Grace on wheels

In war-torn Israel, volunteer drivers see past ethnic and religious differences to deliver Palestinian children to the health care they need

On a recent Thursday afternoon in a suburb of Tel Aviv, a black Kia pulls up to an apartment building next to a hospital. From the driver’s side emerges a Jewish Israeli named Shay Cohen, who knocks on one of the apartment doors. Cohen doesn’t speak Arabic, but he does his best to greet Ghofran, an eight-year-old Palestinian, as she dashes toward the small car. Her mother, Mona, trails behind, hair covered by a hijab. It’d be easy to mistake the kid wiggling into the Kia’s back seat for a healthy child — the quickness of her movement, the ready smile — but Ghofran has SCID, or severe combined immunodeficiency. And at Sheba hospital, she receives the treatment she can’t in the West Bank, where she was born. 

That Ghofran and her mother are even here — in Tel Aviv, chauffeured by a Jewish Israeli, no less — is its own kind of miracle. Palestinians and Israelis have been at each other’s throats, via either in direct war or uneasy stalemates, for more than 75 years. The conflict, which centers in part on dueling claims to just whose Holy Land this is, has left Palestinians ghettoized in some of the region’s most desolate pockets — and many Israelis feeling distrustful. Violence between the two sides is a regular occurrence. But thanks to Cohen and the approximately 2,000 volunteers who spend their spare time driving Palestinians to and from hospitals throughout the region, patients like Ghofran receive lifesaving medical care.

Ghofran with her mother, Mona Awad, in the apartment where they reside near a hospital in a Tel Aviv suburb. | Daniel Rollider for the Deseret News

 Ghofran was a healthy baby, Mona recalls, until, at four months old, a mouth infection wouldn’t go away. Mona had already lost her first daughter to severe combined immunodeficiency at just six months old; a blood test confirmed the mother’s worst fears — Ghofran, too, had this rare genetic disorder. The quest to save her second daughter’s life began. The road led to Israel. 

After receiving permits from a special unit of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Ghofran and Mona were allowed to enter in 2015. Ghofran has since received various treatments, including a bone marrow transplant. For the last 18 months, the two have lived at Sheba hospital. Today, Cohen will drive the mother and daughter back to the West Bank, where they will spend the weekend with family. 

Because Jewish Israeli volunteers like Cohen can’t take the patients door-to-door, they either pick them up or drop them off at military checkpoints that are near the Green Line, the armistice demarcation that separates Israel from the occupied Palestinian Territories. In the West Bank, the Palestinian drivers take patients from their homes to the checkpoint.

Two Palestinian patients, driven by an Israeli “Road to Recovery” volunteer, on their way from the Jalame-Gilboa checkpoint to the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, February 2023. | Daniel Rollider for the Deseret News

The drivers, for the most part, are motivated by Jewish and Muslim values. This is particularly true for the Palestinian volunteers in the West Bank who take patients from their homes to the checkpoint through a program called Wheels of Hope. When I accompanied one such driver, a medallion that read, in Arabic, mashallah, praise God, swayed from his rearview mirror. Asked if his volunteerism reflected a nationalistic commitment to the Palestinian people, the driver said no. He drives, instead, for “the people, for humanity.”

That the organizations — as well as other initiatives like it — reflect both Jewish and Muslim beliefs and help volunteers live out those values is something that funders are keenly aware of. 

The men and women behind the wheel “talk about creating islands of peace in their cars,” says Kenneth Bob, a board member of Project Rozana, which provides funding to both Wheels of Hope and Road to Recovery, though the two are separate organizations.“It’s saving lives.” 

The simple act of climbing into the car with someone from the “other side” after decades of violence is a huge act of faith for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Helping Palestinian patients access medical treatment fulfills the Jewish value of tikun olam, world repair, as well as pikuach nefesh, which holds that saving a life comes first and foremost, even above other commandments like keeping Shabbat. The work also reflects a central tenet in the Jewish tradition, a widely quoted line from the Talmud that goes, “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.” The Quran, Bob notes, contains the same notion. 

