A New Year prayer from an Israeli doctor

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In the life of Jerusalem, two years can be an eternity. Emotions spin from hope to despair. In this city and its surroundings, inhabitants live with perpetual fear of blood in the streets, either from Palestinian suicide bombs or Israeli reprisals.

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve 1999, the sun shone brilliantly over Manger Square in central Bethlehem on the West Bank. The town, draped over the hills south of Jerusalem, was dressed in its festive best. Vendors did a brisk trade in Palestinian New Millennium memorabilia. As an Israeli visitor in Bethlehem, I felt safe under the watch of Palestinian police in their smart blue battle fatigues.

That night, I returned to Manger Square to celebrate with thousands of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Curious co-celebrants, asking where we were from, expressed hopes for peace in the dawning millennium. Indeed, these were days of hope. Prime Minister Ehud Barak was pursuing bold diplomatic moves on both the Syrian and Palestinian fronts.

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I am an oncologist who specializes in the relief of the physical and psychological suffering of patients with advanced cancer. After completing training in Australia and New York, I emigrated to Israel in mid-1994 during the heady days after the Oslo Accords. Based in the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, I work with Israeli and Palestinian patients and their families.

In those days, I thought little of making house calls for Palestinian patients who were either too ill to come to Jerusalem, or who could not afford hospital care. In those days, I made many trips to the West Bank - to Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus.

At its heart, medicine is an extension of a fundamental humanity. For me, this is a work of love and passion. The emotional atmosphere is laden with suffering, love, and all the mixed feelings of family relationships. Here, all of this is set in the context of an as-yet unresolved conflict between ancient peoples with competing claims. In this intense kiln we forged bonds of affection and an appreciation of the potential for mutual growth through cooperation. We shared hopes for richer times of peace ahead.

Times now are dark. It has been a year since I ventured into a Palestinian village. On that occasion I went to see a wonderful woman with advanced breast cancer in Jabel Muhaber, four kilometers from my home in southern Jerusalem. On the night she died in her daughter's arms, I could render no more than advice by phone. In the intervening months too many well-meaning Israelis had been arbitrarily killed while visiting friends in Palestinian villages. A house call would have been risky.

I ache with the pain of Emma Williams's description of dealing with the checkposts while going for prenatal checkups at the hospital in Bethlehem ("Rough road to my Bethlehem manger," Opinion, Dec. 21). No less than her, I hate the concept, and I loathe the consequences on the innocents whose lives are disrupted by humiliating checks and debilitating closures.

I also hate what the violence and hostility does to my fellow Israelis. The random killing of kids, mothers, and pensioners by suicide bombers and roadside snipers hardens hearts and fosters hate. That those feelings flow over to the Palestinian populace who widely support these tactics can come as no surprise.

The pain rendered on both Israelis and Palestinians has made it nigh impossible to understand the suffering of the "other side." Each death - accidental or malicious - only serves to distance the prospect of better times.

Unlike my colleague Dr. Williams, I cannot ascribe blame to one side or the other. The historic and emotional patchwork here is multilayered. In the pain and emotion of these miserable times it is tempting to seek myopic solutions. Indeed, this seems to be the pattern of the day. The solutions of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas who are dismissive of any Israeli claims of justice, as well as those of the Israeli right, who are equally insensitive to Palestinian rights and aspirations, leave us to wallow in this quagmire.

The two years since New Year's Eve 1999 have been long, and I will not be in Bethlehem this holiday season. For now I yearn for a time without checkpoints, when I can return to my calling without the justifiable fear of being shot or lynched by hate filled people for whom I am just another "enemy."

Resolution, if it comes, will demand great leadership by men and women with a broader understanding of the conflict and the sociology of the peoples involved.

This is my New Year's prayer.

Nathan I. Cherny is an Australian-born oncologist and palliative-care physician.

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