Shaare Zedek: Where Israeli and Arab doctors are working together to save lives

'Positions are given to whoever are best qualified for the job available, regardless of ethnicity, sex or religion. We want to offer our patients the best care possible, and they come first'

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The Independent Online

In an intensive care ward in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, a three-month-old Arab baby boy is struggling for his life in a room next to a young Israeli girl who is also receiving urgent care. He has only been in the hospital for eight hours, but already has had to be resuscitated and has severe intestinal problems. The family rushed him to Shaare Zedek from a facility in East Jerusalem when it became clear that he urgently needed the specialist care the hospital and its staff can provide.

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A three month old arab baby boy being treated by an Israeli doctor - Alan Schaller

In many ways, Shaare Zedek is a hospital like any other. It is a place filled with personal hardship, relief, joy, dedicated medical staff and other employees who work hard behind the scenes. In some ways however it is quite different. Israel has long been involved in conflict, most recently with Hamas. The outcome of this fighting which is pertinent to hospitals in Israel sometimes involves Hamas sending people into the country to strike at security, military or civilian targets. These attacks often result in the loss of life or injury. Perpetrators, if they are alive, and their victims are taken to hospital if they need treatment. Under the code of ethics practiced by hospitals the moment a human being is brought in for care their background does not impact the quality or immediacy of treatment they receive. Those whose lives are most at risk are given priority, like in any hospital with any patient. There have been instances in Shaare Zedek where perpetrators of attacks who are critically wounded have to be treated before victims. The added stress of treating patients of this nature on top the of the everyday pressures of their work asks more from Shaare Zedek staff than in most hospitals. 

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Arab nurse Amran Jaber (right) and colleague prepare for a workshop - Emily Garthwaite

I spoke with Amran Jaber, an Arab nurse who works in ER at the hospital and is studying the psychological effects of terror-related trauma at a university in Tel Aviv. Together with a colleague he conducts workshops encouraging staff to speak their minds and share any concerns they have, whether it's from treating perpetrators of attacks and the subsequent victims to more regular job stresses or even life at home. He told me: “When the stabbing attacks happened in Jerusalem in September last year I knew these workshops would be necessary. We see that there is a lot of tension among the nurses and they need to talk about the situation. They become nervous. Both Israeli and Arab staff need these workshops working here. No one has ever quit their job here due to stress, stress is part of working in a hospital! We know how to deal with stress here, but what happens when you go home, how does it impact your life? This is about coping with life. The hospital provided an external psychologist for us at the beginning, but he hadn't endured what we have together, and this is why it is important that the staff lead the workshops.” 

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Professor Elie Picard - Alan Schaller

One extraordinary example of collaboration within the hospital became clear when I spoke with Prof. Elie Picard, the director of the hospitals Paediatric Pulmonary Institute. Picard was born in France and eventually moved to Israel where he now lives with his family. His 18-year-old son Eyran was sadly killed in an attack in Gaza in 2002. He explained his story, showed his son’s obituaries in cuttings of French publications that he keeps by his desk alongside a photograph of him and a book that he made after his death which documents his life. 

“Eryan was at a high school, and one evening a Palestinian penetrated into the school and killed him, four of his classmates and wounded 25 others. He was not a soldier, he wanted to be a physician. In Israel we face almost every week such tragedies. My mother died shortly after, and I am sure she did from her sadness. In Jewish tradition it is written in the Torah ‘no vengeance’. We have a lot of Arab patients, and they are not guilty of crimes, and many are very nice. You can walk around our hospital and see Jews and Arabs side by side. A few weeks after the funeral I came back to work and I saw one of my Arab patients who is a dentist. He said ‘How can you see me after what happened to you?’ I told him you are not guilty. It is the politicians who are. I am all the time very surprised to hear our population being spoken of as segregated. It is not my experience. I think Europe has a very different view to what life is like here to how the Arabs and Jews living here. I do not change my behaviour with my patients. I learned medicine in order to help, not to discriminate. Working with Arabs has been part of the healing process for me. I have learned not to despair. I do not see Arabs as my enemy, I feel we both have the right to live here.’

