Twilight Zone / For the pilots’ information (2)

This body will never move again. Not a single muscle, except for the face muscles, will move again, and oxygen will not enter the lungs without the help of a respirator. Ever. This, too, is the result of a marvelously accurate hit by an Israel Air Force missile, which was launched three weeks ago at a car containing two Hamas activists driving down one of the crowded main streets of Gaza.

Attached to a respirator and unable to move for the rest of his life – with a “five-fold” injury, as the doctors put it (paralysis of four limbs and the diaphragm) – Abu-Shmaleh, an accountant, lies in the respiratory intensive care unit, peering with a heartrending glance at those around him. He answers questions in a whisper, usually with only a “yes” or “no”; he has lost his voice. Occasionally tears well up in his eyes, but he can’t cry because of the tubes stuck down his throat. One missile fragment that caught him in the neck, while he was innocently traveling in a taxi in broad daylight, hit the third vertebra of his spine and paralyzed his entire body.

The child Mahmoud Tabazeh – who is now fighting for his life not far away, because of another accurate missile hit that crushed his body, and about which we wrote here last week – still has a chance for a normal life, but the fate of Abu Shmaleh and his family is sealed. “He’s better off dead than alive,” says his doctor.

A missile directed from the sky at the Hamas car containing Iyad al-Hilu and Khaled al-Masri, who were killed on the spot, also killed bystander Marwan al-Hatib, 35, and injured another 10 civilians, including the accountant, who celebrated his 23rd birthday last Saturday. He was on his way from his office to console mourners, and now he is helpless.

Do the pilots know what they did? Did they think about their handiwork before embarking on their mission? After returning from it? Do their dispatchers, the commanders and politicians, know? Shouldn’t they be brought to this hospital to see the child Tabazeh and young Abu-Shmaleh with their own eyes, to look straight at these two innocent passersby, two out of dozens who were injured that same day without doing anything wrong, in two different surgical operations by the air force, and had their fate sealed? “Imagine that your son was in the street when you launched the missile,” says Aqil Abu-Shmaleh, the father of the injured man, to the anonymous pilot. “Would you have pushed the button then?” And his question echoes without a reply, oppressive, deeply troubling, in the waiting room of the respiratory intensive care unit, not far from the place where his son lies weeping silently.

The family that was destroyed in this way by a missile of the air force that practices “purity of arms,” is a highly respected one. (“Purity of arms” is part of the Israel Defense Forces’ ethical code limiting the use of armed force in order to prevent unnecessary damage.) The father, Aqil Abu-Shmaleh, has been working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for 25 years, and today is a senior official in charge of assistance programs and social services. His brother, Faz, Mohammed’s uncle, is an expert on Hebrew poetry; about three months ago I met him in a restaurant in central Gaza. Faz is doing his doctorate at Ein Shams University in Egypt on the poetry of Haim Gouri, Nathan Zach, Haim Nahman Bialik and others, and looks for Hebrew songs about peace on the Internet.

Aqil and his wife Naama have nine children; Mohammed is the eldest. About a year ago he finished his studies at Al-Azhar University in Egypt and began to work as an accountant in the office of the local government of the Palestinian Authority. The second oldest son, Hisham, is studying engineering, Salah is studying communications and Rawan is studying dentistry in Cairo. She still doesn’t know what happened to her brother. Next week, when she comes for a vacation, they’ll tell her. The other children – Issam, Osama, Ragda, Hadil and 7-year-old Ahmed – are in school.

The family home is located in a refugee rehabilitation project in Khan Yunis. Sometimes Aqil sleeps in another apartment owned by the family in Gaza City: Each time the Gush Katif checkpoint is closed to Palestinian traffic and the Gaza Strip is cut in half, the father and his three older sons remain in the apartment. Previously they lived for 40 years in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, and originally came from the lost village of Beit Daras in the sands of Ashdod. Last summer, half the family went on vacation to Cairo, to spend time with Rawan, who couldn’t come to visit because of exams.

On the morning of Black Monday, October 20, a few hours before Israeli helicopters shot at the Nusseirat camp and killed 12 Palestinians, 10 of them civilians, and injured dozens, including the child Mahmoud Tabazeh, Mohammed Abu-Shmaleh went from the family home in Khan Yunis straight to his office in central Gaza. He talked to a friend and they agreed that in the afternoon, they would go together to buy a car for Mohammed. A small Renault for about $3,000. At around 10:30 A.M. Mohammed left the office and walked toward the mourners’ tent erected in the city in memory of Sheikh Ali Abu-Shmaleh, a relative who had died at the age of 82. He hailed a white Mercedes taxi and sat in the back seat. He didn’t manage to travel more than a few hundred meters.