Project Rozana got its start in 2013, after Ron Finkel — a prominent Jewish businessman and the founding president of Hadassah Australia — heard the story of a four-year-old Palestinian girl named Rozana who, the previous year, had fallen from a ninth floor balcony while at home in a village outside of Ramallah, in the West Bank. Well aware of the disparities between Palestinian and Israeli medical facilities, Rozana’s mother, Palestinian journalist Maysa Abu Ghannam, arranged to have a Palestinian ambulance take her daughter not to a local hospital but, rather, to a checkpoint; from there, an Israeli ambulance took the girl the rest of the way to a hospital in Jewish West Jerusalem, where an Israeli doctor saved her life.

This simple act of climbing into the car with someone from the “other side” after decades of violence is a huge act of faith for Israelis and Palestnians alike — both sides have suffered and interactions are often marked by mutual distrust and fear. While offering these patients transportation to their medical appointments is extremely important, in some ways, that’s almost secondary. “The transportation is just an excuse,” Cohen says, explaining that, in theory, organizations could just get funding to hire small buses to shuttle Palestinian patients back and forth from checkpoints to their appointments. 

But being together in the car — a small, intimate space that is separated from the outside world and, during long stretches on the highway, the conflict that comes along with it — offers “the opportunity to create some kind of closeness, some kind of understanding to bring down the fear barrier,” says Cohen. “Not every drive is full of conversation and full of understanding — it’s not like we’re trying to create world peace in a drive … but it’s something small that can make a difference.”

Cohen, who says he’s not religious like many of his fellow drivers, has been driving Ghofran and Mona for about six months. He also visits the pair in the apartment they were sharing with two other families — two women from the Gaza Strip whose children are also receiving long-term treatment at Sheba Hospital. In the past half a year, Cohen’s relationship with Ghofran and Mona has become so much more than the drive. He recalls the time that a group of volunteer drivers, Palestinian patients and parents went to the beach.

A volunteer driver waits for Palestinian patients at the Jalame-Gilboa checkpoint. | Daniel Rollider for the Deseret News

 “Ghofran jumped like crazy because she saw the sea for the first time,” says Cohen. “I fell in love completely — with her smile and the will to live and be happy. It pulls you over.” 

Cohen frequently wears a colorful necklace Ghofran made for him. When people ask him about the jewelry, he tells them about Ghofran and his volunteer work with Road to Recovery. “The typical reaction,” he says, “is ‘Are you crazy? Aren’t you afraid?’” 

To which he replies, “Afraid of what?”

The other pushback he often hears from his countrymen is that he should be helping his own people first rather than Palestinians. “I don’t see the connection. I help whoever comes my way,” says Cohen, whose family originally came to Israel from Egypt and who happens to be the nephew of the famous Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, hanged in Syria in 1965 for espionage. While the younger Cohen admits today that his politics are far left and that is indeed part of the reason he wants to help Palestinian patients, he adds that he’s not representative of his organization. “There are quite a few that are right wing, there are quite a few who are settlers, who are religious, you have all kinds — many are relating to this on a humanitarian basis, not in relation to politics.” 

In the car, on the road out of Tel Aviv, a sensor chimes. “Who doesn’t have their seatbelt on?” Cohen wonders aloud. Ghofran is moving around in the back seat. After some wrangling, her mother gets her buckled in — only to find, moments later, that she has wiggled her way out and is facing backwards. 

“Turn around and sit correctly,” Mona admonishes her daughter in Arabic. 

The work reflects a central tenant in the Jewish tradition, a line from the Talmud that goes, “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.” The Quran contains the same notion.

