Adele Raemer
Adele Raemer
Life on the Border with the Gaza Strip

Getting on the Road to Recovery

Just another car, driving down just another road – along the flat  Western Negev, then climbing the Jerusalem hills on a rainy day. At times it was raining so hard that however frantically the windshield wipers attempted to keep up, they had mediocre success at best. However this car was transporting passengers, the likes of whom are not usually seen by most. As planned, we had picked up a couple, at the Erez Border Crossing at the northern tip of the Gaza-Israel border, and were driving them to a hospital in the Holy City – that revered “City of Peace” which oxymoronically has been the source of fighting for thousands of years by people from all the main monotheistic religions.  

The driver, Arnon, is a friend from my kibbutz. He is Israeli, born and bred on Kibbutz Nirim, in the Western Negev (aka the Gaza Envelope) 2 kms from the border with the Gaza Strip. He is a man who, many times over, has paid dearly the price of the region’s conflict.  He lost his brother on this very ground, when the tractor his brother was driving, in the avocado orchard, detonated a landmine. Killed in the line of duty – not as a soldier, as he might have been when he was serving in the IDF just a few years previous, but rather as a farmer making the desert bloom, back in 1971. 

Our passengers, today, were two people from the other side of the border, that same border which witnesses intermittent exchanges of rockets and tank shells. Once, not so long ago, Israelis used to cross the border from Israel into Gaza, on a daily basis. Israelis used to live there, until 2005, when all Jews were forcibly evicted by Ariel Sharon’s Likud majority government. These were pioneering people of the time who had built agricultural communities in what came to be known as Gush Katif, at the behest of the Israeli government in the wake of the Six Day War. In 2005 even the remains of Jews who had been buried in Jewish cemeteries there were exhumed and relocated to Israel proper. The hope of the government was to gain peace in return for handing over the land and the keys to the Palestinians to rule their region. Prior to that, we used to visit the Gaza Strip – to go to the sea and enjoy some retail therapy in the Gazan markets.  But these days, the only time Israelis cross over is when there is a military escalation, and those Israelis crossing are dressed in full metal jackets. 

Crossing the border in the other direction is not easy, either. Gazans used to work in Israel, in construction, agriculture and other occupations. In fact, this time was not the first our passengers Mohammad and Bushra*, had been in Israel. Bushra has vague memories coming here as a child. Mohammad, as an adult, used to work as a watchmaker in different cities in Israel. But that was 25 years ago. Only recently, have permits for Gazan workers been renewed – mostly laborers working in construction or agriculture. 

Mohammad and Bushra are a couple from the upscale Rimal neighborhood, in Gaza City. Communication between us was challenging, since my Arabic is non-existent, Arnon’s Arabic is very rudimentary, as was their English. We managed the basics, and even a little chit-chat (with a few misunderstandings and linguistic fallout along the way). We learned that they have 5 children between the ages of 10-25, and are now on a mission to ensure that those children will still have a father for a long time to come. Mohammad, you see, has cancer, and he is coming to Israel to be treated at a hospital here. As a medical clown, I have met Gazans in different wards, in a number of Israeli hospitals.

This time, however, our passengers were headed for Al Makassed Hospital, a small hospital run by an Islamic charitable society. It nestles amongst  the winding streets of the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. I have no idea of the process that people from Gaza undergo in order to be accepted for treatment in hospitals outside of Gaza, nor of the criteria for being granted entry into Israel, but Mohammad managed to procure all the needed authorization, together with his wife as chaperone. Upon gaining this precious permission, however, there remained the challenge of actually getting to their destination. They are not allowed to drive their cars into Israel, nor can they use public transportation. There are Israeli cabs that await them, but those are prohibitively expensive for a Gazan’s income. That’s where Arnon came in. 

Arnon is one of nearly 2,000 volunteers who drive sick Palestinians, from Gaza and the West Bank, to undergo medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. They take them to and from the crossings into Israel, in collaboration with an amazing organization known as: The Road to Recovery. He is not the only volunteer whom I know personally, living on the border, in the shadow of rockets and the threat of tunnel infiltration, who drives our neighbors on their road to recovery. 

During the ride, there were so many questions I wanted to ask Mohammad and Bushra. I was dying to know what life is like for them on the other side of our border, what it is like living under Hamas rule, or how they protect themselves when we are in the middle of a military escalation, and so much more. I realized that although I might be able to ask them about these topics with the aid of Google Translate, understanding their responses would be way more challenging. Due to Corona, we rode the whole way with masks, and I was also reluctant to let them touch my phone to have them type in their responses (more for their medical safety than for my own). Wanting to share a bit of myself with them, I showed them a picture of my grandchildren from the evening before, wearing their unicorn onesies I had given them for Hannuka. Bushra smiled. Then I tried conversing, keeping it to the basics: I wanted to know how they knew about The Road to Recovery. I wrote that question into Google Translate in English, and it spoke the translation to them in Arabic. Frustratingly, from the perplexed look on their faces, Google was clearly not keeping up its side of the bargain in a way I could rely on. Changing tactics, I decided to break up the ideas into smaller chunks:

“Arnon volunteers for the Road to Recovery, to drive you from the border to the hospital,” was typed into Google Translate. 

They looked at each other and in tandem began thanking Arnon, profusely.

Ok – that was NOT what I was aiming at. 

“No, no….I mean – How did you KNOW how to get to him, to the organization that collaborates this?”, I typed. 

