Israel’s secret doctors (& Disabled Gaza toddler lives at Israeli hospital)

September 18, 2013

Abandoned by his parents in Gaza and by the Palestinian government, 3-year-old Mohammed al-Farra has been at Tel Hashomer Hospital (near Tel Aviv) all his life


* Above all, they don’t want anyone to know the names of their Syrian patients

* An Israeli organization operating anonymously in Syria, providing food and medical supplies for those who need them, relies on secrecy to protect both its local contacts and its own practitioners. Its website identifies no directors or staff but carries a defiant slogan: “Nobody asks permission to kill. We do not ask permission to save lives.”

* AP: “In his short life, Palestinian toddler Mohammed al-Farra has known just one home: the yellow-painted children’s ward in Israel’s Tel Hashomer Hospital. Born in Gaza with a rare genetic disease, Mohammed’s hands and feet were amputated because of complications from his condition, and the 3˝-year-old carts about in a tiny red wheelchair. His parents abandoned him, and the Palestinian government won’t pay for his care, so he lives at the hospital with his grandfather.”


* You can comment on this dispatch here: Please also press “Like” on that page.



1. “We do not ask permission to save lives”
2. “Israel’s secret doctors” (By Robert Fulford, National Post, Canada)
3. Video by CNN
4. “Disabled Gaza toddler lives at Israeli hospital” (By Diaa Hadid, Associated Press)


[Note by Tom Gross]

Tens of thousands of people have viewed this video on my website (Syrian refugees: “May God bless Israel”) and many journalists have now written about it, including staff at The Economist who subscribe to this list.

The Economist points out that in Deraa alone, the southern city where the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011, Israelis have distributed 300,000 meals of dried food to Syrians, as well as medication, and other life-saving and life-aiding equipment, including satellite phones and chemical suits.

Members of the Israeli government who subscribe to this list have confirmed to me that although the volunteers behind this humanitarian aid are operating independently, the government approves of their work and in certain cases offers behind-the-scenes assistance: dozens of particularly badly wounded Syrian civilians have been taken back into Israel for treatment when the hastily-built temporary Israeli field hospitals inside Syria could not cope.

I am grateful to journalists, such as Robert Fulford, for linking to my work in his article in Canada’s largest nationwide paper The National Post, attached below.

After his article is another video, from CNN – this time about badly wounded Syrians being treated inside Israel.

Hospitals across northern Israel are treating significant numbers of Syrians. As reporter Jim Clancy CNN comments that in the Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed (named after a member of the founding family of Marks & Spencer), half of all intensive care beds are occupied by Syrians wounded over the last week alone.

In Syria itself, thousands of doctors have fled the country and dozens have been killed as the Assad regime continues to deliberately bomb medical clinics as a means of killing injured rebels and other patients.


Israel’s secret doctors
By Robert Fulford
National Post (Canada)
September 7, 2013

To help refugees from the Syrian war, Israeli doctors and aid workers must do their work furtively. When they go into refugee camps in Jordan, they change clothes so that they can fade into the background. They must be smuggled in and out. They don’t tell others where they’re going and when they go home they usually don’t say where they have been. Above all, they don’t want anyone to know the names of their patients.

They move “under the radar,” in the words of a clandestine organization in this field. When they treat Syrians in Israeli hospitals, they make sure no visiting journalist learns details that will identify the patients to authorities back in Syria.

Usually, Israel is glad to announce when it contributes to emergency relief. The case of Syrian aid is different.

Syria does not recognize Israel and forbids its citizens to go there. Israeli doctors are not welcome in Jordan, where their work has been denounced as a violation of Jordanian sovereignty. And Israel is anxious not to be involved in the Syrian civil war. It does nothing, officially, that could make it look like the medical corps of the rebellion.

For Syrians the possibility that their own government will punish them adds to the horror of their situation. This summer, in Nahariya, Israel, near the Golan Heights, scores of patients have been covertly brought across the border from Syria to be treated by Israeli doctors.

For patients’ friends or relatives, Israel becomes a last hope when no Syrian medical help is available. Masad Barhoum, clinical director at Western Galilee Medical Center, recently told an NBC reporter that many patients arrive unconscious. “When they wake up and find that they are in Israel they are anxious and afraid.”

