Bringing health care to Palestine

How a Chico man ended up in charge of an effort to build the first teaching hospital in the West Bank

Rafi Frankel was in Chico over the Thanksgiving weekend to visit his family. Afterward, he returned to Washington, D.C., and his job laying the groundwork for a teaching hospital in the West Bank. He is also finishing up a doctorate degree.

Rafi Frankel was in Chico over the Thanksgiving weekend to visit his family. Afterward, he returned to Washington, D.C., and his job laying the groundwork for a teaching hospital in the West Bank. He is also finishing up a doctorate degree.

The journalist as source: Rafi Frankel was one of the people Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright consulted before writing his remarkable Nov. 9 piece in The New Yorker, “Captives,” about the devastating Israeli attack on Gaza in January 2009. The two men spent a long evening on the rooftop of Wright’s hotel in Israel talking about Gaza, with Frankel telling Wright everything he knew, which was a lot. “He picked my brain,” Frankel said.

For a journalist, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world. That’s a truth Rafi Frankel knows well, since it’s happened to him several times.

The 32-year-old from Chico (Chico High, class of ’95) was in Thailand in 2005, freelancing for the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, when the Southeast Asian tsunami hit, and suddenly he had the biggest story of the year on his hands.

A few years later, he was living in Israel, still freelancing, when the Gaza election of 2006 was held. He reported on the confounding victory of Hamas, the virulently anti-Israeli socio-political group and paramilitary force, as well as its subsequent, violent ousting of its chief Palestinian rival in Gaza, the old-guard branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization known as Fatah.

Most recently, the UC Santa Cruz grad has been living in Washington, D.C., where he obtained a master’s degree from Georgetown University and is working on a doctorate in government with an emphasis on international relations. Fate tapped him there, too.

A group of parties interested in building a teaching hospital in the West Bank had approached one of his teachers, an eminent Israeli scholar and diplomat, asking him to help with a feasibility study and laying the groundwork for a teaching hospital on the West Bank. When they asked him to recommend someone to coordinate the project, he nominated Frankel.

Once again, Frankel was in the right place at the right time. He was also the right person for the job. Although he admits to knowing nothing about health care, he’d lived in Israel for three years, spoke Hebrew, had numerous connections among both Israelis and Palestinians, and understood the situation on the ground.

The hospital is desperately needed. There is no teaching hospital in the Palestinian health-care system. “The best students go abroad and don’t come home,” Frankel said, because there is no training for specialists.

He’ll be going to the region several times in the next year, but he also can do much of the work in the United States, while finishing up classes toward his doctorate.

Rafael Frankel (Rafi is a nickname) is a slender man, not tall, with a bold chin and deep-set eyes and thinning hair clipped close. On the day we talked, he was using a bicycle to get around and said he was thrilled to be home in Chico.

He’s the son of long-time Chicoans Janice Gagerman, a professor of social work at Sacramento State, and David Frankel, a software architect and consultant for SAP, the giant business-software firm.

Frankel says he fell in love with journalism in college, where he was co-editor of the campus newspaper. After graduation in 1999, he spent a year in Washington as the White House correspondent for a now-defunct outfit called Talk Radio News Service before going off to Southeast Asia, where he lived for five years and filed stories for American newspapers.

A highlight was a four-month trip he took up the Mekong River, all the way from Vietnam to Tibet, as a writer for a magazine called Untamed Travel, also now gone.

In 2005, after covering the tsunami, he moved to Jerusalem, where he continued freelancing and also took a regular job with the Jerusalem Post, covering the 2006 Lebanon War. He’s reported from Gaza “nine or 10 times,” he said, and was there as recently as last summer.

Following Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, the people of Gaza were supportive of their government and disappointed that the rest of the world didn’t respect the results of their democratic process, Frankel said.

But Hamas’ inability to keep Gaza from deteriorating has led to widespread frustration, and the Israeli attacks have made the situation much worse. Since then there’s been “a huge drop-off” in support, Frankel said, but Hamas remains in control and as defiant as ever toward Israel.

This is not an ideal time to be launching a teaching hospital in the West Bank, but as Frankel put it, in the Middle East, “if you wait for the ideal time, it will never get done.”

The peace process is moribund, with neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians willing to break the impasse and Hamas adding a third and dangerous dimension to the problem. “Neither side trusts the other enough to be willing to make the concessions necessary to get the process going again,” Frankel explained.

Things are changing in the West Bank, however. A new generation of technocrats has been brought into the Palestinian government, and they’re working to build new institutions of state, with particular emphasis on professionalizing the security forces.

The result, Frankel said, is that there’s “a real sense of security on the streets of the West Bank. … The economy is growing, malls are going up. The city of Ramallah is booming; Nablus too.”

Because of the improved security, Israel has pulled back many of its checkpoints. The new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spoken often of moving forward toward “economic peace” in the absence of an agreement on political peace, and that’s what seems to be happening. Frankel refers to the process as a “bottom-up effort” and says his hospital project “absolutely fits in with this effort.”

As important as the bottom-up process is, however, “you can only go so far without political accords.” That’s because, Frankel explained, “in the Middle East the next battle is always right around the corner,” ready to destroy whatever institutions have been created. “Economic peace will be successful only if it’s not viewed as a substitute for political peace,” he said.

“Some people say the two-state paradigm is finished,” he continued. “I don’t want to believe that. As a Jew, I believe in a Jewish democratic state, and to maintain its character as such, Israel must extricate itself from the West Bank.”

He sees himself fostering that process by helping to create the teaching hospital and thereby improving life in the West Bank. “Whatever happens in the political situation, people need a hospital,” he said.

“There’s no choice but to press ahead in that part of the world.”