he underwent a second amputation when gangrene set in. He was then transferred to Sheba Hospital’s Rehabilitation Ward A. He shared a room with three other men his age – all soldiers wounded in Lebanon – and found that “there was a fellowship of suffering.”
“I stayed because I intuitively knew that it was strangely normal. And I knew that I needed to be normal. I was with a group of guys my age missing arms, legs and eyes, and there was that peer support in the hospital as well as some of the best trauma care in the world,” White recalls. “It was quite an induction into a world of disability, suffering and trauma from war.”
WHITE ALREADY knew that after college he “wanted to do global work with a human touch,” but it took him another decade before he discovered the growing international campaign against land mines. After grueling rehabilitation, he completed his degree at Brown, moved to Washington and worked at a number of think tanks, becoming an expert in nuclear nonproliferation.
It was in the mid-1990s that White met a fellow land mine survivor, Ken Ruckeford, who told him he was tracking the wrong weapons of mass destruction. Land mines, Ruckeford pointed out, had killed more people than nuclear, chemical and biological weapons combined – and White’s experience in weapons treaties and analysis combined with his personal story as a survivor could provide serious reinforcement for the nascent anti-land mine campaign. At the time, there were an estimated 80 million land mines deployed in more than 80 countries, and more than 80 percent of the victims were civilians.
In 1997, White helped to draft the first land mine treaty. “We made sure that it was not just a typical nonproliferation treaty, but the innovation was also a humanitarian framework for the land mine issue that included ban the weapon, destroy the stockpiles, clear the minefields within 10 years of signing the treaty, but also contained provisions for the social and physical rehabilitation of the victims.
“This was the first arms control treaty that discussed aiding the victims of the weapon, a principle that has become the international standard.”
In 1997, Princess Diana joined the anti-land mine campaign during the last year of her life. The involvement with the cause of one of the best-known people in the world brought it to the forefront of public awareness. White says that for Israel, Daniel Yuval is the same “tipping point.”
“In the international land mine campaign, we had a tipping point with Princess Diana. She was the one to help us reframe the issue from one of security and defense to a humanitarian issue. Daniel Yuval is the tipping point where Israelis woke up. Every year there are Palestinians, Thai laborers and even cattle who are injured by mines, but this time it really hit home. This was the next generation, playing in the snow.”
Three months later, “there is an emerging consensus in the public as well as the Knesset that the time has come,” and legislation is being prepared that will match what White says is the international standard for mine clearing through setting up an authority to complete it on a time line and with international assistance.
“You need a decision, a policy, a vision and then an action plan, as opposed to ad hoc de-mining or the military doing it. Experience around the world shows that when it is merely the military that is in charge, it does not get done,” White says. “Jordan is an example, with a large amount of its funding coming from the international community. If this legislation becomes law, you’ve created a mine action authority with civilian participation to de-mine. Based on the Jordanian experience, Israel could be mine free in less than 10 years.”
After King Hussein decided shortly before his death that Jordan would join the international anti-mine treaty, Jordan de-mined Wadi Arava for less than $9 million in 18 months without a single casualty. Amman is expected to complete de-mining along the Syrian border – its final project – next year. Jordan is not the only Middle Eastern state to beat Israel in de-mining. In Afghanistan, White says, it is considered holy and noble work to de-mine.
TOGETHER WITH the initiative from the Knesset, the IDF must also comply with previous demands by the State Comptroller’s Office to draw up a map of the 85% to 90% of minefields that have no more operational or security purpose. In addition, Israel will have to deal with the legal underpinning, insurance and figuring out who would foot the bill.
The last problem, White suggests, might prove to be one of the easiest to solve – and with clear benefits. “The international community includes a billion Christians who would like to see the baptismal sight of Jesus de-mined,” says White, adding that there is also a great deal of interest within the UN in working with Israel to help fund and provide the technical know-how for the process.
On Monday, Israel took a giant step en route to White’s dream. With the support of 73 out of 81 rank-and-file MKs, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee submitted a groundbreaking bill that would establish a national authority tasked with clearing Israel’s non-operational land mines. Although there is a mandatory 45-day waiting period before the bill can be brought up for its preliminary reading, the government has already indicated that it will also support the measure, although officials noted that they “still have to solve some budgetary issues.”
White is confident that this year will make the difference – and sees that, after 26 years, there is room for conversation in the halls of government – where he previously was greeted by dismissiveness.
“Our work begins at no. If you hold a vision what of is right and good, you move from maybe to yes. Israelis are so practical, they dismiss dreamers and idealists and romantics. To call someone that implies a lack of respect. But I don’t mind being called naïve as long as mines are coming out. I want to go camping again on the Golan. Why does innocence have to be a negative, or be equivalent to guilt?” concludes White. “After 26 years of doing social sector leadership work, we see how things get done that are very practical, but match the vision in the sky with the reality on the ground.”