It is an irony of the Middle East. At the same time that Gaza terrorists send burning balloons and kites and have – for now – stopped hurling rockets and missiles at southern Israel, Israeli and Palestinian physicians are collaborating at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. Medicine and caring for the sick it seems, can bring enemies together.
The July issue of The Lancet Oncology medical journal has published an article describing a successful model of Israeli-Palestinian collaboration between Rambam and Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem.
Professor Ziv Gil co-authored the article. “The partnership of Israeli and Palestinian physicians from both hospitals demonstrates the great potential of peacemaking in our region through improving treatment of cancer patients,” says Gil, director of the otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat)-head-and-neck surgery at Rambam.
The Lancet article presents the growth curve for radiation treatments of oncology patients at Augusta Victoria since the program began and highlight how quickly the Palestinian physicians learned how to treat a variety of malignancies. The article also discusses the subject of continuity of care for complex tumors in Palestinian patients by staff from both hospitals.
The joint project, which began five years ago, aims to promote interpersonal relationships among staff from a variety of disciplines to foster independence of the Palestinian healthcare system. It hopes to reach two targets – the formation of an independent Palestinian healthcare system; and assuring continuity of medical care in the Palestinian sector until an independent healthcare system is established there.
The project includes a hospital-skills-enhancement program at Rambam for Palestinian medical staffers; Palestinian and Israeli medical teams working together at Augusta Victoria located on the southern side of the Mount of Olives; and referral of patients with complicated clinical conditions from Augusta Victoria to Rambam to be managed by staff from both hospitals.
So far, 23 doctors from the east Jerusalem hospital have participated in the program for enhancing hospital skills in various disciplines, including head and neck surgery, oncology, otolaryngology, neurosurgery, nephrology and plastic surgery. Graduates of the skills’ enhancement program have obtained positions in other hospitals and clinics throughout Judea and Samaria. Using their newly obtained skills, they have established medical services previously nonexistent in the Palestine Authority (PA).
Treatments for these patients include specialized surgical procedures not currently available in the territories, including robotic surgery, endoscopic surgery, reconstructive surgery, transplants and surgical removal of skull-based tumors.
“The collaborative Israeli-Palestinian physicians’ program and its results over the past five years are evidence that common goals can be deployed as the basis for building cooperation and understanding between our peoples,” adds Gil. “The model demonstrates the potential of cancer treatment as a tool for building peace in our region of the world.”
“It is clear that successful development of a healthcare system is contingent upon a multiplicity of parameters, and we cannot rely upon this program only or on other similar initiatives,” adds Dr. Salem Billan, an Israeli-Arab who heads Rambam’s head-and-neck-tumor unit at Rambam and one of the program’s developers. “This platform should be adopted by Palestinian and Israeli government agencies or by the international community to be used as a constructive tool for development of a healthcare system in developing countries in areas of tension.”
About four years ago, during Operation Protective Edge, The Lancet published a biting letter criticizing Israel. The letter, entitled Open Letter to the People of Gaza, bashed Israel’s policies and caused a stir in the world of academia and medicine. Physicians and researchers worldwide called for a boycott of the journal, while some called attention to The Lancet’s overall “anti-Israel editorial policy.”
At the height of the controversy, Rambam director-general Prof. Rafael Beyar and Prof. Karl Skorecki, the hospital’s director of medical and research development, invited The Lancet editor-in-chief Prof. Richard Horton to Israel to see the reality of the country with his own eyes and learn about its healthcare system. Prof. Mark Clarfield, a gerontologist at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University, also joined the mission.
During Horton’s visit, the British physician apologized to some of the Israeli doctors: “There is no cause for a BDS-like boycott on Israeli physicians and researchers,” he asserted. A short time after the visit, he published an article in his journal describing his impressions of the Israel visit, complimenting the medical institutions he saw.
In addition, transcripts of debates in which Horton participated, as well as his lecture at Rambam, were published in Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal (RMMJ.org.il), an international journal sponsored by Rambam that is both peer reviewed and indexed in PubMed.
During that visit, Horton decided to devote a whole issue of The Lancet to the Israeli healthcare system, and it was published in May 2017 within the framework of a Tel Aviv science convention attended by medical and academic administrators that included Prof. Arnon Afek, then deputy director-general of the Health. The special issue of The Lancet was presented at two other scientific conferences held that week in Nazareth and Beersheba and finally at a formal meeting in the home of the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, with Horton, his editorial staff and authors of the papers in that issue in attendance.