A Christian 'Samaritan' with Israeli visa trouble
AMMAN, JORDAN — On the surface, Jonathan Miles, an American Christian who specializes in saving the lives of infants, is the last person one would want removed from the nerve center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Miles is a rarity in the Middle East and among Christians whose faith draws them to the region: a mediator who enjoys the trust of both societies.
Over the past five years, as head of the Shevet Achim organization, he has used persistence, persuasion, and administrative abilities to bring more than 200 Palestinian babies from the Gaza Strip, and others from the West Bank, through Israeli army checkpoints to treatment in Israeli hospitals. The vast majority were saved from life-threatening illness.
In the process, he has defied the compulsory Middle Eastern classification of being pro-Israel or pro-Arab. He appears to be pro-both, having come up with his own unique synthesis.
Miles often recites prayers in Hebrew before starting work. For him, praying in Hebrew acknowledges Christianity's links to Jewish sources. He says he believes strongly in the idea of the "return of the Jews to their land" but adds, "It is a mistake to read that too precisely into current events." Miles lived in Rafah, a destitute area of the Gaza Strip, for five years and sent his daughters to Palestinian schools where they became fluent in Arabic. They wore head coverings for modesty and traditional clothing. Miles says his work is motivated by the story of the Good Samaritan, of not passing by when there is need.
"The closer we get to the heart of God, we see him loving all people and calling us to do the same," says Miles. " I've often felt compelled to ask Christians who love Israel not to demonize Arabs and to ask Christians who love the Palestinians not to demonize Israelis."
But now question marks loom over the efforts of his rescue organization, called Shevet Achim, in Hebrew, or Ichwan Ma'an, in Arabic. The name refers to Psalm 133, which refers to how goodly it is to see brothers dwelling together in unity.
The Israeli Interior Ministry says it does not want Mr. Miles in the country any longer. He had stayed for more than seven years, some of that time with a visa arranged by the Palestinian Authority for volunteer work in Gaza.
"There is no connection between our position and his work with Palestinians," says ministry spokeswoman Tova Ellinson. "He was doing very important things. But the fact is that he stayed in this country illegally for years. We cannot let someone ignore our laws." Miles denies staying illegally, saying that his application for residency was held up in the ministry for three years, during which he was in regular contact with officials about it.
Ms. Ellinson says she assumes Miles will be allowed in for visits provided it is clear he will not stay in Israel. Expelled from Israel in June while he sought to return from a visit to the US, Miles moved to Amman with his family. He is trying to keep the effort, which is funded by donors from the US, Britain, Germany, and Israel, going by remote control. Its annual budget is about $125,000, something he says reflects the generosity of the Israeli hospitals he works with.
Zion Houri, medical director of the Save a Child's Heart Program at Wolfson Hospital in Tel Aviv, says that with distrust so high, Israelis and Palestinians need Miles as a go-between. "When you are at war and you feel you are the strong party you can permit yourself to be helpful," he says.
"But as the weak party, the Palestinians just do not ask us for help. Sometimes I feel they would rather see the kid die than make the call to us. Without Jonathan, many of these kids would have died. It is much easier for the Palestinians to ask him for help."
Miles has traveled a long path from his work as a television journalist in Albany, New York and then a student at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. There, he says, he was impressed by the stress the Hebrew prophets placed on the return of the Jews to the Middle East. He came to Israel bent on helping Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and then kept expanding his horizons. After visiting the Gaza Strip, Miles realized that there were Palestinian children dying for want of medical care they could have only a few miles away in Israel. What was lacking was someone to bring the two sides together. Then he read a magazine article about an Israeli doctor, Ami Cohen, who wanted to treat Palestinian children.
Dr. Cohen, of Wolfson Hospital, was to become the surgeon for most of the cases Mr. Miles sent to Israel, as part of the hospital's "Save a Child's Heart Program."
Cohen died suddenly last year and a baby he had saved in one of his last operations, Mohammed Hijazi, was brought to the funeral by his parents to comfort the Cohen family on behalf of Gaza families. Miles had arranged permits for them to leave the Strip despite the Israeli army travel strictures.
Now exiled in Jordan, Miles says he does not believe the government is targeting Shevet Achim, but rather foreigners who stay for a long time. He insists his time in Jordan has turned out to be "a blessing" but stresses he needs to continue visiting Israel.
He recently sent Rowa Kharabje, a month-old girl from the town of Salt to treatment at Wolfson. There are four other Jordanian babies he is planning to send for care in Israel, he says.
Miles dreams of having a lot of work in the Arab world. "There are hundreds of kids dying untreated whose lives could easily be saved," he says. "Think of the situation in Syria, in Egypt. What is happening to all those babies?"