Pieces of the puzzle

Pluto author Alice Rothchild stays with a Palestinian family in Hebron besieged by Israeli settlers, and visits the ‘seam zone’ – the area between the Israeli Green Line and the separation wall where thousands of people are trapped without services.

8th January

This is a cozy scene. Three members of the delegation are bent over a Ravensburger Puzzle, Crystals of Enchantment, sorting through the thousand tiny pieces with 11 year old Ahmed and 17 year old Sundus (who loves languages and speaks excellent English) and their mother Fatma. Their father Hisham is smoking a cigarette and watching a football (soccer) game between Egypt and Uganda. To everyone’s pleasure, Egypt wins by one goal. Fourteen year old Jusef is playing computer games on his cell phone and the five year old sister, Aisha, is asleep. Another sister is studying in Jordan. We have started by looking for edges and corners and the project feels daunting, much like the day. This week school exams start and the children have spent hours studying. When puzzle pieces fit together, there is a collective cheer of satisfaction. We have just completed a tasty and filling meal of Maqluba, eating from plates on the floor with newspaper spread out as a “table cloth.” We sit around the edges cross legged, trying not to drip yogurt on our pants. When we feel we cannot eat another bite, Fatma brings out the sweet tea with mint and her homemade pound cake. There is a relaxed, loving warmth between the children and their parents and frequent laughter and physical affection. When I think the feeding frenzy is over, Fatma comes in with a tray of dense Arabic coffee in tiny cups.

The normalcy of this family is a miracle to me because they are living in Hebron, in H2, in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida where 45,000 Palestinians are held hostage by 600 very racist, armed, and violent Jewish settlers. Their neighbor up on the adjacent hill is Baruch Marzel, a well known Kahanist leader who they tell us brags about two signs in his house: “I already managed to kill an Arab, and you?” and “God gives us the right to kill Arabs and we love it.” He has threatened all of the family members and has said to Hisham, “One day I will kill you. Every dog has its day.”

Before dinner Hisham told us that in 2006, Baruch attacked nine year old Yusef and smashed his teeth with a stone. The family brought a complaint to the Israeli courts and 40 days ago (please note over four years after the attack) finally got to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. The case was postponed and when they returned to Hebron they were stoned by waiting settlers again.

Relaxing after dinner, (now bananas and apples appear) Hisham mentions casually that in 1992 some Palestinians placed a flag on an electrical tower. Israeli soldiers threatened Hisham and told him that he had to climb the tower and remove the flag or they would kill him. He scaled the tower and was severely electrocuted with major damage to his left arm and hand; he fell to the ground and the soldiers fled. He was taken to the local Allia Hospital and then transferred to Augusta Victoria Hospital where he was hospitalized for 1 ½ months. As his arm developed gangrene, the doctors wanted to amputate, but his brother asked that they wait until he regained consciousness. He awoke and refused, “From Allah, the blood returned.” He was then transferred to Mokassed Hospital in East Jerusalem where he underwent ten reconstructive surgeries to restore hand function with moderate success. In 2007, internationals in Hebron saw his hand and arranged for him to be treated in Tel Aviv at Tel Hashomer Hospital where a surgeon performed four reconstructive surgeries using tendons from his leg. She explained that he then needed physical therapy and when he told her that he cannot easily return to Tel Aviv, cannot afford PT, cannot get assistance from the Palestinian Authority, and has no such opportunities in Hebron, she started to cry. He found the hospital staff welcoming and helpful. Now he works in a dress shop, “It’s our life, what can we do?” His wife brings in a large bowl of hot salty popcorn smiling graciously.

I remind myself that while the majority of Israelis are appalled by the settlers in Hebron, the Israeli government and soldiers provide them with full support and protection and thus are fully complicit in their dangerous fascistic behavior. Last night the IDF broke down the door of a family in Hebron, surprising his wife who was praying, and shot her sleeping husband multiple times in his own bed. The IDF subsequently issued an apology, it turns out they were on the wrong floor and killed the wrong man. They did not apologize for their policy of extrajudicial assassinations. This is a democracy?

