Patients From the West
Bank; Five Miles From Gaza; Swimming in the Negev; the Significance of Ramon
Abraham was sick and his father Ayman knew it. For two years
his first-born was complaining and getting weaker. He was not himself. The
doctors in all of the hospitals to which he was taken in his own country
could not solve the mystery of Abraham’s
illness. Finally, his family took the young boy to The Edmond and Lily Safra
Children’s Hospital at The Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer near Tel
Aviv, Israel where his stage 4 neuroblastoma was properly diagnosed albeit at a
far more advanced stage than was likely the case two years before when he was
evaluated in his home town of Hebron in the Palestinian West Bank.
Abraham received one stem cell transplant, but his disease
recurred and the day we visited him was the day his father would be donating
cells for another try. Abraham was the second such patient we met during our
trip to the Sheba Hospital where 11 of the 20 in-patient pediatric oncology beds
were occupied by Palestinian children. These kids were getting the exact same
treatment as any Israeli child would get and the price tag was—-zero! The Israeli
government returns all the value added tax paid by Palestinians when they buy
goods in Israel to the Palestinian Authority to pay for this care. In other
words Israeli tax dollars are paying for the care of these Palestinian
Ayman is grateful for the care he gets from his “Israeli
family” at Sheba. Everything we see is counter to everything we hear in the
States about this relationship between Arab and Jew in the real world of Israeli
medicine. There were kids from Gaza here as well and they too were receiving
the best care available, modern, cutting-edge and most of all compassionate and
cost free to their families. Just once, why doesn’t CNN send a camera where
Israelis are saving young Palestinian bodies rather than destroying them as
collateral damage in air raids on terrorist rocket launching positions.
Our guide Gil gives us an hour talk on the geography,
history and politics of the Middle East during the First World War, the
conflict that really set the stage for all that has come since. The artificial
boundaries of artificial countries (like Iraq and Syria) arbitrarily and
selfishly drawn by the British and French to maximize their access to the Suez
Canal and Iraqi-Kurdish oil is the real force behind the modern map of this
part of the world. The most surprising revelation is that it was the British
desire to chop up the land mass into various countries, the provision of Iraq
and Jordan to Hashemite Arabs who emerged from Saudi Arabia to be in league
with the Brits to the annoyance of their Arab brethren (remember Lawrence of
Arabia was a Brit aligning the Arabs with the interests of his countrymen
against the Muslim Ottoman Turks) and finally the goading of Germany into conflict
as the Germans really wanted to keep the land whole for their allies the Turks that really created what became WWI.
Thus, it was the British who really created the tinder that sparked and then
fueled the Great War and built the modern map of Israel. It was the partition
of the British Palestinian mandate made possible by British support as a
counterbalance to the perceived “Jewish” led rise of Soviet communism (invented by Marx and promoted by Trotsky) that made Israel possible.
And just to make the point, we heard this talk on a picnic
bench not five miles from Gaza City. In the distance we could see the place
that had been bombed by the Israeli jets a few weeks earlier. All was quiet—for
We drove even deeper into the Negev desert to the second
home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. He and his wife are
buried facing south overlooking a huge desert expanse. The day we were there,
young Jews from all over the world who had trained near-by in voluntary service
to the IDF were being drilled as they were approaching the end of their
two-month stint. Australians, Brits, Americans and others learned how to be
soldiers for their own edification. Surely some will stay. Some will come back.
Some will become permanent Israeli citizens. Some will go home but write checks
later in life. They are all closer to the soul of Israel after this
This night we stay high above the desert in a new five-star
hotel perched on the edge of a ridge (see below) in the Negev. It is called the
Beresheet Hotel. This is the first word of the Hebrew Bible (“In the
beginning”) and it is located in Mitzpe Ramon. The outdoor pool is one of those
with a waterfall off the edge into nowhere. It seems suspended below the lobby
and above the desert floor. I churn through the water in the middle of the
Negev Desert swimming fast as the water is cold. There is little thermal
inertia to keep it warm as the desert is cool in the evening now.
In one day all my preconceptions about the relationships
between real Israelis and real Palestinians have been shattered even as I
venture close enough to Gaza to see it with my own eyes and realize its
proximity to Israel, to Tel Aviv and to Jerusalem. There was not much time
between rocket launch and deadly impact had it not been for the Iron Dome. In a
near-by city Siderot, it was 15 seconds. How far can you run to the nearest
bomb shelter in 15 seconds?
