While rolling his wheelchair 3,100 miles from California to Long Island last summer, Gabriel Cordell, 43, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a car accident in 1992, was already thinking about his next journey.
The former Long Islander and his documentary crew were two thirds of the way through their 99-day trek in early June 2013 when they stopped at a YMCA in Illinois to speak with local kids. One boy asked the actor what he planned to do next.
Cordell’s response: “Have you ever heard of Israel?”
While growing up in West Hempstead, Cordell said his parents, who were born in the West Bank, often spoke about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Anytime something happened over there, my parents would be glued to the TV,” he said.
It’s been more than 30 years since Cordell, who was born in Libya, has been to the Middle East, but he’s planning to return next month. On Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace, he intends to start rolling his wheelchair from the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona to Jerusalem, but going as far south as Be'er Sheva.
This trek will be significantly shorter than his last one, spanning about 250 miles, and will last two to three weeks.
“The message isn’t in the miles this time,” he said. “It’s in the movement.”
Cordell said his goal is to promote peace, tolerance and compassion, and capture on camera the stories of Israelis and Palestinians living in the midst of the conflict
“It’s not a political movement,” he said. “We’re trying to strip away all ideology, religion and government, and just focus on the human condition.”
Cordell’s small crew will include Derek Gibbs, 29, a cyclist he met in New Mexico while rolling across the United States last year. Gibbs joined Cordell for the rest of his trip, and they’ve remained friends since.
“When you put yourself out there, wonderful things happen,” Gibbs said.
The group has raised $16,000 toward travel expenses for the Israel trip via Cordell’s website rollwithme.org, and they are committed to going despite the U.S. Department of State’s advisory against Americans traveling to the region. There’s no guarantee that once they land, they will be permitted to enter the country, however. They’ll have to get through an interrogation process.
If they do, Cordell said he hopes his group can “roll in peace,” but he’s also planning for the worst.
“We’re going to deal with hostile people for sure,” he said. “Their passion and hatred runs so deep and is so rampant.”
Gibbs said he doesn’t fear death. “My concern is that we could be seen as irrelevant or even arrogant to think we’re going to show up and make a difference,” he said.
And although Cordell said his goal isn’t to be a “martyr,” he is willing to put himself in danger to make a positive impact over there.
“If we can change one mind from hatred to tolerance and understanding, or we could save a life, then it’s worth it,” he said. “Even if it’s at the cost of my freedom or my life.”