So I just found out what many of the retirees from my town of Tivon are busy doing at 5 am. They are, apparently, heading off to West Bank border crossings to bring Palestinians, mostly children with chaperones, from checkpoints to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment.
Yuval Roth was telling me all of this as I sat at his kitchen table a few weeks ago – he is the person who is responsible for galvanizing this network of volunteers, which is largely made up of retirees. In Hebrew, retirees are called ‘pensioners’ which seems a much more apt description, especially because nobody around here actually seems to ‘retire’. There is a good chance then that some of the grandparents who I see regularly picking up kids after school are likely on their second shift of the day.
Yuval’s own story and the creation of Road to Recovery (‘Derech Hachlama’ in Hebrew) is a story of tragedy and hope, and one that has inspired many. Just this week it was announced that he would be the 2019 recipient of the IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, together with his Palestinian colleague, Naim El Beida for their joint work with Road to Recovery.
In 1993, Yuval lost his brother Udi, a soldier on reserve duty who was kidnapped and murdered by members of Hamas. Searching for a way to cope with the grief and anger, Yuval became involved in the Parents Circle- Families Forum, an NGO that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the conflict. His involvement with the Parents Circle, which promotes reconciliation and dialogue, naturally led to friendships with many bereaved families living in the West Bank. And then in 2006, one of his Palestinian friends, Mohammed Kabeh, asked him to drive his brother from a border checkpoint for medical treatment inside Israel.
Without hesitation, Yuval accepted, saving Mohammed and his brother the prohibitive cost of taking a taxi from the checkpoint to the hospital. Pretty quickly, word got around. Yuval started driving friends of friends, families of friends, friends of friends’ families – mostly those who needed rides for their children – to outpatient care at Israeli hospitals. He found himself doing this several times a week, and began informally recruiting his own friends and family as more requests came in. For Yuval, what began as a personal favor turned into a very personal mission, each ride honoring the memory of his brother.
There are many thousands of Palestinians being treated in Israeli hospitals every year for serious medical conditions such as cancer and heart disease. While the cost of the treatments is covered by the Palestinian Authority, the patients have to make it to the Israeli hospitals on their own. Palestinians are generally not allowed to drive in their own vehicles past the checkpoints, and taking taxis to various hospitals can cost up to a hundred dollars. And over time, Yuval built a community to address this need- a volunteer brigade numbering in the hundreds developed among those who wanted to create a sense of goodwill amidst otherwise impossible circumstances. For years, they quietly went about their business, not seeing any added value to public exposure.
Until 2009. Somewhat reluctantly, Yuval agreed to an interview in a Hebrew newspaper. A translated version somehow made its way to the world-famous musician Leonard Cohen. And within weeks, Cohen wrote Yuval and his team a check for $10,000.
With the new cash infusion, Yuval established a formal nonprofit, Road to Recovery. Now able to now reimburse volunteers for the cost of the gasoline, more volunteers signed up. In short order and with more popularity, Yuval became a CNN hero in 2011 and by 2015, his movement had grown into an army of over 300 volunteers giving 8,000 rides a year. In 2016, a leading TV news program interviewed some of the volunteers, including well known Israeli figures such as a former state attorney to a former national basketball coach.
Almost immediately, Yuval, who speaks individually with each prospective volunteer, was returning calls to hundreds of people who reached out, more than doubling the numbers to over 1000 volunteers by the end of 2016. Throughout its growth, Road to Recovery remains today an all-volunteer organization, with donations going directly to transportation costs.
While Road to Recovery has always been considered strictly humanitarian and politically neutral, the majority of the volunteers in its first decade tended to be on the left of Israeli politics. As the numbers kept growing, the community became more diverse, with individuals from all political backgrounds, including settlers. From Yuval’s perspective, it is a moral obligation and he is willing to work with anyone who is ready to sign up. The only requirement for the Israeli volunteers is the openness and willingness to meet Palestinians, and to help get them to their needed medical treatment. It is a way, as he describes it, of continually creating “mini peace in an hour,” providing an opportunity for interactions between individuals who likely would never have met otherwise.
And the community continues to grow. In recent years, Road to Recovery has sponsored fun-days at local kibbutzim for the Palestinian children and their parents who have received medical treatment. Local Arab communities like Baqa al-Gharbiyye and Kfar Qara have hosted fundraisers with well-known volunteers of Road to Recovery, such as the former mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna. Donations are coming in from all over the world, as many look to support what seems to be an ever diminishing number of opportunities for personal connection between Palestinians and Israelis.
Shuli Dichter, a well-known activist summarizes the sentiment of many volunteers when he wrote about his weekly trips for Road to Recovery: “It is just a drop in the Mediterranean and in and of itself it’s not going to solve the general problem. However, until [we reach a] political solution, there is a lot that human beings can do.” As Yuval says, it’s “the biggest small step I can make.” Let’s hope for many more big small steps like it.