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Professor Picard treating an arab patient - Alan Schaller

The doctors and nurses of the world literally deal with the mess left behind by war and many are naturally opposed to it. We think of Israel as a hardened nation of right wing uncompromising politics, and, of course, there are people like that there, but the truth is much more nuanced than that. In the UK, many people voted against Brexit but to other countries the British people are all represented by the outcome and the political and social implications. In the same way Israel’s military actions are heavily scrutinised by the media, and all Israelis are assumed to be in support of that. It is a simplistic way of looking at the world, and not helpful to reaching long-term solutions. Likewise not all Arabs are anti-Israel. Many do not approve of the government's actions, but likewise condemn the action of Hamas, and feel those people do not represent their values.

I spoke with Abeer Al-Natsheh, an Arab woman who founded the first all female IT solutions company in East Jerusalem. Abeer is a member of One Voice, an international grassroots movement that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution. She is also a former patient of Shaare Zedek, and I was interested to talk to her about her experiences at the hospital and her general views on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

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A mother with her daughter who is receiving treatment - Emily Garthwaite

“My father spent years in prison with no charges, for being a Palestinian activist. I was 26 when I first met an Israeli. When you live in an Arab area you often do not interact with Israelis unless you go to a shopping mall or a hospital. We still have Israeli neighbours who we never interact with, and this is because there is a lack of trust. We can coexist quite happily as long as the interactions is informal like on the beach. It is easy to make friends with Israelis, but this does not seem to change politics. I was treated very well at Shaare Zedek hospital.”

I asked her what her opinions were among the Palestinian people about their future with Israel.  

“From my point of view Hamas is trying their own way of politics. The fact that they are not sitting on the side and being quiet gets them support from many Palestinians. The way they do things is different from how I feel it should be done, but they get results like getting prisoners released from Israel. They were elected and many people do support them because of this. It is the right of any nation to fight against attacks and wars, and this is one form of resistance. Palestine has always been a secular country, never an Islamic country. Hamas take the hard line of Islam and they have moved Islam away from the peaceful religion that we know. I don't want my children to grow up holding a gun. Hamas are exposing Palestinian society to war as Israel does to itself, and everyone want this to stop. Israel is spending billions securing the border, and there is heavy loss of life in Gaza. It is bad for both sides.”

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Colouring in seemed a popular activity among the children - by Alan Schaller

There are few issues that have sparked more debate and upset in the UK than the relationship between Israel and Palestine. The majority of the news we consume regarding that part of the world focuses on conflict and division. Whilst it is vital that wars and the outcome of them are reported in the media, only speaking about a part of the world in the terms of how it goes to war can build a frightening perception of the place. I wonder how the rest of the world would perceive the UK if the only press it received related to our military involvement in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, or back in the days of the conflict with the IRA. I find it a hugely hypocritical position to judge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whilst being indifferent to the conduct of countries like the UK that have colonised large parts of the world and are consistently involved in conflicts for hundreds of years. My personal view is that war and conflict is equally deplorable, no matter where it is conducted, and that it is important to try and focus media attention beyond the causes of the conflict and the fighting itself to reach resolutions. It seems to be a regrettable fact of life that humans wherever they are will try and kill each other, and I sadly don't see the Israel-Palestine conflict as intrinsically unique or remarkable in this way. 

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Professor Jonathan Halevy - by Emily Garthwaite

Shaare Zedek employs a mix of Israeli and Arab staff, from doctors and nurses to teachers and janitors. There are almost 1.7 million Arabs living in Israel, which represents 20% of the population, and this percentage is reflected in the people employed at the hospital, and the patients admitted. The director, Professor Jonathan Halevy explained to me “positions are given to whoever are best qualified for the job available, regardless of ethnicity, sex or religion. We want to offer our patients the best care possible, and they come first.” Data collected in 2015 shows the hospital annually has 140,000 emergency room visits, carries out 30,000 operations and sees 22,020 babies into the world.

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Two boys looking at an obituary to Shimon Peres - By Emily Garthwaite
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An Arab and Israeli man both recovering from heart surgery - By Alan Schaller

Unity and collaboration between the staff irrespective of religious denomination in order to reach a common goal is the key to the functionality and success of Shaare Zedek. If those same uncompromising principles were adopted by politicians on both sides, a solution to the conflict may realistically be reached in time. 

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