The Impact on Children
The last casualty?
The numbers don't lie. They never do. In the past month, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces was 45 times greater than the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians. The Palestinian dead included 13 minors. All in one deadly month. The last name on the list is Ayman Abu-Mahdi, a 10-year-old boy who had come home from school and gone out to get a little air with his siblings and friends. He was sitting on a bench in front of his house. The time: 15 hours before the cease-fire in Gaza.
The last casualty? Of course not. In the first week after the cease-fire, Israel had already killed five more in the West Bank. The last child to die? No again. This past Sunday, soldiers killed 15-year-old Mahmoud al-Jabji in the Askar refugee camp in Nablus. The last casualty in Gaza? That, too, is hard to believe. The last only until this cease-fire goes up in flames, like all its predecessors.
For a week, Ayman lay dying in the pediatric intensive care unit at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. Only his uncle, Abdel Hayy Abu-Mahdi, was permitted to accompany him that terrible night, when he was transferred in grave condition from the hospital in Gaza to Israel. It took another six days of running around until his father, too, was permitted to see his son. Hours later, the boy was dead. The youngest son of Najah and Abdel Qader al-Mahdi passed away early Saturday morning. His body was wrapped in a bright blue shroud and transported back to Gaza. In the afternoon, he was buried in the cemetery opposite his house, not far from the spot where he had been shot a week earlier.
A row of trees separates the house from the cemetery. They were planted by the family about 25 years ago to act as a divider. "So we could see a little greenery," says the uncle. Ten trees, a little scrap of green in the depressing landscape of the refugee camp. They didn't want to look out the window and see graves. Their house is at the western end of the Jabalya camp. They moved here after saving some money from working in Israel, work that came to an end about six years ago.
All their lives, the Abu-Mahdi brothers worked in construction in Israel, and now, except for one brother who works as a teacher – and hasn't been paid in eight months – all have been unemployed for years. They built the house themselves over a period of years – wall after wall, floor after floor, until it was a four-story apartment building housing the five brothers and their families, including the family of a brother who was killed in an auto accident between Yavneh and Ashdod on the way home from work.
The line of trees hid the graves, but two weeks ago it did not obscure the sight of a tank that sat on a hill – Jabal al-Qashf they call it – overlooking their home from a distance to the west. Even from the first floor, from the apartment where Ayman's family lives (10 children and their parents), the tank could be seen.
The IDF was "operating" in Beit Hanun and the tank was watching over nearby Jabalya.
On Saturday two weeks ago, Ayman got up in the morning and went off to the UNRWA school, where he was a fifth-grader. He returned home at 12:30, had lunch and then went outside. Next to the row of trees, the family had built a concrete bench. Ayman sat on the bench with some of his siblings and friends, including his brother Adham and his cousin Amjad. His uncle Abdel Hayy was in his apartment on the second floor.
Shortly after three, the uncle awoke from a nap to the sound of a hail of bullets striking the walls of the building and shattering windows. Then he heard loud yelling coming from the street. Abdel Hayy rushed downstairs in a panic and heard that his nephew Ayman had been wounded. From what? He asked. "From the tank on the hill," the distraught children answered him. Ayman had already been rushed to the hospital; only his blood was visible in the sand. "Ayman, Ayman," the children cried hoarsely.
They all hurried to the Kamal Adwan Hospital, which is more like a large clinic, not a place where anyone would wish to be hospitalized. Someone in a passing car had rushed Ayman there. The doctors at Kamal Adwan were unable to do much. The bullet had penetrated the boy's skull from the left side and exited from the top. Ayman was taken to Shifa Hospital. There, they just tried to stop the bleeding that had spread in his brain. Ayman's condition deteriorated, and shortly after 10 P.M. it was decided that the boy needed to be rushed to a hospital in Israel.
The family began frantically chasing after the necessary permits. One uncle went to the Palestinian health ministry, another went to the Liason and Coordination Administration, a third obtained the medical report. Within two hours, they had all the permits, but at midnight, when they reached the Erez checkpoint, the father was not permitted to accompany his dying son. "Bring someone else. You're his father and the father isn't allowed to go," they were told. The uncle Abdel Hayy was selected to accompany Ayman, because of his fluent Hebrew.
A Palestinian ambulance had brought Ayman to the checkpoint. An Israeli ambulance was waiting on the other side. A Palestinian ambulance is not allowed to pass through the checkpoint, regardless of the condition of its passenger. The uncle had to pay NIS 2,000 to get the Israeli ambulance to come. At a quarter to two, they reached Sheba Medical Center.
After arriving at Sheba, Ayman underwent surgery. In the days that followed, his condition worsened: his vital systems collapsed one after the other. His uncle never budged from his bedside. Seven days, a slow death.
Back in Gaza, Ayman's father was desperately trying to obtain an entry permit to enter Israel so he could be at his son's bedside. Ayman was the beloved youngest child; only a few days before he was shot, his father had said to him: "Of all your brothers and sisters, you're the only one who will stay and live with us even after you get married." Ayman loved soccer. His uncle says the adults were always telling him to stop making noise with the soccer ball when they were trying to rest.
Last Friday, after the uncle appealed to human rights organizations in Israel and with the assistance of hospital personnel, the permit was finally obtained – six days after the boy was wounded by an Israeli tank. Abdel Qader Abu-Mahdi was permitted to come to Sheba to see his son. It was a just a few hours before the boy died.
On the day Ayman died, this writer spoke by telephone with the uncle in Gaza. Gaza has been closed to Israeli journalists for the last two weeks. Before that, we were able to take a picture of the dead child in the ambulance that took him back to Gaza, wrapped in a blue shroud, a tranquil expression on his face. His uncle held up a picture of Ayman before he was wounded, to show us what he looked like.
The scene at the boy's bedside, says the uncle, was heartbreaking. "The father started to cry and shout: "Ayman, Ayman, answer me. Speak to me. Just one word." Abdel Hayy says that the medical staff couldn't hold back their tears, either. The father wanted to stay in the hospital, but his brother insisted that he go home. "I wouldn't let him. I'm his uncle and it's very hard for me, but how would it be for his father? I was afraid that my brother might have a heart attack. I pleaded with him to go home."
On Friday afternoon, the father took a taxi to the Erez checkpoint. That night, the uncle tried to go to sleep in the parents' room next to the pediatric intensive care unit. He couldn't fall asleep. He told the other people there that he knew the boy wouldn't last much longer.
At five in the morning, he heard a voice over the intercom calling him to come to the ward. The doctor offered him a seat, and he understood immediately. Abdel Hayy almost fainted; the doctor supported him. Then he pulled himself together and recited the morning prayer: "May God have mercy on the child." He gathered up his few possessions and waited for the ambulance that would take them both back to Jabalya. He called another of his brothers and asked him to give Ayman's father the message. He didn't want to break the news over the telephone.
Exhausted and grieving, he says: "My brothers and I lived with the Israelis like friends. Even now, after what happened, we're like friends with the Israelis. We were in Israel our whole lives. We want to live like all the nations. Enough of the bloodshed, from both sides."
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