The wall &mdash where protection ends and collective punishment begins

These are not easy times to be a duty-abiding doctor in Israel. One could say we’ve hit a wall.

When I graduated Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical School in 1977, I was given a copy of the oath of Maimonides with my diploma.

Israeli medical graduates recite the oath of Maimonides as a Jewish alternative to the Hippocratic oath. My copy of the oath of Maimonides hangs framed on my office wall though it’s not altogether certain it was written by Maimonides. Some attribute it to Marcus Herz, a German physician. But somehow the oath of Herz doesn’t have the same ring.

Whoever the author, it is stirring: “Oh, God. Thou hast appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures. Here am I, ready for my vocation. And now I turn unto my calling.”

The oath was on my mind a few months ago as I got into a waiting taxi after completing my biannual four-day pediatric cardiology clinic in Ramallah in the West Bank. The clinic is arranged by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), a nongovernmental U.S. organization that coordinates care for the medical needs of Palestinian children.

During the PCRF clinics, I evaluated about 80 children with heart defects, five of whom were severely ill and required immediate hospitalization at Moqassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, in Israel about 15 miles away. But the PCRF staff informed me that it would take five days for the families to obtain the necessary security clearance and papers.

I was furious. If I thought it would do any good, I would have piled the kids into a minibus and driven them to the hospital myself. But if you want to maintain the clinic, you follow the rules and hope no one dies.

When I finished the clinic, the cab that returned me to Israel approached the Kalandia checkpoint flanked by a 20-foot high gray concrete wall and studded with guard towers. A few dozen cars and trucks, motors off, were lined up for the requisite review of permits and inspection of vehicles. They would be there for hours. With my U.S. passport and the cab driver’s special license, we bypassed the line. Fifteen minutes later, I stepped out of the cab in West Jerusalem.

When they began building the wall in 2002, I thought it was a good idea — something to break the cycle of suicide bombings and reprisals, to provide security for people on both sides, to allow time to heal and move toward final-status talks. But not this wall. This wall has another agenda.

While the separation wall, indeed, protects Israelis, it also serves to create disconnected cantons — ghettos, if you will, that cut Palestinians off from school, family, work, farmland and health care. It’s a slow strangulationin the unspoken pursuit of demographic change.

Must the wall go so far beyond protection? Indeed, the tall slabs of concrete and guard towers are just the most visible manifestation of an agglomeration of policies and impediments — checkpoints, access roads, seam zones, permit regimes, restrictions and capricious rules that fragment the patchwork of Palestinian land into 43 disconnected segments and fracture the lives of the Palestinian people into a labyrinth of Kafkaesque uncertainty. Must the wall become the ultimate reprisal, an instrument of perpetual violence?

The Oslo accords provided that the movement of people in the West Bank “will be free and normal, and shall not be effected through checkpoints or roadblocks.” Subsequent agreements stipulate that Israel “will facilitate the movement of people within the West Bank and minimize disruption to Palestinian lives.”

Yet according to a February 2007 United Nations Human Rights report, 70 Palestinian mothers in labor have been delayed and forced to deliver at checkpoints. Five mothers and 35 babies have died. The September 2007 U.N. News Service Report estimates that on average 53 ambulances are turned away at checkpoints every month. Not surprisingly, there are numerous reports of heart attack and trauma victims unable to get timely medical care and dying.

I know that we are better than this. And therefore, the separation wall in its current manifestation offends me, as a human being and as a Jew. The wall also offends the oath of Maimonides — the part about taking care of God’s creatures, not just Jewish creatures. There are, indeed, many examples of Israeli physicians who honor their oath and extend care, often at personal peril, to Palestinians, providing a small measure of tikkun olam.

I’m going back to Ramallah in a few months to again turn unto my calling, despite the wall, and because of it.

Dr. Michael Cooper is a clinical professor of pediatric cardiology at UCSF Medical Center and consults for Northern California Kaiser hospitals. He is a member of the S.F.-Bay Area chapter of Brit Tzedek Ve’shalom.