A Syrian woman in the hospital said that she came to Israel because her daughter was hit by a sniper’s bullet. “The hospital in my town was destroyed. They saved her here, but now I am afraid to go back. We will be marked.”

An Israeli organization, iL4Syrians, operates anonymously in Syria and other desperate countries. Providing food and medical supplies for those who need them, it relies on secrecy to protect both its local contacts and its own practitioners. Its web site identifies no directors or staff but carries a defiant slogan: “Nobody asks permission to kill. We do not ask permission to save lives.”

They explain that “We focus on countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel, transcending differences.” They argue that a respect for the sanctity of human life expresses Jewish tradition and culture. As they see it, this applies to Israel’s toughest and cruelest enemies as well as anyone else.

Since all of these efforts are unofficial and unrecorded, no one can say how many Israelis are involved. I was alerted to this phenomenon by one of the regular letters of Tom Gross, an astute British-born commentator on the Middle East.

Gross has a 15-minute film showing a couple of days spent by an aid group visiting refugees. The refugees don’t expect them to arrive and are surprised when they learn that their benefactors are Israelis. That makes some of them nervous but in the film others say in Arabic “May God bless Israel.”

The team takes along a professional clown to perform for the children while food is being handed out; in one camp, however, the adults briefly riot over limited supplies. A journalist asks one of the aid workers, “Do people call you crazy?” She answers: “Not many people know.”

Information about this work has to be pieced together from fragments of journalism, like a paragraph in an Israeli/Arabic paper: “The Arab countries offer condolences but the best role is provided by the Israelis because they are crossing the border to provide assistance to the refugees, risking their lives without a word of thank you.”

These are dark days for much of the world, dreadfully dark for Syrians. Few can even imagine a solution that does not involve even more tragedy for them. W.H. Auden, in his poem “September 1, 1939” described an even darker time and offered the only advice that made sense to him: “Show an affirming flame.”

As Jews celebrate the start of the new year, it’s worth noting that these Israeli humanitarians have found a way to make their flame burn with a brave affirmation.





Tom Gross adds: Also under-reported in the international media is the fact that Israeli hospitals treat thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank each year – in most cases their treatment being paid for by the Israeli government and private donations from Israeli and Diaspora Jews

Below is a moving story about a boy from Gaza, a rare case of an international news agency acknowledging the help Israel gives Palestinians.

Disabled Gaza toddler lives at Israeli hospital
By Diaa Hadid
Associated Press
May 3, 2013

RAMAT GAN, Israel (AP) — In his short life, Palestinian toddler Mohammed al-Farra has known just one home: the yellow-painted children’s ward in Israel’s Tel Hashomer Hospital.

Born in Gaza with a rare genetic disease, Mohammed’s hands and feet were amputated because of complications from his condition, and the 3˝-year-old carts about in a tiny red wheelchair. His parents abandoned him, and the Palestinian government won’t pay for his care, so he lives at the hospital with his grandfather.

“There’s no care for this child in Gaza, there’s no home in Gaza where he can live,” said the grandfather, Hamouda al-Farra.

“He can’t open anything by himself, he can’t eat or take down his pants. His life is zero without help,” he said at the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital, part of the Tel Hashomer complex in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan.

Mohammed’s plight is an extreme example of the harsh treatment some families mete out to the disabled, particularly in the more tribal-dominated corners of the Gaza Strip, even as Palestinians make strides in combating such attitudes.

It also demonstrates a costly legacy of Gaza’s strongly patriarchal culture that prods women into first-cousin marriages and allows polygamy, while rendering mothers powerless over their children’s fate.

Mohammed was rushed to Israel as a newborn for emergency treatment. His genetic disorder left him with a weakened immune system and crippled his bowels, doctors say, and an infection destroyed his hands and feet, requiring them to be amputated.

In the midst of his treatment, his mother abandoned Mohammed because her husband, ashamed of their son, threatened to take a second wife if she didn’t leave the baby and return to their home in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, Farra said. In Gaza, polygamy is permitted but isn’t common. But it’s a powerful threat to women fearful of competing against newer wives.

Now Mohammed spends his days undergoing treatment and learning how to use prosthetic limbs.

His 55-year-old grandfather cares for him. Mohammed’s Israeli doctors, who’ve grown attached to the boy, fund-raise to cover his bills, allowing him and his grandfather to live in the sunny pediatric ward.