A gravelly cough comes from somewhere deep in Ghofran’s chest. Concerned, Cohen glances in the rearview mirror and explains to me that fluid builds up in Ghofran’s lungs, which need to be drained on a regular basis. He says he’s approaching a nonprofit organization in hopes of helping Ghofran get another much-needed bone marrow transplant (one of her two elder brothers is a match, but their father has forbidden the donation; Cohen hopes to find a legal way to circumvent the father’s consent). He jokes that he’s going to just adopt Ghofran himself.

While the bond between driver Shay Cohen and Ghofran was nearly instant, it took Ghofran’s mother, Mona, longer to trust Jewish Israelis. but after years of medical treatments for her daughter — and months of rides with Cohen — she says, “they’re just like us.” | Daniel Rollider for the Deseret News

While the bond between Cohen and Ghofran was nearly instant, Mona admits that it’s been harder for her to trust Jewish Israelis. The first time she brought Ghofran into the country for medical treatment, she recalls, “I was very afraid. … It was difficult to come here. We thought people would kill us.” 

But between the doctors and Jewish Israeli volunteers, she now has a very good feeling when she comes in from the West Bank. “They’re just like us,” she says. That is, they’re regular humans. 

Usually Cohen drives Mona and Ghofran to a checkpoint in the north because they go to Palestinian city of Jenin. Today, however, he’s taking them to spend the weekend with family in the Ramallah area and he takes a different route, 443, which, though it passes through the occupied West Bank, was off-limits to Palestinian drivers for a number of years until the Israeli High Court ruled that it had to be opened to Palestinians, as well.

While the bond between driver Shay Cohen and Ghofran was nearly instant, it took Ghofran’s mother, Mona, longer to trust Jewish Israelis. but after years of medical treatments for her daughter — and months of rides with Cohen — she says, “they’re just like us.” | Daniel Rollider for the Deseret News

 Traffic slows and Ghofran peers out the window, looking into the car of a religious Jewish family next to us. As we draw near the checkpoint that stands at the end of 443, we all fall silent.“Here (in the car) we have an illusion that everything is OK, that we’re living in the same kind of environment,” says Cohen. “But we’re not. And the checkpoint is a reminder of that — the checkpoint puts us back in the ‘She’s Palestinian and I’m Israeli’ position in a very strong way.”  

Asked if those divisions ever disappear completely, Mona quickly answers, “No.” 

We bounce over the tire spikes and then we’re through. But it’s clear that we’re lost. We pull over on the side of the road and Mona calls one of her brothers, asking for directions. Tension creeps into the car again. Wandering around the West Bank isn’t entirely safe for either Cohen or myself, as an Israeli, even if Cohen is ferrying a Palestinian family in the back seat of his car. 

After multiple phone calls, puzzling over road signs, a wrong turn or two, and a chat with a Palestinian truck driver, we eventually find Qalandia checkpoint. Cohen has never been here at all and though I’ve been to and through Qalandia many times, I’ve only ever been through by bus; I’ve never approached the checkpoint on foot, nor from this particular road, which doesn’t actually lead all the way to the crossing. 

We’re stuck at a cul de sac, a roundabout that slingshots traffic back the way it came. Cohen gets as close as he can to the checkpoint and idles. I follow Mona out of the car. We can see the crossing, on the other side of a field of dirt, we just can’t make out an entrance. 

Mona flags an elderly Palestinian woman down and asks how to pass. The woman points at the pedestrian bridge and says Mona and Ghofran can come with her. 

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Suddenly, it’s a flurry of activity. Cars are piling up behind Cohen, Mona hustles Ghofran out of the vehicle and the drivers behind us honk their horns. It’s stressful, but despite the pressure, Cohen gets out, too, grabbing Ghofran’s hand and kissing it.

The old woman, in a white hijab and a long, olive green overcoat, urges Ghofran and Mona forward and they join the other Palestinians making their way towards the checkpoint. As they merge into the crowd headed towards concrete, steel and barbed wire, I lose sight of them. 

And just like that, Ghofran — with her red glasses and pink scarf and her exuberance  — is gone.  

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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