And then I swam in the pool above the Negev as the sun sunk
below Egypt to the west having earlier shaken hands with a Palestinian father
of a child with cancer who wants what all such fathers of sick children want. A miracle; and the
doctors at Sheba will try to do just that regardless of the genetic lineage of
The following morning was the day of Ramon. The town where
the hotel is located is named Ramon (meaning Roman), but so are two other
important Israeli icons.
Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut. He died on
February 1, 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart returning to Earth
due to damage its skin had incurred during lift off. A museum is built here in
his honor and like so much else of Israel it speaks of the loss of life way
before its time. Not only did the first Israeli astronaut die way too young but
his son died following in his footsteps in the crash of a fighter jet from the
Israeli Air Force.
But the big Ramon is the Makhtesh Ramon. We in America would
be reminded of the Grand Canyon or perhaps the Flagstaff, Arizona crater when
seeing this natural wonder, but a Makhtesh is neither cater nor canyon. There
are only 7 in the world and 5 are in Israel. It is a unique geological
formation that is neither formed by impact (crater) nor by river water erosion
(canyon), but rather by unique geological upheavals at the site of hard rock
atop sandy soil at the time of the geological destruction. This leads to a huge
heart-shaped hole with a rock hard rim around its edge and a sandy bottom that
was formed much as an island in the sea that loses its top.
hotel at which we are staying is the first and only one built on this hard rock
at the edge of the Makhtesh.
Our desert Makhtesh guide Elon drives the Range Rover over
intense terrain, cleans my daughter-in-law’s diamond using a desert plant that
brought the ring’s stone to brilliance it had not seen since it was my father’s
ring or my grandfather’s stick pin, while telling us of the private school he
has started for both Israeli and Muslim children. This is the real Israel in
which American journalists seem to have no interest.
Elon and I argue about the wisdom of a golf course being
located here at the desert’s edge, but we both agree that it is likely to be
here in 20 years along with additional luxury hotels. This place is unique in
all the world and not a destination for many Americans. But it could be….
In Israel, the presence of uniformed, armed soldiers is no
longer unusual. It wasn’t 15 years ago and it isn’t today. They do look a
little different today than in 1999 and our guide, a former tank commander,
tells us why.
He is not sure that the Israeli Army of today is the
toughest fighting force on the globe as it may have been in the past. He thinks
the training and discipline in the American military, especially the Marines,
is far more rigorous than that used among the mandatory draftees of the Israel Defense Force.
As we look at the troops all around us in a small restaurant
at which we stop, his point is well taken. Though the uniforms are crisp and
the automatic rifles always at the ready, these soldiers, men and women, appear
to be typical 20-year olds. They were essentially boys and girls barely out of
high school sitting at a picnic bench tapping iPhones and eating French fries.
Was this the example the IDF wants to set for the nation or has Israel grown a
softer middle in its military as the American volunteer force is tougher than
ever? Our guide thinks so, but he reminds me of me and my complaints about the
toughness of the internal medicine residents of today compared to the Duke
house staff of which I was a part. We both sound old.
One point he makes is well taken though. Israel is a small
country and may not need to draft everyone into military service. He believes
the two to three year commitment is insufficient to create a professional
fighting force. I listen for I am way over my head when discussing military
matters, but I can see his point. I just don’t know what the substance is
either way except that the American military of today is, indeed, every bit as
tough as the one that landed on the beaches of Normandy. Whether the all-stars
of this Israeli military could beat the all-stars of 1967, history will tell.
The sun sinks slow but quickly over Egypt as we hike a
desert trail to the western rim of the Makhtesh Ramon. There are two plaques
commemorating Ilon Ramon and his Columbia crewmates, each of whom has a
mountain named for him or her and a solitary rock guarding the path up to the
plaques. It is unfortunate that more people don’t come there, but it is a very
remote site needing a good 30 to 45 minute hike to see. It was worth it.
I can understand now how men get lost in the desert. Moses,
Jesus, Lawrence and goodness knows how many others have their minds and souls
captured by the barren, stark and cleansing stillness of sand and rock that is
This has been a most humbling two days.