Ahmed's gift of life

For once, the circumstances of a boy’s death from an Israeli bullet are not in dispute. The army concedes that one of its soldiers shot 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib during a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank earlier this month. Other Palestinian children playing with Ahmed have backed up the military’s statement that he was waving a toy gun that looked, to the soldier who shot him, remarkably like the real thing.

The army apologised with unusual speed.
The armed factions entrenched in the Jenin camp made no calls for revenge. But it was the reaction of Ahmed’s parents that caught everyone off guard. As life slipped away from their son, Ismail and Abla Khatib decided that some good could come of his death. They donated Ahmed’s organs for transplant. The boy was in an Israeli hospital and his parents understood that their son’s body parts were most likely to save people routinely spoken of as “the enemy’’ in Jenin. Within hours, Ahmed’s heart, kidneys, liver and lungs were transplanted into six Israelis, four of them Jewish.

The move was hailed by stunned Israeli leaders as a “remarkable gesture for peace’‘, particularly given the circumstances of Ahmed’s death, and a bridge between warring communities.

The Khatibs say that peace and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others was uppermost in their minds. But they also speak of their decision as an act of resistance and anger. And they have found an ally in the armed men who more usually fight back by blowing up Israelis.

“To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance,’’ says Abla. “Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.’‘

Ahmed—the third eldest in a family of four boys and two girls—was killed on the first day of Eid el-Fitr, among the most important of Muslim holidays. He left the house after dawn for the mosque and to visit Jenin’s “martyrs’ graveyard’’ where armed men killed in the intifada are buried. Like many boys of his generation confronted by routine violence, he regarded such men as heroes, says Abla. “Ahmed collected martyr posters because he knew them. He used to see them in the street and he admired them.”

Ahmed also had encounters with Israeli soldiers. Two years ago, one of them grabbed him and a couple of other boys, gave them a broom and told them to sweep his tank. But usually when the boys saw an Israeli patrol, they stoned it. “It was a game for them,’’ says Abla. Ahmed was playing the game when he was shot.

Ahmed heard the Israeli army was in the camp in search of his heroes. Children poured out on to the street. His mother said he did not own a toy gun and was not carrying one when he left the house. But others had them and a friend, Ahmed Tawfi Krehen, says that Ahmed was carrying an imitation weapon by the time the pair of them spotted the army jeeps.

“The gun looked like an Uzi. He was playing with it. The Jews thought he was a fighter and they shot him. I was standing next to him, just one metre, when they shot,’’ says the 11-year-old. Ahmed was hit by a bullet in the back of his head and another in his pelvis.

“Some boys arrived at the house and said Ahmed was shot and was taken to the hospital,’’ says Abla. “When I got there, all his clothes were covered with blood. I realised immediately he was dying. He was taken to the operating theatre and they decided he had to be transferred to Israel because his situation was so critical.’‘

Ahmed was moved to an Israeli hospital in Haifa. When he died two days later, his father had decided what to do. Ismail’s brother, Shokat, died in 1983 at the age of 22 of kidney failure. “I saw my brother in the flesh of my own son. My brother had kidney failure and since we didn’t have the proper treatment for him, his situation deteriorated and it affected the second kidney and that lasted for 15 years,’’ he says. “I donated blood to my brother every time he needed it. I lived the whole ordeal and I wanted to stop others suffering like that. I told the doctors I wanted to donate Ahmed, but first I had to consult from a religious point of view, and my family and my society.’‘

Ismail first asked his wife. Her wait in the hospital left her in no doubt. “We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn’t matter who they are. We didn’t specify that his organs would go to Arabs, Christians or Jews,’’ she says.

“My son was dead but at the same time maybe he could provide life to others and reduce their pain. Of course, my son was martyred and they were the criminals and they took his life away, but we are the ones who could give life back to them.

“It was a message from us to them, a message of peace for them. We are the ones who want peace and love and they are the ones who break their promises and who don’t want peace.’‘

Ismail sought an assurance from the mufti of Jenin that there was no religious objection. Transplants are a divisive issue within Muslim communities, but the mufti said he saw no obstacle to donating Ahmed’s organs or to them going to Israelis and Jews.

Then came what Ismail calls “society’‘. In Jenin, that is not so much the neighbours as those who control the streets, principally the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, led by Zakaria Zubeidi, who has dispatched his share of suicide bombers into Israel.

“When we heard that Ahmed’s father decided to donate the organs, we blessed the step,’’ says Zubeidi. “Despite Jenin’s reputation for the suicide bomber and the bomb belt, the people of Jenin camp love life and granted life to five or six children and didn’t distinguish whether they were Jewish or Muslim or Christian because our problem is not with the Jewish people as the Jewish people, but with the occupation.’‘

Ahmed’s heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl, his lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin Arab.

The girl who received the heart, Samaah Gadban, waited five years for a donor. Before the operation, she was so weak she was unable to walk more than a few metres at a time. Her father, Riad, called the donation “a gesture of love’‘.

The other families have chosen not to speak in public as yet. They, like many Israelis, were surprised and impressed by the Khatibs’ humanity. The stereotype of Palestinians as Jew-haters, as an explanation for the violent resistance to the humiliations and controls of occupation, is now so dominant in Israel that news of the Khatibs’ decision was greeted with astonishment.

Israeli politicians hailed it as “remarkable’‘. The mayor of Haifa called, as did the deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who apologised to Ismail for the killing of his son, an unusual gesture in itself. Olmert invited Ismail to visit his office in Jerusalem. “I will go if it will promote peace,’’ says Ismail. “I will tell him one thing: children have nothing to do with this conflict.’‘

Crucially, the Khatibs’ decision was given the public endorsement of Zubeidi. He acknowledged that giving life might be a better way of winning Israeli understanding for the Palestinians’ plight than blowing up children on buses.

It is what Ismail hopes to have achieved. “The hope is that ... those six people will learn the lesson that we are human beings; their families, even if they were serving in the army, will consider what I have done,’’ he says.

But Ahmed’s father also wonders if his son would have grown up to make such a decision. As a motor mechanic inside Israel, Ismail spent many years working with Jewish Israelis. Like many of his generation, he distinguishes between what is done by the government and the military and his encounters with ordinary people. It is part of what helped him decide that there was no contradiction in donating his son’s body to save the lives of people whose army killed the child.

But that bridge is increasingly difficult to cross at a time when the two communities are ever more separated by barriers, checkpoints, fear and politicians. Today Jenin is sealed off from the Israeli town of Afula, a few months ago just a 10-minute drive to the north, by the vast West Bank barrier and a large metal gate under army guard. Ismail has tried to keep his job just the other side of the barrier by travelling to Jerusalem, crossing through the city and making his way north—typically, a five-hour journey to reach a destination he can see from the edge of Jenin. And soon that route will become all but impossible as the wall and checkpoints are built through Jerusalem.

With the increasing separation, and contact largely limited to the humiliations of checkpoints, Ahmed was growing up with a single view of Israelis as “enemies and killers’‘.

“Take a boy like my son, who was 12 years old. He was born between two intifadas. What does he know but tanks and soldiers and jet fighters? He only meets Israelis who are soldiers. He thinks all Israelis are soldiers. This does not help us. Seeing each other as human beings helps us,’’ says Ismail.—Â