A life lost in Gaza spurs reflection from all sides
A US activist, Israeli doctors, and loved ones recall a Palestinian boy killed last week.
TEL AVIV AND RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, GAZA STRIP — Akiva Tamir, an Israeli physician, this week removed from his cabinet the heart medication he had planned to send to his young patient in Gaza, Mohammed Abu Hilal.
The gentle 15-year-old, whose health had been improving markedly since a procedure two years ago, was killed by Israeli troops near his home in the Gaza Strip last Thursday. In the incident in the densely packed Rafah refugee camp, Israeli tank shells and gunfire killed five other Palestinians after a rocket was fired at the troops in armored vehicles. According to the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, all of the dead were civilians, including a 9-year-old girl and a 72-year-old woman.
Death comes so often and unpredictably in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip that there is little time to grapple with its horrific harvest. But Mohammed's life cut across the Israeli-Palestinian fault lines, and his death raises a troubling question: Can isolated acts of kindness have meaning when the overall environ- ment is lethal?
Army officials commenting on the incident stressed that Palestinian fighters use civilians as cover and said the incident is being investigated. It was overtaken in the news by the terrorist attack Monday on a bus that killed 14 people in northern Israel, one of the deadliest incidents in two years of fighting.
For Jonathan Miles, a Christian activist based in Amman who lived in Rafah and who arranged for Mohammed's cardiac care in Israel, the news report of unnamed Palestinian deaths in Rafah at first made little impact. "It just didn't register for me. It's been going on for so long that it loses its resonance," he says.
But then his phone rang. Mohammed's family told him that the shy young man, who was friendly with his son Josh had died. "Was it his heart?" Mr. Miles asked. Mohammed's relatives told him the bitter news: "No, he was shot by the army."
The images that came to mind for Mr. Miles were of the Israeli doctors joking around with Mohammed as he was hospitalized and teasing him. "He was a generous spirit, really a fine boy, shy, with a big smile." Physically, he was small for his age.
Mohammed's relatives in Rafah distributed dates and unsweetened coffee, traditional mourning foods, to guests this week. His health, they said, had improved dramatically over the last half year, so that he was able for the first time to play a complete game of soccer. Before that he could barely last for a few minutes. He also began riding a bicycle through the alleys of the refugee camp.
"Before, he used to ask why he had this illness," says Mohammed's cousin Jamal. "He hoped that his treatment would succeed and he would become a new person. And that is what happened."
Dr. Tamir, who works at Wolfson Hospital in Holon, near Tel Aviv, says that he diagnosed Mohammed three years ago as having a rapid heart beat. "He was not functioning well, he was very limited and very sick," says Dr. Tamir.
Tamir arranged for a highly specialized procedure, performed only at one hospital in Israel, Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. That proved to be the turning point toward better health.
His uncle, who restores houses, says Mohammed recently began to insist on helping him. The boy also drew pictures, and his father says he was intent on developing his art skills. His father shows a visitor a drawing that points to Mohammed's religious faith and his positive frame of mind, rare in the Gaza context, during the months before his death. It was an ornate vase with intricate Arabic calligraphy of Islamic names of God, including the Merciful and the Compassionate, and it rested on barren hills. The sun illuminated the vase.
"He was optimistic," says his father, Sami Abu Hilal. "I joked with him that in a year we would marry him off because he was so healthy."
"The doctors' work was very good. They did it without distinguishing between Palestinian and Jew," said Mr. Abu Hilal.
Last Thursday, Mohammed left the house to buy some building materials, but on his way home there was very heavy shooting, his father said.
He was shot in the street, a single bullet to the head, Abu Hilal says.
Mohammed's death created strong emotion, even among those who knew him only briefly.
Eli Gilad, an Israeli physician involved in Mohammed's care, says: "We thought in our own naive way that our deeds with the Palestinians, treating them as human beings and trying to help them, would be a bridge to mutual understanding and that the people we treat might become a bridge to a life together. It is unfortunate this happens."
Dr. Sion Houri, director of the Save a Child's Heart Program at Wolfson, said that Mohammed's death "is like a double loss because he was half a person and then he came back to life with treatment." He quickly added: "Do the Palestinians feel bitterness about shooting at our soldiers from populated areas? One of the soldiers could be my nephew or my son. And I am still doing army reserve duty."
In Rafah, Mohammed's cousin, Jamal, said: "These doctors are occupiers just as much as the soldiers are. When a doctor serves as a soldier, he can kill me." Mr. Abu Hilal recalled his son asking him: "They are good to us in the hospital, why do they shoot at us here?"
Mr. Miles, whose program has sent over 200 Palestinian children to Israel for heart treatment, said: "From time to time during all this period of violence I tried to keep track of whether we were saving as many lives as the forces of hatred took. I gave up counting because we are losing. This says much about the nature of the world we live in. Still, we should not give up. It is a struggle, but I feel all the more that we should not miss any opportunity to bring out life and forgiveness. When you think of all that was done to restore Mohammed's life and then see it taken like that, it underscores the pain and futility of each death of an innocent person."