This morning feels like it began several days ago, in a funky hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. We took a taxi to French Hill to meet up with volunteers for the Saturday Mobile Clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel in conjunction with Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We join a larger gathering of volunteers at a gas station in Tayibe, a Muslim village on the Israeli side of the Green Line not to be confused with the Christian village of the same name in the West Bank that is famous for Tayibe beer. This mobile clinic is always fascinating on multiple levels. First there is the issue of getting to Tayibe which involves traveling down Highway 443, sometimes called the apartheid road. This highway passes through the West Bank between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and can only be used by vehicles with yellow license plates (read Jewish only roads), except following a Supreme Court ruling, there is a segment of the road, book marked by checkpoints, that Palestinians can use to get to their own towns and parallel set of roads (Apartheid come to mind?).

The medical volunteers include a dedicated nun and nurse who has devoted herself to work with PHR Israel and Bedouin issues. She explains that PHR’s latest focus is on refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. 10 to 15 new arrivals appear at the PHR Open clinic two times per week and there is increasing evidence of human trafficking, torture and rape (with requests for abortions) by a combination of the Egyptian army, IDF and Bedouin smugglers involved in an international network of traffickers (see the PHR Israel website).

There are four US medical students from the Sachler School of Medicine, a program at Tel Aviv University for US students, taught in English. Many do not ever study Hebrew. They are incredibly ebullient about the wonders of Tel Aviv, the unique opportunity to live and study abroad for four years, and the lower levels of stress at this med school compared to the US (note author’s amazement). They have come for a variety of reasons ranging from, “This was the only place I got in,” to an unblemished love for Israel. Their MD degrees will be fully recognized by the US medical board and they are not treated as other foreign medical students are with special requirements and testing in order to qualify for residencies in the US. (please note author’s amazement). There are three Israeli medical schools that have this arrangement and I presume that it is another facet of our “special relationship” with Israel. The students are enthusiastic, but I suspect fairly oblivious to the political realities, so I think that it is important that they join the clinic. I am afraid though, that without context, they may be coming to help the poor Arabs in Palestine who cannot fend for themselves, a form of occupation tourism.

We spot a rainbow arching through the dark clouds as we drive out heading toward a tiny town in the most northeast corner of the West Bank. I sit next to an acupuncturist, (originally Israeli, lived in London for 20 years and then came back) and a massage therapist (originally from London, came to Israel “because I needed a change.”) They have both worked in Barta’a, a Palestinian village located in the seam zone, the area between the Green Line and the separation wall where thousands of people are virtually trapped without services. We are unable to settle our disagreements about BDS but have a lively exchange.

After a massive traffic jam in Jenin, and miles of huge patchwork farms, we arrive in Faqua’a, a village of 4,000 that lost acres of land to the wall and has an unemployment rate of 60%. They have a small clinic staffed by a physician once or twice a week, but their main health/public health/agricultural challenge is lack of water. The multilingual nurse on the mobile clinic translates: their water source is now located on the Israeli side of the wall, during the summer they are dependent on expensive water tankers, in the winter they are dependent on rain. The amount of water is inadequate and the quality is poor so they have high levels of gastrointestinal disease.

Located in a school with an Israeli ob-gyn in the next room, we set up an office, one desk, a circle of chairs and a mattress on a table. I have brought a flashlight, hand sanitizer, and some minor surgical instruments. The women mostly have back and pelvic pain, vaginal discharge, and bladder concerns. They tend to have many children and are embarrassed about pelvic exams. We have endless negotiations about the exam, but the most difficult issue for me is that here we are, a few miles from a country with one of the most advanced medical systems in the world. By contrast, in this village, I have none of the tools that a modern physician needs to provide optimal treatment, starting with the most basic tests for gynecology. For instance, I have access to an ultrasound, but I cannot do any microscopy, preventive health care, or mammography. The right to health is both a basic human right and one of the cornerstones of the work of PHR Israel and PMRS. This right is one of the many casualties of the occupation.

Alice Rothchild is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience. She maintains a website at www.alicerothchild.com

Broken Promises, Broken Dreams – Second Edition

Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience

Alice Rothchild

New edition of this unique and honest account of the conflict seen through the eyes of a doctor, with personal accounts that bring the trauma to life.

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