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The World | COLUMN ONE

A Life Saved Only to Be Lost

A Palestinian boy's heart condition was improving, thanks to two Israeli doctors. But there was no remedy for their world's violence.

November 09, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — Israeli doctor Akiva Tamir still speaks of his young Palestinian patient as though the boy had lived.

Tamir and a team of cardiologists, surgeons and other specialists worked repeatedly in recent years to cure the illness that weakened Mohammed abu Hilal's heart. In May, the most successful operation yet restored Mohammed's vitality. He gained weight, grew and was playing soccer with new energy.

On Oct. 17, Israeli soldiers shot Mohammed dead. It was a day when half a dozen Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli troops who patrol the edge of this wretched refugee camp in southernmost Gaza; it started as a firefight with Palestinian gunmen but ended with Israeli tanks firing several rounds into the densely populated warren of concrete-and-tin shacks.

Mohammed, the first to die, was killed as he walked home from his uncle's house. He was 15.

The story of Mohammed and his doctors illustrates how closely Palestinians and Israelis cooperated before their societies were driven apart -- perhaps irreparably -- by the destruction and hatred of the deadliest fighting in a generation. Israelis and Palestinians today are more likely to kill than to heal each other; both sides have been hardened, their societies devastated. Any common ground has been soaked in blood.

The news of Mohammed's death hit Tamir and his partner, Zion Houri, hard.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," Houri said. Such a waste, agreed Tamir.

Tamir and Houri work out of the Wolfson Medical Center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. Mohammed was ferried 55 miles from Rafah to Holon dozens of times for treatments and for three operations in three years. Each trip was an ordeal: acquiring hard-to-get permits, crossing checkpoints and transferring from one (Palestinian) ambulance to another (Israeli).

Leafing through Mohammed's file, Tamir reviewed his handwritten notes and remembered the first time he treated the boy. Progressive heart failure. Huffing and puffing. Unable to walk easily. A heartbeat nearly twice the normal rate.

He described Mohammed's condition in the present tense -- until reminded that the boy was dead. He seemed truly distraught.

"All our lives what we do is try to make people feel better and give them a future," Tamir said, shaking his head. "I cannot imagine this."


When Mohammed came home the last time from Israel, he seemed so much better.

"His health was such that I never used to think he would get any taller," recalled his mother, Inshirah. "But he was getting fatter and taller. He was becoming a man."

His father, Sami, began contemplating a marriage for him. After losing four of their nine children to disease, they finally came to believe that Mohammed, their eldest, would make it.

From his sickly years, Mohammed was a homebody. He loved to make decorations from plastic flowers and fiddle with the family aquarium and draw pictures. Now he was playing a little soccer and volunteering to help his uncle build a house. He wanted a computer.

"It was a big change," his father said. "We had always thought he would die at any moment."

The Abu Hilals live in a rented four-room house at the end of a network of narrow, winding alleyways in the so-called Block O of the Rafah refugee camp. They had to sell the home they owned, plus their small textile factory, to pay medical bills.

Rafah has long been one of the deadliest and most miserable corners of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It has been transformed into a nightmarish urban battlefield, where Palestinian guerrillas routinely fire grenades and guns at Israeli troops patrolling the border with Egypt, and troops routinely demolish Palestinian homes, raze orchards and shell neighborhoods.

In October, Mohammed's mother traveled to Saudi Arabia in a religious pilgrimage that she had promised God to make if her son survived.

She never saw him again. He was killed while she was away and buried before she could return. She had always thought that if something happened to one of her children, it would be 13-year-old Ahmed. He loved to go out and taunt the troops. Not Mohammed.

It was about 2:30 in the afternoon that day, and Mohammed, a lanky boy with the first trace of an adolescent mustache, had finished school. He was walking home the 100 yards or so from his uncle's house when the shooting started.

Mohammed was shot by a large-caliber round from a tank-mounted machine gun, witnesses said. In the next couple of hours, tank shells hit the pavement in front of a boys school and a corner grocery store, killing the shopkeeper and his customer. The dead also included 8-year-old Shamya abu Shamalah, who had stayed home from the mosque that day because her parents thought that the streets might be dangerous. She was killed fleeing her bed as shrapnel pierced the thin walls of her home.

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