“Ah….,” responded Mohammad. “Other people,” he said in English and pantomime.

From what I understand now, after an interaction with a representative of the Road to Recovery, there is an association in Gaza which helps connect between them and oncology patients who need to get to hospitals in Israel. It is through this association that the plans are woven for getting the patients where they need to get to across the border.  

It was fascinating to see the landscapes and roads, so familiar to me,  through the eyes of someone else; someone who hasn’t been here for 25 years, not because he was abroad, but rather because of a conflict that prevents him from traversing the few kilometers separating him and the region. Even though the rain obscured the view of the cities and the beautiful Judean Hills we were driving past, Mohammad noticed the difference these past 25 years had brought. 

“The roads are much bigger now,” he said, of the highway leading up to Jerusalem, “and over there is the road to Ramallah!”. When he last travelled here it was, no doubt, a double carriageway with 1 or 2 lanes on each side, whereas now there are 3 lanes in each direction and a tunnel that took years to carve through the mountain. Bushra filmed some of the journey on her phone; whatever could be captured through the raindrops.

At one point, Mohammad asked us if he could go to Al Aksa – the Dome of the Rock – and handed me the light blue paper-permits that would serve as their ID for their period here, stating explicitly that they were allowed to enter Israel to go to the Al Makassed Hospital “for medical purposes only”, for a 10-day stay. 

Arnon and I looked at each other. “Does he mean that he wants us to drive him there on the way, before we go to the hospital? Or to drop him off there, instead of at the hospital? Or is he asking whether he will be allowed to go there at some point?” Neither of us had the answer to that. Arnon explained that his instructions were to drive directly to the hospital, but that once he got to the hospital, where there are Arabic speaking medical staff and personnel, they would be able to enquire. His was a response that was honest, leaving room for hope, but not promising anything. 

“In fact,” Arnon said to me in Hebrew, “if it weren’t such a rainy day, we would probably be able to see Al Aksa from here, on the road.”

The drive ended with a bit of tension, on my part. Driving through neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, through Shuafat and Beit Hanina- names I remember seeing in the news, especially during last May’s conflict, as being points of flare ups and near lynchings of Jews who happened to drive there- was something that did not put me at ease. In the end, we found the hospital entrance along the bustling crowded roads. We even had a little accident when taking a wrong turn (nothing serious, and nothing a couple of hundred shekels couldn’t solve, but still….).

Finally we arrived at our passengers’ destination, where they embarked safely to their place of hope. Bidding them farewell, and wishing Mohammad a speedy and complete recovery, we took our leave. Before she got out of the car, Bushra said: “You have beautiful grandchildren.” Kids and smiles always serve to build connections. 

On the drive home, Arnon and I spoke about the program, as well as about common experiences of our lives on the border, discussing memories from the conflicts during the 5% of hell that we have had to share as neighbors and friends living in a place which is heaven 95% of the time. In the end, he said: “I haven’t thought nor spoken about these experiences in so long.” We who live here try not to focus on the 5%. But it’s there, lying just underneath the surface, always tinging our lives, always. 

If you don’t live here, it’s impossible  to comprehend the duality of living under threat of rocket-fire, on the one hand, while at the same time understanding that most people on the other side are not Hamas. That most of the people on the other side just want the same things that we all do: to put food on their tables, to clothe their children and provide for their health and safety. I feel honored that I was able to meet Mohammad and Bushra, and accompany them for a few steps on what I hope will be their road to recovery. Even though  I have no way of ever knowing what the outcome of his treatments will be, I am happy feeling that maybe a little connection was forged. He used to work with Israelis, so he knows we have no horns, that we do not wish them ill, but maybe through this experience, his immediate – or wider circle of family and friends – will hear that we, the people on the other side of the border, are not their enemies. 

To quote their website: “The ‘Road to Recovery’ is as much about the recovery of mutual respect, trust, dialog and friendship among Israelis and Palestinians as it is about individual patients’ physical recovery.”

The Road to Recovery relies on donations in order to be able to exist. If you are so inclined, please feel free to check out their website and donate financially, or of your time.

UPDATE: Dec 22,2021
The Road to Recovery are holding a fund raising campaign right now. Donations can be made from the home page of their website or here. 

* Names have been changed to protect their identity

About the Author
Born in the USA, Adele has lived in a Kibbutz on the border with the Gaza Strip since 1975. She is a mother and a grandmother living and raising her family on the usually paradisaical, sometimes hellishly volatile border. She moderates a FB group named "Life on the Border". https://goo.gl/xcwZT1 Adele recently retired after 38 years as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, as well as a teacher trainer and counselor for the Israeli MoE for EFL and a Tech Integration Coach. She blogs here about both Life on the Border, as well as about digital pedagogy, in "Digitally yours, @dele". She is a YouTuber, mostly on the topic of digital stuff. (https://goo.gl/iBVMEG) Her personal channel covers other issues close to her heart (medical clowning, Life on the Border, etc.) (https://goo.gl/uLP6D3) In addition, she is a trained medical clown and, although on COVID hiatus, until allowed back into hospitals, she clowns as often as she can in the pediatric ward in the hospital in Ashkelon. As a result of her activity as an advocate for her region, she was included among the Ha'aretz "Ten Jewish Faces who made Waves in 2018" https://goo.gl/UrjCNB. In November 2018 she was invited to Geneva by an independent investigative committee for the UN to bear witness to the border situation, and in December 2019 addressed the UN Security Council at the request of the US ambassador to the UN.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments