Hopeful dispatches from Israel

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
A wise person once said, "Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible." I never realized how true that was until I visited Israel recently on behalf of the Schneider Children Hospital in Petach Tikva, which treats both Arab and Jewish Israelis. Although most Israelis seem resigned to a continuing struggle with terrorism, they remain resolute and have not lost hope of an eventual settlement based on both sides compromising. This was borne out as I spoke not only to Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, but also with everyday people -- doctors and patients of the hospital, professors and students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, young officers from Israeli Defense Forces counterterrorism units, and hard-working entrepreneurs -- Jews and Arabs alike. For most Israelis, this war is about how Yassar Arafat and the PLO have poisoned the Palestinian society and the climate for negotiations with Israel -- inciting violence in mosques, teaching hatred in schools and glorifying suicide bombers on television. People echoed the belief that peace is not possible as long as Arafat is in power, and in the meantime their focus is on defending themselves from Iranian-aided Hamas terrorists whose goal is to destroy Israel. Despite this somber assessment of the near-term prospects for peace, I was struck by how many people I met refused to give up on their common humanity with their neighbors. You may have read about Yasmin, a 7-year-old Palestinian girl who received a kidney from a young 19-year-old Jewish boy, Joni, who had been killed in a suicide bombing. The transplant was performed at the Schneider Children's Hospital. We visited Yasmin and her mother. As doctors, journalists and members of the mission crowded around her, she ignored the commotion and focused on her coloring book, unaware of the symbolism of her life saved by the savage ending of another. The doctors told me that organ transplants between Jewish and Arab children are quite common. A third of the children treated at the Schneider Hospital are Arab. The majority are Israeli citizens, but the hospital also treats Palestinian and Jordanian children. When Irving Schneider and his late wife Helen, of New York, first conceived of the hospital, they wanted to start something that would have a broader ripple effect on Israeli society and the region. Their vision is conveyed in the hospital's cornerstone: "This hospital, dedicated to the inherent right of every child to live a healthy life in a peaceful world, will stand as a 'bridge to peace,' linking this nation to its many neighbors." Before violence erupted in 2000, the hospital was working jointly with doctors in the Palestinian Authority. Since then, the hospital has launched a first-in-kind health initiative with Jordan that reaches into Israeli and Jordanian Arab villages. Walking around the hospital, we saw Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims, secular Jews, Christian Arabs, whose children slept and played in the same rooms, brought together by the shared experience of caring for a sick child. It was especially painful to meet children who had been injured in terrorist attacks: Roni, 2 /12 years old, all blond curls and smiles, whose stomach was ripped open by a bomb at a pizza parlor. Shira, 15, injured in the same attack, from whose heart a 3-inch steel nail was miraculously removed. Shai, a teenager on his way to school when a stranger approached him and blew himself up. Lior, 15, and his sister Rahel, 16, injured in the same attack. Lior survived the nail in his neck and the shrapnel in his stomach. Rahel did not make it. Her artery had been severed; her body was severely burned. Rahel's organs were donated. They could have gone to any child, Jewish or Arab; the waiting list is anonymous. Rahel's mother told us about the care she received: "My daughter was unconscious and unaware, the doctors and nurses knew that she wasn't going to make it, but they took such good care of her." This contrast between the senseless killing outside the hospital and the indefatigable efforts inside to cherish and save every life was striking. An old Arab proverb holds that "He who has hope has everything," and that truth is borne out every day in Israel, where a stubborn refusal to give in to hatred keeps the flame of hope burning brightly. I fear the same cannot be said among Palestinians living in disputed territories. Most have lost hope and feel they have nothing. Indeed, hope is anathema to the current batch of too many Palestinian leaders who thrive on despair, fear and hatred. Without hope among Palestinians, there will be no peace in the Middle East, and until a new generation of Palestinian leaders emerges that is willing to break with the past, there will be no hope. Still, I came away optimistic, and the reason why is illustrated by a conversation I had with an IDF soldier who patrols and fights in the territories. He told me he was amazed at how often Palestinians invite him into their homes and offer him a cup of coffee. I believe the Palestinian people are prepared to live in peace, and although we cannot choose their leaders, I believe the United States and Europe can help restore hope and pave the way for a new Palestinian leadership by making it unambiguously clear that we stand ready to provide a 21st-century Marshall Plan of trade and aid for the Middle East the instant a peace agreement is signed and both sides are living in democratically elected homelands.