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Ha'aretz, May 14, 1999

His son's life

Five years ago, an Israeli soldier shot a 14-year-old Gaza boy in the head. His severely disabled father looked after him with devotion. Last week the boy died. The soldier who shot him was sentenced to two months in prison

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz Magazine


This week, in the courtyard of the house adjacent to Yasser Arafat's bureau in Gaza, a bereaved father sat bewailing the death of his son. The father is a refugee, and confined to a wheelchair - he has no legs, only one arm, and is blind in one eye. With his one hand, he wiped the tears away.

I first met Hassan Abu Hajer in June 1994. It was in room 602 of Shifa Hospital in Gaza, during the waning days of the Intifada. The occupants of the room were three Palestinians who had suffered head wounds; all were comatose. One of them was Mahmoud Abu Hajer, almost 14; he had been an eighth-grade student in Gaza City's Zaitoun School. Three weeks earlier, an Israeli soldier had shot him in the head three times in front of the school, perhaps after he threw a stone at the soldier's truck, which was protected by window-bars. What I saw in Shifa Hospital has haunted me ever since: a disabled father - like his son, Hassan Abu Hajer was also seriously injured as a child, on his way to school - feeding his comatose son directly into the stomach, holding in his one hand a bottle of puree he had prepared, and softly stroking the boy's face with the stump of his other hand

This week, Hassan's lawyer, attorney Hussein Abu Hussein from Umm el Fahm, called to inform me that Mahmoud had died a few days earlier in the Tel Aviv institution where he had been hospitalized for the past few years. He was not yet 19. The Intifada had claimed another victim.

We parked on Yasser Arafat's sandy helicopter pad, mumbled some identification to the bored Palestinian soldier who was guarding the site - Arafat was in Ramallah - crossed the road and entered the yard of Hassan Abu Hajer's house, or hut, on the Gaza seashore, next to Arafat's presidential offices.We could see Abu Hajer sitting in his wheelchair from the helicopter pad. Since our meeting in 1994, his beard had turned gray and old age had beset his sad face. In the hospital, he had somehow managed to get around on his artificial legs, but now he sat, half a body, half a human being, hunched over in his tattered wheelchair. Last year he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. "I prayed for Mahmoud, but really I prayed for everyone. For a little quiet, for a little calm, for peace."

During the past four years Abu Hajer visited his son every few days at the Naot La Guardia institution in Tel Aviv. Mahmoud's mother stayed at home, busy caring for the couple's nine other children. It is no easy matter for a Gaza resident to travel to Tel Aviv to be with his comatose son; and it's even more of a burden for someone with the physical disabilities of Abu Hajer. Someone would drive him to the Saja'iya neighborhood, from where, if he had managed to get up in time to arrive by 5 A.M., he would take a workers' bus to Jaffa, get another bus to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and then a third bus to the institution, which is in the Yad Eliahu neighborhood in the city's south. And all with a wheelchair - don't ask how. Abu Hajer had no place to stay in Tel Aviv, so he had to get back to Gaza the same day. Once he missed the workers' bus and slept on the sidewalk in Jaffa. A policeman who approached him and heard his story let him sleep there, on the sidewalk.

And we haven't yet mentioned the permits. For the first few months after he was wounded, Mahmoud was hospitalized at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. His father was not allowed to visit him. A security risk, don't you know. And attorney Abu Hussein had his work cut out for him to arrange for Abu Hajer to visit his son regularly in Tel Aviv, including a request to the Haifa District Court, where Abu Hajer's compensation claim was being heard. Even this physically broken man, whose life was blasted out of shape in 1959 when, as a 10-year-old, he stepped on a land mine on his way to school - even he had to wend his crippled way through the labyrinths of the occupation bureaucracy so he could visit his comatose son in a nursing home. "However much Mahmoud suffered, I suffered more. Because Mahmoud is resting now, but I have to go on."

He saw his boy for the last time a few days before his death. Two weeks ago his phone rang; attorney Abu Hussein was on the line: Mahmoud was dead. He took possession of the body at midday at the Erez checkpoint. He took Mahmoud home for a few hours, for a final visit, and then set out for the "cemetery of the martyrs" in the Jabalya refugee camp to bury his son. Mahmoud was a shahid, the last of the Intifada's dead, for now. Last December, Lulu Abu Dahi from Rafah, who had been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier 10 years earlier, when she was six, died. She was the last victim, it was said in Gaza at the time.In his visits to Tel Aviv Abu Hajer tended to his son. He cleaned the hole in his throat through which he breathed, he wiped the spittle that drooled from his mouth. Sometimes he would move his limbs a little, in a kind of morning workout. Mahmoud lay on his bed, eyes open, his gaze fixed in space. That is how I remember him in room 602 at Shifa. Then he still contorted his face sporadically, forced to breathe through the incision. His father would stroke him and calm him, and constantly turn him over on his other side. At the institution, they were apparently less vigilant, and this shattered Abu Hajer.

"I would come and see that they hadn't turned him over for a whole day. How could it be that I sat with him from morning until evening and no one came to turn him over? How could they not turn him over?" He's convinced that his son would have been better off at home, but he didn't have the strength to look after him. "At home Mahmoud would hear noise and turn, he would hear talking and react. All that ended in the institution." Mahmoud was transferred there when the court ruled that the state had to pay for the hospitalization of its victim. Abu Hajer would explain to the staff how to look after the boy. But they didn't understand Arabic. Abu Hajer communicated with them by gesturing with his one hand.

Now he can no longer control his tears. "Until they took him to the institution in Israel, I was with him 24 hours a day. I saw to all his wants, even with my disability. If they needed some medicine at Shifa I would go all over Gaza until I found it. I bought the best meat in Gaza and I would grind up the best piece and inject it into his stomach. I brought him every kind of fruit. The purest honey, the freshest milk. Mahmoud was my arm. My hand. He was one of the best students at school. From the age of 10 he went to sea with the fishermen, and he would get his portion like the most experienced of them. Because he was so smart the fishermen would give him a double portion. He always said that when he grew up he would look after the family." Mahmoud's father wipes away his tears with a paper hankie.

This week, children holding posters demonstrated against road accidents on the street where Mahmoud was shot. The street in Gaza has been transformed. A year after the shooting, Master Sergeant Liad Yehuda went on trial in the military court of the Southern Command. He was charged with aggravated wounding, unbecoming conduct, making a false report and failing to obey orders by driving without an escort. In a plea bargain he was sentenced by Col. Yaron Shlein to two months in prison."You tell me," Mahmoud's father said this week, "as human beings, what you think of that? A man kills your son, who is part of your heart, and he gets two months in prison. What do you have to say about that? A boy who was on the way to school, even if he threw a stone - does he deserve three bullets in the forehead? And the soldier who did it gets two months in prison?"

After Mahmoud was transferred from Soroka to Shifa, his desperate father took him to Egypt, to a hospital run by the Red Crescent. Maybe there, he thought, they would revive his son. But two months later he returned to Gaza, broken-hearted. In July 1995, attorney Abu Hussein informed him that Israel would pay for his son's hospitalization for the rest of his life. On July 17, 1995, Mahmoud was transferred to the Naot La Guardia nursing home. A year ago, the Haifa District Court ordered that he be paid NIS 432,311, after the state had offered NIS 32,000 "for pain and suffering" and NIS 100,000 "for the claimant's shortened lifespan."

Abu Hajer doesn't want to talk about the money. "There is no compensation for Mahmoud. All the millions in the world will never compensate me for Mahmoud. I claim the real compensation only from God. It is enough for me that Mahmoud is now resting in paradise.



(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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