At the same time, Aqil was in his office. He heard on the radio that the IDF had bombed a building in the Sejeiyeh neighborhood, and continued working. Afterward he heard that a car had been bombed from the air on Al-Jalaa Street in the city center, and continued working. He didn’t suspect a thing because he knew that his children were far from the scenes of conflict. Mohammed was in his office, Salah and Hisham were at the university, nothing to worry about. His sons had never been involved in anything.

At about 11 A.M. the phone rang. On the line was a relative, one of the senior officials of the preventive security force in Gaza.

“Maybe you know someone named Mohammed Aqil Abu-Shmaleh who isn’t your son? Is there anyone else by that name?”

“What happened?”

“There’s a man injured in the aerial bombing whose name is Mohammed Aqil Abu-Shmaleh.”

“What kind of injury?”

“Not light.”

Aqil jumped into his car, but felt that he was incapable of driving and asked a colleague to drive, and together they raced toward Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.

A short time earlier, the Mercedes taxi with the injured Mohammed had raced to Shifa. A medium-sized piece of shrapnel that had bounced off the car of the wanted men had penetrated the taxi and hit his neck. The head of the respiratory intensive care unit at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Dr. Eran Segal, explained this week: “It was an injury that one doesn’t survive for more than a few minutes. An injury in the spinal canal at the third vertebra stops one’s breathing immediately.” Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Mohammed received artificial respiration immediately, and his life was saved. It was too late to save any other part of his body.

Aqil entered the intensive care unit in Shifa and saw his son crying silently. His eyes were open, he was bleeding slightly from his neck. The father quickly understood the seriousness of the situation: His son was paralyzed. Now he had to inform the family. He called his older sons to the hospital, afraid that they would find out about the injury from someone else; he told his wife in Khan Yunis that Mohammed was injured, but that he wasn’t in danger and that he was by his son’s side. They gathered around the bed of the injured man and since then, says Aqil, the family has been divided into those who have already seen Mohammed and have been unable to sleep since, and the younger ones who haven’t seen him and whose life continues more or less as usual.

In a blue jacket and gray pants, speaking fluent English, Aqil is careful not to cry in the presence of a stranger. At night it was decided to transfer Mohammed to an Israeli hospital, but the father was not allowed to cross at the Erez checkpoint: “I was shocked. They didn’t allow me to join my injured son. So I left Mohammed at the Erez checkpoint. You understand, I sent my injured son alone.”

The mother was allowed to go, but Aqil was afraid that she wouldn’t manage on her own. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, he called Sheba to ask how his son was. Only two days later did they manage to get an entry visa to Israel for seven hours, on condition that they wouldn’t leave the hospital grounds. Thereafter Aqil has received a one-day visa every few days, limited to the area of the hospital. He has been forced to sleep in a hotel adjacent to the hospital, for $100 per night.

His wife returned home, after collapsing in front of her paralyzed son. Only this week, after the intervention of Mohammed Dahlan (who was the minister for security affairs of the Palestinian Authority until recently) and the secretary-general of UNRWA, did Israel agree to grant the exhausted father a residence visa for a week, “for personal reasons,” as the permit says. The father and two cousins from Gaza, who married Israeli Arab women from Kafr Qasem, don’t leave Mohammed’s bedside.

“Total and irreversible paralysis,” is the diagnosis of the head of the unit, Dr. Eran Segal. “He came to us in a state of low blood pressure and pulse. There is a severe injury called quadriplegia, which affects the four limbs, but he suffers from pentaplegia, a five-fold injury. His four limbs and diaphragm are paralyzed. A person who will be dependent on a respirator for the rest of his life. From the moment of the injury there was nothing to be done. He’s completely lucid and the rehabilitation is very complicated. The rehabilitation of this kind of patient must be of the highest level, and I’ll be surprised if it’s possible in Gaza. It’s extremely complicated. The process of bringing him back home requires tremendous means. These people die if they aren’t immediately given artificial respiration. There are also many medical problems that may yet be discovered.

“This is a person who will never be able to scratch his nose. It’s the worst and most terrible disability there is. Most of us would say that he’s better off dead. But he has a father who’s fighting for his life like a lion. His dreams have been cut off and that’s a great tragedy, but the dreams of the entire family have also been cut off. Nobody in the family will continue his life from now on the way it was until now. The entire home will be different.”

