Yuval Roth woke at the crack of dawn to drive his large, white van from his home on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to Checkpoint 300, the main passageway leading from Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.
On this gray winter morning, Mr. Roth’s mission is to drive 3-month-old Muhammad Dajani, a Palestinian baby with a congenital heart condition, and his father to Sheba Hospital, one of Israel’s leading medical facilities, just outside Tel Aviv.
Over the past decade, Roth has made it his daily business to transport Palestinians needing medical treatment from army checkpoints to Israeli hospitals. Roth, once a professional juggler, is now busy juggling the itineraries of dozens of Palestinians in need, and the Israeli volunteers wishing to help them, through the organization he founded, The Road to Recovery.
“These encounters break down barriers,” Roth says. “Everything the Palestinians knew about us, and everything we knew about them, simply disintegrates.”
Like many Israelis, Roth was awestruck in September 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in Washington, considering it the dawn of a new era of peace.
But just one month after the signing of the Oslo Accord, tragedy struck his family. Roth’s brother, Ehud, was kidnapped by a Hamas cell in the Gaza Strip while serving on military reserve duty.
Ehud and another Israeli reservist, Ilan Levy, were shot dead with their own rifles by the kidnappers, who were dressed as Orthodox Jews. Their bodies were discovered in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. “The euphoria of peace blew up in my face,” Roth recalls. “But I say that shocks to the system, like the one I sustained, only push you further in the direction you already believe in.”
As a staunch believer in peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs, Roth decided to mobilize his pain in the cause of education. He joined The Parents Circle – Families Forum, a nonprofit group comprising bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. He began sharing his personal story with Israeli high school students, alongside a Palestinian counterpart.
One day in late 2005, a Palestinian member of the group asked Roth for a favor: Could Roth drive his sick brother from a checkpoint on the Palestinian-occupied West Bank to Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. Soon, another Palestinian approached Roth, requesting a ride to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center for a Palestinian seeking a bone marrow transplant.
“Things began to snowball. I found myself driving these people and realizing I can’t handle it alone,” Roth says. “I sent out a call for help online, and that’s how a group of volunteers started to form.”
A turning point occurred in late 2009, when Canadian singer Leonard Cohen donated $10,000 to the effort. This significant donation forced Roth to register The Road to Recovery as a nonprofit group. Today it has some 400 active Israeli volunteers – including a retired Israeli state prosecutor and a former coach of the national women’s basketball team.
The organization’s shoestring budget of $90,000 is mostly used to reimburse drivers for their gas. Leftover funds are used to purchase medical equipment and treatments not covered by the Palestinian Authority’s struggling Health Ministry.
The Road to Recovery operates in a surprisingly simple way. The patients’ destinations for treatment are received from groups in Gaza or the West Bank, or from hospitals in Israel, and are uploaded to a Google document. Israeli volunteers then sign up for a segment of the trip that fits their schedule.
Roth spent a significant chunk of the drive from Jerusalem directing a new volunteer from Haifa’s largest hospital to the organ transplant center in Tel Aviv, where the Palestinian couple he was driving was about to undergo a compatibility test for donating a kidney to their sick child.
In Roth’s back seat, Muhammad’s father, Ahmad Dajani, says he would be lost without the help of the Israeli volunteers. “I speak no Hebrew and don’t know the Israeli transportation system,” he says. “I would be scared to lose my way. My son’s hospital appointment is scheduled for 11 a.m. sharp.”
The financial aspect of traveling from the West Bank to Israel is also significant. Mr. Dajani, a young software programmer, says the round trip from his home in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala to the hospital by taxi would likely cost 1,200 shekels, or about $300, a sum far beyond his means.
“It is a noble, humanitarian initiative to help out the sick free of charge,” he says of The Road to Recovery.
Roth has often seen firsthand how his volunteerism has helped change Palestinian perceptions of Israelis. Once, when he was on a condolence visit to the South Hebron Hills, the family members of a deceased Palestinian patient revealed how deeply moved they were by his work.
“We used to hate you Israelis,” they told him. They had initially believed Roth to be an intelligence agent out to recruit them.
“In their mind, what Israeli would come to their aid were it not for that reason?” Roth explains. “This didn’t even occur to me until I heard them say it after their father’s death.” The same Palestinians made Roth promise to stay in touch despite the end of their professional relationship.
The Road to Recovery may have inadvertently saved Israeli lives, too. A few years ago, an Israeli army officer lost his way and entered the Palestinian city of Jenin. As a mob began to gather around his car, Palestinian security personnel extracted the man and delivered him unscathed to the Israeli border.
A few hours later, Roth received a phone call from one of the Palestinian officers who took part in the rescue operation. “He told me that he did this for me, because a year earlier I drove his brother to Rambam [Hospital],” Roth says. “It gives you so much strength to hear things like that. What more do you need? All I wanted to do was drive his brother to Rambam.”
The motivations of Israeli volunteers are diverse, Roth says. One recovering hospital patient decided to volunteer. Later, after she suffered a relapse and died, her husband took to the wheel, honoring her legacy. Another woman, a theater director, joined the organization after directing a play based on the book “If This Is a Man,” by Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, which asks deep questions about how people should treat each other.
Israeli Raphael Seelig volunteered to drive the Dajanis back to Bethlehem. A retired musician from Tel Aviv, Mr. Seelig says he began volunteering just over a year ago and now drives Palestinians to and from hospitals across Israel between three and five times a week. After leaving Bethlehem, he would next shuttle patients south from a Jerusalem hospital to the border with Gaza, then return home.
“The Palestinians need this, and I have the time,” he says. “I think it’s important. Getting to know Palestinians in the car is like making peace for an hour. I like speaking to the Palestinians, listening to their stories.... These encounters give me hope, although I know normalization won’t happen from one day to the next.”
Unlike Roth, Seelig speaks Arabic, which he learned in high school and later used during military service decades ago. The response of most Israelis to his volunteerism is overwhelmingly positive, he says, with only a few acquaintances expressing dismay that he helps Palestinians.
Roth says he hoped the organization he founded will one day become superfluous.
“My dream is that [the Palestinians] won’t need us any longer,” Roth says.
How to take action
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