On a recent Friday afternoon, amid increasing tension between Israelis and Palestinians, Lt. Col. Dr. Adi Leiba, the Israeli army’s chief medical officer in the West Bank, got out of a car filled with several Palestinian doctors and walked over to a cluster of soldiers, mostly medics, deployed outside the outpost of Givat Asaf. Leiba, in civilian garb, saw the soldiers’ hands slide toward the grips of their weapons.
“No need to shoot me,” Leiba recalled saying. “Everything is fine. I am your commanding officer.”
Leiba, in fact, had just returned from a unique nephrology conference that he had organized, hosted by the Samaritan community on a mountaintop up above the Palestinian city of Nablus, where 30 Israeli and 13 Palestinian colleagues met to discuss kidney diseases and, perhaps, to lay a thin bridge over a tumble of increasingly troubled water.
His vision is to found a joint Israeli-Palestinian medical clinic on Mount Gerizim, where Israeli and Palestinian doctors will work in tandem treating patients suffering from kidney diseases and other ailments.
That may sound farfetched in today’s climate, in which Israeli government ministers have accused PA President Mahmoud Abbas of being “the voice” behind some of the gruesome murders in Jerusalem and Abbas himself has spoken of Jews as contaminating the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount, but doctors on both sides, having endured the gruesome developments of the past summer, contend that it is both feasible and the only path toward coexistence.
In today’s environment, “professional cooperation is the only way forward,” said Dr. Wesam al-Jamal, a gynecologist from Hebron currently doing a fellowship at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center.
“What the politicians aren’t able to do, we did in a second,” he added.
Leiba, a native of Haifa and the secretary of the Israeli Society of Hypertension, said during a recent interview that, prior to his most recent posting as chief medical officer of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division, he was far more attuned to the streets of Tel Aviv and Cambridge, Mass, where he did a fellowship at one of Harvard University’s teaching hospitals, than the West Bank.
Upon arrival, though, he realized that the conflict, despite talk of a possible third intifada, “is a bit overrated,” he said. “There are people living here.”
The division’s medical staff was designed primarily to treat the soldiers serving in the region. But since Israel is the sovereign power in the West Bank, where some 2.7 million Palestinians live, and since the civilian medical infrastructure for Jewish settlers is sparse, the army, over the past year, has treated roughly 1,000 soldiers, 1,000 settlers, and 1,000 Palestinians, he said.
At first, army paramedics required authorization from divisional headquarters in order to evacuate a wounded Palestinian to an Israeli hospital. Leiba cancelled that directive and instructed his medical personnel to evacuate to an Israeli hospital in “every instance in which you feel it will benefit the wellbeing of the wounded.”
The Palestine Red Crescent Society paramedics responded in kind, treating not only Israelis injured in car accidents and the like, Leiba said, but also victims of Palestinian terror attacks, in one case intubating a fatally wounded Israeli victim and “working very hard” in the field to save his life.
This basic humanitarian aid, transcending the conflict, led Leiba to the idea that doctors could serve as a bridge. “Doctors have a common language,” he said. “It’s easy for them to bond with one another.”
Several months later, Leiba, Col. Dr. Moshe Pinkert, the chief doctor of the Central Command, and Dalia Basa, the Israeli Civil Administration’s Health Coordinator, got together with Palestinian doctors from Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and Nablus, and several leading Israeli physicians, including the head of pediatric nephrology at Rambam Medical Center, and founded PAIRS, the Palestinian and Israeli Renal Society, the first such joint medical organization.
The early days were not without incident: Palestinian members chafed at the word society, Leiba noted, pushing instead for partnership, and one of the first meetings took place in an Israeli army base, in mid-June, several days after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed; the army, at the time, had 10 brigades combing through the West Bank, but it also was the only organization in Israel licensed to administer the American College of Surgeon’s Advanced Trauma Life Support course, which PAIRS had signed up for.
Nonetheless, despite the war in Gaza and the flaring of tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank — culminating in Tuesday’s gruesome terror attack on a Har Nof synagogue, in which four worshipers at prayer and a policeman were killed by assailants from East Jerusalem — the members of the organization have continued to meet, sharing information and discussing treatment methods and referrals for patients.
Earlier this month, the doctors were hosted by the Samaritans, an Arabic-speaking religious group that is an offshoot of Judaism. Their position, as a sect one step removed from the conflict, makes the notion of a joint clinic on their land “easier to implement,” Leiba said.
The group heard a presentation from Dr. Daniella Magen, the head of pediatric nephrology unit in Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, where, Leiba added, the majority of the children on dialysis are Palestinian, and toured the region.
“The Palestinians did not flip their skin or suddenly become Zionists,” he clarified. But beneath the surface of the red-hot conflict, there are many, including Palestinian public servants, who gave their blessing to the initiative.
Al-Jamal, who must ferry in and out of Jerusalem daily by taxis in order to cross the checkpoint south of Jerusalem, dismissed the notion of it being taboo to join hands with the Israeli army. “So what?” he said of Leiba’s rank and post. “What matters is the person. How he thinks.” And not, he clarified, his religion or the uniform he wears.