But it’s not clear how long he’ll stay in the hospital, or where he’ll go when his treatment is complete. As a Palestinian, Mohammed is not eligible for permanent Israeli residency. Yet his family will not take the child back, the grandfather said. His parents, contacted by The Associated Press, refused to comment.

As his grandfather spoke, Mohammed used his knees and elbows to scamper up and down a nearby stairwell, his knees and elbows blackened and scarred from constant pressure. He used his arms to hold a green bottle he found in a stroller. His prosthetic legs with painted-on shoes were strewn nearby.

He crawled toward his grandfather’s lap. “Baba!” he shouted, Arabic for “daddy.” ”Ana ayef,” he said — a mix of Arabic and Hebrew for “I’m tired.”

Dr. Raz Somech, the senior physician in the Tel Hashomer pediatric immunology department, attributes Mohammed’s genetic disorder to the several generations of cousin marriages in his family — including his parents.

In deeply patriarchal parts of Gaza — not in all the territory — men believe they have “first rights” to wed their female cousins, even above the women’s own wishes. Parents approve the partnerships because it strengthens family bonds and ensures inheritances don’t leave the tribe.

Repeated generations of cousin marriages complicate blood ties. It’s not clear what affect that has had on disability rates in Gaza; but Somech said a third of patients in his department are Palestinians and most have genetic diseases that were the result of close-relation marriages.

Further worsening the situation, disabled children are often stigmatized.

Some families hide the children, fearing they won’t be able to marry off their able-bodied children if the community knows of their less-abled siblings. And they are seen as burdens in the impoverished territory.

Some 183,600 Gaza residents — or 10.8 percent of the 1.7 million Gazans — suffer some kind of disability that affects their mental health, eyesight, hearing or mobility. Some 40,800 people suffer severe disability, the Palestinian bureau of statistics reported in 2011.

According to the bureau, two-thirds of young disabled Gazans are illiterate and some 40 percent were never sent to school, suggesting either their parents kept them home or did not have the means to educate them — a likely scenario in the territory, where about two-thirds of the population live under the poverty line. Over 90 percent of the disabled are unemployed, the bureau said.

Yet attitudes have been changing in Gaza.

Activist Eid Shaboura said Mohammed’s case is “extreme.”

“There’s been a lot of progress. It’s changing now, but of course, not to the level we want.”

There are greater efforts, by about 10 aid groups in Gaza, to increase opportunities for the disabled. Hearing-impaired Palestinians make boutique products in a Gaza center, “Atfaluna,” Arabic for “Our Children.” This year they opened a restaurant run by the hearing-impaired, further raising their visibility.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have also pushed the issue in recent years. Their matchmakers have helped marry off sight-impaired single men with brides and cover wedding costs. Wheelchair-bound Palestinian fighters wounded in battle are honored in military parades.

The hospital that is Mohammed’s home is a rare meeting ground for Israelis and Palestinians. With Gaza’s medical system often overwhelmed, patients often receive permits to receive treatment in Israel.

A generation ago, thousands of Palestinians, including Mohammed’s grandfather, worked in Israel. But Israel began restricting Palestinian movement over years of flaring violence, particularly since the militant group Hamas seized power of the coastal territory in 2007.

On a recent day at the children’s hospital, patients and medics chatted in Hebrew and Arabic. Women in Muslim headscarves strolled in a corridor. An Orthodox Jewish woman affectionately patted Mohammed on his head. She nodded kindly at Farra.

Doctors’ fundraising has covered Mohammed’s years of treatment, Somech said. One donor provided $28,000 for Mohammed’s prosthetics.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is supposed to fund transfers to Israeli hospitals. But it stopped covering Mohammed’s bills six months after he arrived, Somech said. Palestinian health official Fathi al-Hajj said there was no record of the case.

There has been a growing number of cases where the Palestinian Authority stopped paying for patients because of its budgetary problems, Mor Efrat of rights group Physicians for Human Rights said.

Farra said he stepped in to care for Mohammed to save his daughter’s marriage. He sleeps beside Mohammed and ensures he’s clean and fed.

“Taking care of this child is a good deed,” he said.

But after years of caring for Mohammed, his grandfather said he wants to go home. He wished he could find a foster home or caregiver for Mohammed.

“He needs many things in his life,” Farra said, absentmindedly massaging Mohammed’s arm stump as the toddler rested on his lap. “He needs a home.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.