A tiny collateral damage
The location of Alyn Hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem is so idyllic it could be out of the famous tale, Heidi.
Nestled on a hilltop enclosed in pine-groves and wild daffodils, the sound of birdsong and children’s giggles allow one momentarily to forget the reality inside the hospital’s walls—the damaged and deformed children who are its patients.
On an office wall hangs a watercolour of a child, head bowed over the dove in his hand—as though in supplication.
Like the guardian angels of the Victorian sculptors, which knelt at the headstones of children’s graves.
The sunny bay windows on the first floor look out on to the Jerusalem hills. The hilltops around the plush suburb of Ein Kerem are a reminder of the history of a land forged in blood and tears.
To the right is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Further along the same road is Mount Herzl, the cemetery wherein lie interred the fallen in Israel’s successive wars.
Inside Alyn Hospital’s intensive respiratory unit lies the latest casualty of Israel’s more recent past. Three-year-old Mariya Aman, paralysed in her cot.
Her neck and body in a protective corset, the girl stares blankly out at the ward nurse changing her drip. Underneath the brace, pressure sores covering the child’s neck and back are now slowly starting to heal.
Pink track-pants cover her motionless legs. Fingers, whose nails shine with red varnish, neither twitch, curl nor grasp. Doctors say she is in “spinal shock”. Caused by a physical trauma so severe it literally shuts down the body’s normal functions.
Mariya is what is known in war-speak as “collateral damage”. A bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time—in her case, the line of fire of a missile from an Israeli army jet.
But doctors treating the girl are optimistic. When she was first brought to the hospital she was completely quadruplegic, and fully ventilated. Now, her doctors say, Mariya has begun swallowing on her own, and they have removed her feeding tube. She is able to sit up for short periods in her wheelchair. Soon, they say, they will attach a voice valve to her respirator, so she will be able to attempt to speak.
“You can see she wants to talk so badly, but she just can’t,” says hospital director Dr Shirley Meyer.
But Mariya is lucky. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem, 20 Palestinian children have died from army bullets this year alone. This week, another three children died from army fire in the Gaza Strip, their short life stories and circumstances of their deaths resembling that of Mariya.
On May 20 the car in which Mariya, her father, mother, grandmother, brother and uncle were driving got caught in the rush-hour traffic in Sanayeh street, one of the biggest in Gaza City. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) was carrying out another “targeted assassination”, this time the turn of Islamic Jihad operative Muhammad a-Dahduh.
No one save the Israeli Air Force knows precisely when the missile hit. Army sources say it was at precisely 7pm—a time when the streets are congested with commuters . The pilot pushed the fire button just as the car carrying Mariya’s family drew up alongside the militant’s car. When the dust cleared, the mangled bodies of Mariya’s mother Na’ima Aman (28), her grandmother Hanan Muhammad Hussein Aman (47) and her brother Muhand (7) lay scattered amid the wreck of their new car.
Mariya, her father Hamid (28) and her uncle Nahed Aman (35) survived. Although Mariya’s father received only light shrapnel wounds, the girl and her uncle were badly wounded. They were rushed to the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City: itself running on empty with virtually no medical supplies, including pain-killers.
That the three-year-old girl is now being treated in one of Israel’s foremost paediatric rehabilitation centres is owing to the intervention of the Israel branch of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
The organisation, whose aim is to promote access to and deliver healthcare across the Israeli/Palestinian divide, pressured members of the Israeli Knesset to lobby the Defence Ministry.
The PHR also mounted a media campaign calling for the army to take responsibility for the girl’s treatment.
It was the Alyn Hospital, and its director, Meyer (a member of the PHR), who agreed to admit Mariya. Though open to all races, the hospital is privately funded and only admits referrals from general hospitals. Though it isn’t the first time a Palestinian child from Gaza has been treated at the hospital, it is the first time, says Meyer, that the Ministry of Defence is footing the bill.
According to Meyer, prospects for Mariya’s partial recovery are good. Her spinal cord is intact, despite fractures. In such children, says Meyer, it can take up to six months before an accurate picture may be formed of the extent of her recovery. “At no stage do we raise expectations beyond what is reasonable,” says Meyer.
As the doctors in Gaza City tried to save Mariya’s life the IDF told Haaretz newspaper it “still had to check” what exactly caused the deaths of the Aman family.
It was a week later that the army issued a press release noting that it was “continuing to investigate” the incident. Close on a month later, the defence establishment has yet to publicly accept responsibility for putting Mariya in Alyn Hospital.
In the meantime, someone in the corridors of power is signing off the payments to cover her treatment.
‘They have a moral duty to do it,” says Ibrahim Habib, a coordinator for PHR, who has been by Mariya’s side since she arrived in Israel. According to Habib the fact that the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay for the girl’s treatment came as a surprise. “We tried the same thing for another case last year, and got no response. We felt we should try again this time, despite the law.”
The law Habib refers to is the amendment to the Civil Wrongs Law, passed by the Knesset last year. The law effectively bars Palestinians from claiming compensation from the Israeli state as a result of army wrong-doing because they are “residents of a conflict area”—such as the Gaza Strip.
Two weeks after the attack that killed Mariya’s family and paralysed her, the army issued a press release. Sayin g it regretted “any harm done on innocent civilians”, it went on to add: “if Palestinians were killed by IDF fire, operational lessons will be learned in order to continue to minimise the risk of hurting the uninvolved in similar operations in the future”.
According to Alyn Hospital, Mariya will remain there for another six months. From there it is likely she will be sent back to Gaza, and probably to the Shifa Hospital, where paediatric rehabilitation facilities are non-existent.
“All I hope for, says Meyer, “is to see that someone will take her and maintain her in the state she will be in, and not let her slip back.”