September 12, 2004, Updated September 19, 2012

A Palestinian mother and child are taken care of by an Israeli doctor at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem as part of the ‘Saving Children’ project.Scores of Palestinian children with serious medical conditions have long gone untreated because of lack of access to proper medical care and lack of affordability to pay for such care.

But thanks to a new partnership of Palestinian and Israeli pediatricians, under auspices of Israel’s Peres Peace Center, hundreds of Palestinian children have been seen for free by Israeli doctors in the last four months. With funding provided from Italy, nearly 200 of 580 children that were referred have already undergone major surgery at Israeli hospitals at no cost to the families. Another 350-400 children have undergone free diagnostic testing.

Four Israeli hospitals have signed on to the ‘Saving Children’ program, under the auspices of the Peres Peace Center: Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv, Ramban Hospital in
Haifa and the Jerusalem orthopedic hospital Alyn.

Many other Israeli hospitals were turned away, as the Peres center decided that only those that agree to subsidize medical costs will be allowed to receive patients through their network. This will insure that Israel, and not only Italy, will be contributing financially to the program. The four partnering hospitals are discounting treatments up to fifty percent, which helps maximize the number of patients that can be helped.

Several dozen Palestinian pediatricians and sub-specialists from West Bank and Gaza also signed-on to form a working committee to screen Palestinian infants and children and determine who will get referrals. Only Palestinians – from newborns to age 15 – that have serious conditions which can not under any circumstances be treated by Palestinian doctors are able to get through. Doctors from both sides work together to determine who will be treated and where.

Palestinians hospitals have never neared the standards of those in neighboring Israel and Jordan, where Palestinians often must turn for treatment. Children under 15, who make up some fifty percent of the Palestinian population, or 1.7 million, according to doctors, have been
hardest hit by the economic and political turmoil and the inability of the Palestinian medical infrastructure to develop in such an environment. But even middle-class Palestinian families with two working parents would not be
able to afford treatments for their children in foreign hospitals, doctors say.

“This program is a program of hope-a collaboration of Palestinian and Israeli doctors and others who still have humanistic views,” Prof. Anwar Dudin, a pediatrician at al-Yamama hospital in Bethlehem, who is overseeing the Palestinian side of the project, told ISRAEL21c.

The idea for the medical partnership was set in motion when an Italian journalist reported on a child from Bethlehem with cancer. At the time the boy was left untreated as Palestinian facilities do not have the kind of care he needed and Israeli cancer treatments can be prohibitively expensive for those without health insurance.

An overwhelming response from the Italian public led Italian officials to contact Israeli doctors. In July of 2003, several Italian public officials from the Tuscany region flew into Israel for two days of meetings with colleagues, to investigate the situation on the ground.

Israeli doctors were surprised to learn that Italy had in the past funded Palestinian children and their families for trips to Italy for medical treatment.

“We told them it would make more sense and cost less to do the program here [in Israel],” Dr. Dan Shanit, medical director of the Peres Center, who is overseeing the program from the Israeli side, told ISRAEL21c.

“We have the same medical standards as Italy, if not more, and if we do it here there will be gains. It will contribute to reconciliation and it will be easier for [Palestinian] parents to come and visit their young children after surgery and for follow-up visits.”

Initially the Italian officials considered subsidizing $150,000 a year to underwrite medical costs, but after the visit, they decided instead to offer $1.2 million over three years, as a gift from the region of Tuscany.

But after the Palestinian referral service was up and running in November of 2003, and after patients started to be seen four months ago, other donors joined and the budget has been raised to $1.5 million.

Another region of Italy, not yet named, may underwrite a program just for treating cancer patients. The high cost of such severe disorders as cancer is a major problem facing the program.

The most common condition among the patients is congenital heart disease. It is especially prevalent in Palestinian areas, doctors say, because women do not undergo sufficient prenatal screenings and fetuses with severe malformations are not performed. The most serious cause, explains Dudin, is the high rate of marriage between Palestinian relatives, including first
cousins. There are also marriages between cousins in Israel, but at a significantly lower rate.

Though five to six thousand Palestinians annually are born with a major cardiac deformity, there is cause for hope, Shanit said. “The wonderful thing is that you stand a very good chance that if you treat them early
enough they’ll have a very normal life.”

Other common conditions requiring surgery include severe burns, orthopedic malformations, neurological problems, and occasional gunshot wounds to the skull or brain.

The team coordinates who gets operated on where and Peres tries to arrange travel permits. Some Palestinian children who may have been considered for treatment have not been able to travel, under Israeli security restrictions,
especially those from Gaza. The participating doctors are also limited and frustrated by travel restrictions, says Dudin.

But the cooperation between doctors and between doctors and patients themselves has been excellent, doctors on both sides report.

“We have had an incredible response from families who say they ‘never experienced Isrealis to be like they are’,” said Shanit. “Some had never seen an Israeli except a soldier at a checkpoint. It gives a different image of Israel.”

Both Palestinian and Israeli doctors have also agreed not to involve governments.

“It was suggested to be a cooperation of professionals rather than get the Palestinian Authority involved,” said Shanit. “Normally the PA would be a partner, but we have not always had such good experiences with such a cooperation. We were worried such political involvement would affect the project.”

“We don’t need the endorsement of the PA,” agreed Dudin. “Parents who have sick children seek help from any side. This justifies the need.”

For their work, Dudin and Shanit are scheduled to receive an international peace prize from the Italian association, il Centro Studi Guiseppe Donati.

“This is not a collaboration of Palestinians and Israelis but of minorities on both sides,” said Dudin. “Our objective is to save children and do our job as pediatricians. The Israelis who collaborate with us think the stupid situation can’t continue like this. And they also do it for their own future.”

“What’s in mind is human,” he added. “We are a living cry against segregation and racism.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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