Putting patients before politics

War-torn: Arab and Jewish doctors at an Israeli hospital struggle to set aside their feelings as they treat both sides of the Mideast conflict.

April 16, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AFULA, Israel - Only a corridor separates the two sets of patients in Ha'Emek Medical Center here: On one side are wounded Israeli soldiers, on the other are wounded Palestinian gunmen.

The physicians treating them are Jewish Israelis and Israeli-Arabs, shuttling between patients representing both sides of a war. The doctors proudly talk of giving all of them equal treatment but acknowledge that doing so has become a profoundly difficult task, yet also a symbol that Israeli and Palestinian society remain intertwined.

"You have to separate the person from the act," said Dr. Ophir Schein, a 26-year-old Jewish intern in the trauma and surgery unit. "Never mind what he did. But it's hard. I know that the person I'm treating is my enemy."

His colleague, Dr. Adi Francis, 30, is an Israeli-Arab with Palestinian relatives in the West Bank. He treats the injured soldiers well, he said, but he thinks their fight is morally wrong.

"This whole war makes the situation so much more complicated," said Francis, who works in intensive care. "Like a suicide bomber - it's an inexcusable act, but he is my brother. We share the same feelings and the same goals. He is fighting for his land and mine."

Schein and Francis wear the standard long white coat over green scrubs. Each man wears a tag with his name in Hebrew and Arabic. Each man did part of his medical training at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. They have similar career interests and call each other friends. They talk about patients and challenging cases. They rarely talk politics.

Francis was on break in the sparsely furnished lounge reserved for the staff, and Schein joined him there. Interviewed together, they seemed to realize for the first time the gap between their views about the battles fought last week in the West Bank city of Jenin, 12 miles away.

Schein dismissed all terror attacks as wrong. Francis described them as wrong but said he understood the hatred that drove people to commit such acts.

For residents of Afula, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often within sight. They can watch helicopters hover near Jenin and see tanks being transported on an endless line of tractor-trailers. In the past 18 months, Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers, most of them residents of Jenin, have killed 14 people here and injured more than 100 others.

Ha'Emek Medical Center has 435 beds. More than half of its patients are Israeli-Arabs, Arabs whose families stayed in areas that became Israel in 1948 and accepted citizenship. The hospital staff is split the same way: The chiefs of the emergency room and internal medicine are Israeli-Arabs.

At least 60 soldiers have passed through the emergency room in the past 10 days. As of Sunday, six had not yet been discharged; they were being treated across the hall from four Palestinians whom they had battled in Jenin.

The soldiers lay in one large ward in their beds, their bodies bandaged and in casts, as family members gathered around with flowers and balloons. The soldiers were among a group ambushed last week in a courtyard in the Jenin Refugee Camp. Thirteen of their fellow soldiers were killed in the ambush.

The four Palestinian gunmen's hands cuffed to the metal rails of their beds. Armed soldiers stood guard. Dr. Eyran Halpern, the hospital's director, described them as prisoners of war.

"We adhere to strict medical ethics," Halpern said. "I don't think the staff has any problem treating any patients. They all get the best medical care. I suppose everyone has personal feelings. It's part of the crazy world we live in."

In better times, Halpern worked with his counterpart in the Jenin Government Hospital. Ha'Emek sometimes provided supplies and advice and admitted Palestinians needing special care.

That all ended when the violence began 18 months ago.

Halpern expressed pride in Ha'Emek's staff. His physicians seemed to work together well in spite of their differing views.

Francis said he thinks about his cousins and in-laws under curfew in Ramallah even as he helps the soldiers. "I hear the other side," he said. "I hear how the children are terrified, how they go to bed with their clothes on because they don't know when the soldiers will come, how the helicopters hover above and shoot."

He said the phenomenon of suicide bombers cannot be dismissed as fanaticism. "We have to understand what makes these people terrorists," he said. "Why does a 17-year-old want to die?"

Schein interrupted. "It is our position that they are brainwashed. It's so they can get the money, the $20,000 [the militant group] Hamas gives to their families."

Countered Francis: "You think a young man is going to kill himself so his family gets money?"

The discussion shattered at least one stereotype. Schein said he assumed that Francis, who is Christian and not Muslim, did not share the view of Palestinians living on the West Bank.

The conflict was over land, not religion, Francis responded.

If he saw a terrorist attack about to occur, Francis said: "I would try to stop it. If I had a gun, I would shoot the man without hesitation. But I can understand why he is doing it."

"I cannot," Schein said.

Break over, they returned to their Palestinian and Israeli patients.

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