Working across the divide: The Israeli and Palestinian health workers promoting a common goal

They’re worlds apart in mannerisms and backgrounds, but colleagues Ronit Zimmer and Mohammad Asideh share the same simple desire for peace.
Zimmer, who grew up in Melbourne’s Jewish community and now lives in Tel Aviv, is the CEO of Rozana, an international organisation that addresses barriers to quality health care in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories through joint initiatives.
Asideh, a former political scientist, grew up in the West Bank’s administrative capital of Ramallah and now serves as Rozana’s director of engagement and advocacy.

The pair met on a Rozana mission in Israel and the West Bank in 2022 – an environment that seems both alien and ever-present as the two sit in Melbourne and speak with SBS News.

Mohammad Asideh (L) and Ronit Zimmer. Credit: Rozana

What does Rozana do?

Rozana, formerly known as Project Rozana, was started by Australian businessman and Jewish community leader Ron Finkel AM back in 2012, inspired by the story of a four-year-old Palestinian girl, Rozana Salawhi, who fell nine stories out of the window of her family’s apartment in the West Bank.
Her parents took her to a better-equipped Israeli hospital in Jerusalem instead of their local Palestinian hospital, a decision deemed by doctors to have saved their daughter’s life.
The story inspired Finkel to help improve healthcare capacity in the Palestinian territories through an expansion of existing facilities and the training of Palestinian medical staff in Israel.

This has also included extensive patient transport initiatives moving injured from Gaza and the West Bank to better-equipped Israeli hospitals where necessary.

Four ambulances drive through a dusty and congested street

Ambulances on their way to Jenin Hospital near the West Bank city of Jenin in December 2023. Source: EPA / Alaa Badarneh

Long before began, there was already a significant difference in healthcare capacity between Israel and the Palestinian territories, due to vastly different economies and restrictions placed on the territories by the Israeli occupation, such as the decades-long blockade of Gaza.

Israel’s economy is thought to be more than 26 times stronger than that of the Palestinian territories, with the International Monetary Fund estimating Israel’s 2023 GDP to be worth $1 trillion compared with a 2021 estimate of Palestinian GDP of just $36.4 billion.
Following the outbreak of hostilities on 7 October 2023, the UN Development Programme has warned that the ongoing violence in Gaza and restrictions on movement in the West Bank are further crippling the economy, with poverty expected to rise between 20 to 45 per cent depending on the length of the war.
And in the West Bank, a lack of targeted healthcare options has meant women in rural areas have been left with their health needs drastically underserved.

Under Zimmer’s leadership, addressing this has been a top priority for Rozana, rolling out initiatives such as the Women 4 Women program which sees medical professionals moving into isolated communities in the Hebron area of the West Bank to provide health care and preventive medical education for women and children.

Five female health officers wearing matching navy blue vests pose for a photo in a light-filled room.

A team from Rozana’s Women 4 Women program. Credit: Rozana

While their work has been supported by both the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel, Rozana has been controversial among some pro-Palestinian political groups, who view collaboration with Israel as an attempt to normalise relations with an occupying force.

In August of 2021, Dr Jamal Rifi, a prominent member of Sydney’s Lebanese community and a doctor who has worked closely with Rozana, said he had been secretly convicted of treason in Lebanon for “collaborating” with Israel in his work with the organisation and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour.
He is a well-known figure in his community, known for setting up a makeshift COVID-19 vaccination clinic in his front yard in western Sydney during the peak of the pandemic and successfully vaccinating 37,000 local residents.

Rifi, who now sits as deputy chair of Rozana’s Australia Board, said he was proud of his life-saving work with the organisation.

The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network has called Rozana’s activities “a cynical use of Palestinians for the Israeli cause”.
Zimmer said her organisation offers a new path towards peace.

“Rozana’s health diplomacy model really is a circuit breaker that can put a stop to this fear-driven violence, where we really learn we’ve got stuff we can do together, we want to improve health care … We can do stuff that not only makes us healthier, but it makes a more peaceful society where we can eventually all live in security and dignity.”

Asideh left the West Bank for Melbourne a year and a half ago.
“When I left Palestine, I left because the violence between the Palestinians and the (Jewish) settlers was increasing. And unfortunately, the policies of the current Israeli government didn’t help at all. And, having a daughter, I needed a safer place for her — so that’s why we moved to Melbourne,” he said.
“I had no plans to go back to Palestine. It’s the first time my family told me ‘Don’t come back’ because the situation is unstable.”
The violence Asideh refers to pre-dates the current round of conflict; clashes have occurred between Palestinians and Jewish settlers since 1967, the year Israel annexed Palestinian territory in Jerusalem and the West Bank, an act seen as broadly illegal under international law, but a policy repeatedly endorsed by the Netanyahu government.
In December, the Australian government joined 13 other countries including Canada and the United Kingdom in condemning extremist settlers and demanding that perpetrators be brought to justice.

In a rare move, United States President Joe Biden has also targeted violent settlers in the West Bank with financial sanctions and visa bans saying the violence had “reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to peace.”

The United Nations estimates that over 300 Palestinians in the , with thousands more arrested in numerous raids.
However, for Asideh, this surge in violence was not enough to cancel his plans to return to his homeland next month to be of better service to his people through the Rozana organisation.

“The point to me is to be able to help the kids … We’ve been deprived from access to health — almost every Palestinian family has had to deal with that. Through Rozana, I can help to provide access to health to some of the women and children and also those in Gaza,” Asideh said.

How has the Israel-Hamas war affected the organisation?

Since the 7 October attacks by Hamas militants, where close to 1,200 people were killed in southern Israel and about 240 taken hostage according to the Israeli government, Rozana’s medical operations have been hindered by the resurgence of the longstanding conflict.
“We were sending too many buses a day to the Gaza border, bringing in patients from Gaza to hospitals in Israel in East Jerusalem. We’ve obviously had to stop that,” Zimmer said.
The organisation has also provided supplies as well as trauma and emergency training for teams in Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. At the same time, it has supported the provision of housing for approximately 100 patients and their caregivers who are receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals and are unable to return to Gaza during the conflict.

The Gaza Health Ministry reports that Israel’s air bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza following Hamas’ attack has now killed over 27,000 Palestinians, with up to 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million population displaced.

A wounded woman is helped to walk by two medical staff wearing blue uniforms.

Injured people arrive at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 4 December 2023. Source: ABACA / Habboub Ramez / PA / Alamy

Zimmer said the scale of the devastation has been hard to witness.

“It’s absolutely heart-wrenching. I’m also in touch with another mother in Gaza, she was a doctor who was doing her residency training in an Israeli hospital. She hasn’t been able to see her children. It’s heartbreaking to see the trauma that the children of Israel have experienced too and the child hostages that did return,” she said.
Asideh said it has been difficult to watch the conflict from afar.
“I have some friends and colleagues I worked with previously who live in Gaza. They have experienced several wars before in 2008, 2014 and 2021, but they felt this is going to be different … those colleagues I worked with, they lived in houses, now they live in tents. They sleep on the mud. They have no place to go to.”
Asideh said he has been able to take comfort in Rozana’s goal of bringing people together in the face of generations of conflict.
“We’re not looking for an approach that divides people but an approach that brings people together … Within Rozana, there’s so much diversity, not just in our religion and ethnicity and citizenship, but also in the way we view the conflict and the history of it.”

“We bring Palestinians and Israelis together, but it doesn’t mean those people agree on everything. But they come together despite the disagreement.”

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