Almost nothing reveals the severity of his condition. His face is shaven, clean, well groomed. He has a scratch on his ear. Mohammed is lying in the intensive care unit, with only the hum of the respirator and the beep of the monitors breaking the silence. Even the shrapnel wound has healed; only the damage remains. His face shows fatigue, his eyes are wise and full of expression. He doesn’t remember if the car with the wanted men was ahead of him or behind him. His eyes close. Every whisper is difficult for him. A few days ago, an injured woman soldier from the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip was hospitalized in the same ward. The head of the IDF Southern Command entered and the father left, passing one another in the corridor.

“It’s like a knife in our hearts, because he understands everything,” says the father. “If he were unconscious or didn’t understand, it would be easier. I have to use psychology now. I’m not capable of handling the questions he asks: `What will happen? What’s my future?’ I tell him the truth, but not the whole truth. I tell him that his body is paralyzed, but that next week a specialist from Germany will be coming to the hospital in Khan Yunis and will see him. It gives him a little hope. Maybe in Germany there’s some rehabilitation center that can help him. We also believe in an unexpected miracle. That also raises small hopes. We have to believe in something.

“I have to help myself, in order to help Mohammed. I have to do something so that he’ll begin to get used to his situation, but what? How? When I see his tears I can’t remain without tears, and so they meet, his tears and mine. Because of the days when he had to lie here alone, when we didn’t receive a permit, he doesn’t let us leave the room now. He’s afraid of remaining alone again.

“From now on the entire family will take care only of him. We’re also paralyzed. And how will I take care of the family? How will I take care of them, get them used to the new situation? It will be forever. As a father, I have now begun to be afraid. I see that our life is in danger. I’m afraid now of what will happen to my other children in Khan Yunis. I’ve discovered that there’s no safe place. We aren’t involved in this conflict and our lives are in danger. We lived through two intifadas and I wasn’t worried, now I’m afraid. I used to be afraid of crossing at the Gush Katif checkpoint, but I wasn’t afraid of traveling on the main street in Gaza. I didn’t think that the lives of innocent people were in danger there, too.

“I see Mohammed being killed every day anew. For 20 days he has been killed every day once again before my eyes. It kills me every day once again. I can’t look into his eyes. I can’t look into my wife’s eyes. What will I say to them? To escape from his eyes, to flee from my wife’s eyes, to flee from my children’s eyes, because I can’t tell them the whole truth. Even I am fleeing from the truth. I think only about today. Not about tomorrow. I don’t want to think about tomorrow. I can’t think a week ahead. I only wait until the end of the day. There’s the example of Christopher Reeve, but we don’t have the means that Christopher Reeve has.

“I believe that the pilot knew he would hit innocent people as well – and he didn’t care. He certainly treats all the Palestinians as though they were his enemies. And that’s not the case. We aren’t the enemies of the Israelis. We lived together until 1948, we coordinated our activities from 1967, and we believe in peace. But we need a partner on the Israeli side. What did the pilot want from Mohammed and from the other innocents he hit? That same night that pilot, or one of his friends, bombed Nusseirat too, and killed Dr. Shahin, who ran to help.

“I would like to ask the Israelis one question: As a Palestinian, what can I do? Do I have another place? Where should I go? This is my only place in the world. Do you want to continue to kill us with helicopters and F-16s?

“I would like to say to the pilot: Imagine that your son had been among those bombed. Would you have attacked? Or aren’t the Palestinians human beings in your eyes? And I would like to tell the pilot that history won’t leave him in peace, and maybe he will still torture himself. Maybe the pilot won’t be affected, but his wife will be affected. Maybe his children will ask. And maybe a day will come when he will be accused as a war criminal, maybe by Israeli society, maybe by the Americans, maybe by the international community. He didn’t come in the name of a [terrorist] organization, he was sent by a state. He isn’t a Hamas or Islamic Jihad activist, he was sent by his government. [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz is responsible for my son’s fate, [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is responsible for my son. They approved the decision. What else should I say? What else can I say?”

An adjacent building, the children’s intensive care unit. The father, Mohammed Tabazeh, in the same ragged shirt, his face even more tired and melancholy than when we saw him last week. His Mahmoud is still in serious condition. This week the doctors told him that his son has shrapnel near his spine, too. A 14-year-old child, who went outside when he heard an explosion, and then the second missile was fired, which killed his brother and another nine neighbors, and left him critically injured as well.

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/360125.html

Courtesy Raja Mattar