May 29, 2011, Updated October 2, 2012


The plight of hearing-impaired people in the West Bank fell on deaf ears – until a joint American-Israeli humanitarian project outfitted 1,000 Arabs from the Palestinian Authority town of Tulkarm with hearing aids this month.

The hearing aids were distributed in cooperation with the Sheba Medical Center, the US-based Starkey Hearing Foundation, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

A hearing aid means the world to young people like Riham Zuheir Kassem, a five-year-old girl left deaf after contracting viral meningitis when she was seven months old. Her mother had tried to get medical care for the child in Jerusalem, but couldn’t afford it. Now, Riham will be able to hear, attend school and live out her potential in life.

A hearing aid will improve the quality of life for older Palestinians as well, like Muhammad Arzall, a 50-year-old farmer whose hearing gradually deteriorated as he got older. Arzall didn’t have the money to purchase a hearing aid, so he went without — until now.

Operating under secrecy because of security concerns in the Palestinian Authority, where it can be dangerous and even deadly for Israelis to travel, the team of 20 Israeli doctors and hearing specialists, with representatives from the Starkey Foundation, traveled to Tulkarem to do fittings in April. They returned a month later to distribute the hearing aids, answer questions and train users over the course of three days.

“It’s a population which is in a great need for this hearing aid, and they can’t afford them,” Dr. Raphi Walden, a key organizer of the operation, tells ISRAEL21c.

The members of the delegation felt safe with an escort by an elite Palestinian force, and got an extremely positive response from the local community, adds Walden, a vascular surgeon who is the son-in-law of Israeli President Shimon Peres and is the deputy director of Sheba Medical Center and a leader of Physicians for Human Rights. “Lacking medical services, they can’t afford to buy this equipment, which costs about $1,000 apiece.”

Walden estimates that the new hearing aid owners, who range from the ages of four to 75, may experience a profound turnaround in their lives now that they are able to hear.

Rampant genetic hearing deficiencies

Hearing problems are rife throughout the Palestinian Arab population, Walden says. This is the result of “inbreeding depression,” the scientific term for the genetic effects of consanguineous marriage — a common, even encouraged, phenomenon in Arab culture, where a husband and wife are often cousins. In some cases, all the children in a family are clinically deaf.

Deafness renders the children outcasts, as they are not able to make friends, go to school and, when the time comes, get a decent job. In many cases, the problems are solvable with a simple device. But the $1,000 price tag is about equal to the monthly income for a family in the West Bank.

So the American Friends of the Sheba Medical Center appealed to the Starkey Hearing Foundation to donate assistive hearing devices (along with a year’s supply of batteries to power them) to the Palestinians. The Physicians for Human Rights located those in need, and the Israelis fitted and trained patients, and will oversee maintenance checks in the future.

The Starkey Foundation donates 100,000 hearing aids around the world each year, so far improving the hearing of half a million people. Starkey’s head, Bill Austin, came to Tulkarm to see his organization’s gift being implemented.

This small act of kindness by Americans and Israelis to the perceived enemy is just another of tens of dozens of humanitarian projects that Israelis help coordinate on a monthly basis.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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