TWO thousand years ago, a family, living under occupation, set
out on an arduous journey. Joseph and Mary, his heavily pregnant
fiancée, left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, the town of David, to
register in a census, the Gospel of Luke says.
Today, pilgrims queue
patiently in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, to enter the
Grotto of the Nativity, the spot where, tradition has it, Jesus was
born. The same pilgrims often make their way to Jerusalem, to
retrace the footsteps of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.
Inside the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre, they queue patiently again, waiting to glimpse the
spot where they believe the same Jesus was raised to life some 33
About an hour's drive from
Bethlehem, in a village in the northern West Bank, a Muslim
Palestinian family, also living under occupation, are well
acquainted with arduous journeys.
He believes that the
exhaustion of travelling has contributed to a worsening of his
daughter's health. It has also affected her education: on days when
she has dialysis, Salsabeel does not get back home until 3 p.m.,
having missed most classes at school.
"Every time I go to school,
I've just missed a day; so I don't know how to answer questions,"
she said. "And the teachers don't help me catch up with the lessons
I have missed. So I don't like school."
WE FINALLY reached the
hospital, after navigating various checkpoints, and changing buses
several times. One of the nurses tells us that about 60 of the
dialysis patients are children. "All of them come from the West
Bank, which doesn't have haemodialysis facilities for children,"
If the children and their
parents could not get through the checkpoints, she said, they
missed their treatment. "It's very dangerous, because regular
treatment is essential. If they don't get it, then fluid can
accumulate in their lungs."
"Whatever we do, the
occupation is still here, and we feel it," Mr Al Arabasi said. "We
have a proverb in Arabic that people 'always wish for what they
can't have'. As Palestinians, we wish we had a health system that
functioned well, and included organ donation."
Many other Palestinians
living in the West Bank lack access to adequate health-care
facilities. PHRI attempts to address some of this need by operating
mobile clinics every Saturday in villages in the West Bank.
We visited a mobile clinic
in Beit Fajjar, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, less than
20 km south of Bethlehem, run by PHRI. When we arrived, a crowd of
villagers had congregated outside the main building of a community
centre. Inside, a team of volunteer doctors and nurses - many of
them Israelis - prepared to see patients.
The volunteers included an
89-year-old Israeli nurse, Pnina Felier, who has been volunteering
for 15 years; and Dr Aharan Karny, who is 64, an Israeli family
doctor who served as a soldier during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Dr Karny told us that he
volunteers about five or six times a year: "The people here are
under the care of a system that is not developed enough, especially
the primary care." It was difficult to recruit colleagues to
volunteer, he said. "People are afraid that it is not safe to come
over. People have the notion that we have so many problems on the
Israeli side: why waste the time and energy?"
OUTSIDE, in the afternoon
sun, as excitable children ran around, the director of the mobile
clinic, Salah Haj Yehya, explained that Beit Fajjar's one medical
centre was not sufficiently resourced to provide adequate treatment
for its 15,000 inhabitants.
Mr Yehya, a Palestinian who
has Israeli citizenship, said that the situation in Beit Fajjar was
typical of Palestinian towns across the West Bank. The 1998 Oslo
Accords transferred responsibility for health care from the Israeli
government to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli occupation of
the Palestinian territories, however, had limited Palestinians'
access to health care, he said.
Mr Yehya's mobile phone rang
frequently as he spoke; he said that he got at least 50 calls from
villages each week, asking for the clinic to visit. "It sits on my
conscience, because we want to help. We can't afford more than four
Saturdays a month. Saturday is the doctors' day off, and this is
the only day they can volunteer with us."
Over in another building, a
makeshift clinic had been set up by an Eritrean nun and nurse,
Sister Aziza, and her colleague, Alicia, to treat people with
physiotherapeutic and dermatological conditions.
Sister Aziza - whose real
name is Azezet Kidane - has worked for PHRI for three-and-a-half
years. She has also lived in London, where she studied at the
School of Tropical Medicine, and in southern Sudan, where she
worked for ten years.
ON A short break between
patients, Sister Aziza explained that she saw her work at the
mobile clinic as a way to build a bridge to Muslims. "Most of the
time we are the only Christians among them. We like the Church to
be among these people and this beautiful event. We feel that the
presence of Christianity among these people is important. . . They
ask me, do I fast and pray? I say yes, different to you, but I do
fast and pray."
On other days, she treats
Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who have escaped from the clutches
of people-traffickers in the Sinai desert. "You cannot imagine the
horrible things that have happened to these people," she says. "I
feel ashamed even repeating it. . . But the people need somebody to
listen to them, to tell their stories and to tell others."
Sister Aziza collected the
testimonies of 1300 refugees, and the world took note: Pope
Benedict called for Christians to pray for those who were being
mistreated, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton,
presented Sister Aziza with an award for her work. But it has not
gone to her head: "What is the point of me getting an award if the
situation gets worse, and nothing changes?" she said.
The director of PHRI, Ran
Cohen, whom we met a few days later, said that Palestinian patients
trusted Sister Aziza because, as a nun, she was obviously
But PHRI is not merely a
humanitarian organisation doing good works, Mr Cohen said: it was a
"human-rights organisation", which was controversial in Israel.
"Israel has a responsibility for the health of all people as long
as it is controlling the West Bank and Gaza. . . We give medical
care, but it is a channel to get to know the people - to understand
the problems, and to identify the issues we want to advocate for,
and to work on a political level to change that. If we have a goal,
it is to stop providing medical care and make sure that the
government does it."
Volunteers do not have to
share the organisation's political beliefs. "Some just want to do
humanitarian work. This is OK as a starting point. We do not hide
it that we would like them to start asking other questions: why do
we need to do this work? Why don't they get it from Israel, or the
Sister Aziza would also like
the pilgrims who queue at the holy sites to ask more questions
about the situation in Israel-Palestine. "Christians come to Israel
for one reason: to visit the Holy Land. But they don't see what is
really happening here."
This year, Christian
Aid's Christmas appeal is focusing on "Healing in this Holy Land".
For more information, visit www.christian-aid.org.uk/christmas.