Waiting to Return

A father and his paralyzed young daughter are in the West Bank, separated from the girl's mother and their other two children in Jordan. Why won't Israel allow family reunification? Because the mother was born in Gaza.

Little Dalal lays on the tattered sofa. She bursts into tears at the sight of strangers entering the room. Dalal, who has brain damage, does not stand or sit, does not speak and is steadily going blind. Her body is withering and the doctors say her days are numbered. She is three-and-a-half years old. Both legs and her left arm are in splints. Dalal cries, and then she laughs. She blows kisses in the air, clings to young photographer Tali Mayer, who has joined us for the visit to this wretched household.

It's obvious that the girl longs for a mother's touch. For nearly a month now, Dalal has been cut off from her mother, after her father had to bring her to his rented studio apartment in the town of Beit Omar near Hebron. Here, without even minimal equipment, without any nursing or other assistance, he has been caring for his paralyzed daughter, laying her on the sofa, picking her up from the sofa, feeding her special food - she also has difficulty swallowing - carrying her with him to work or leaving her with the neighbors. He has no choice.

He shows us pictures of basic rehabilitative equipment, a wheelchair and walker, which he cannot afford, things that could improve the quality of life of his paralyzed daughter. But Osama Rasras, the father, smiles in spite of everything. It's a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. Even when he wanted to hospitalize his daughter for diagnosis and treatment at Al-Aliya Hospital in Hebron, they refused to admit her at first: The children's ward at this hospital will only accept toddlers who are accompanied by their mothers. But her mother is in Amman. The hospital eventually relented, but then they didn't know what to do for the girl other than to attach an IV to her arm and release her.

Sonia, Dalal's mother, was born in Rafah. That was her sin and this is her punishment. Natives of Gaza are not permitted entry to the West Bank, no matter what. No matter if it's a matter of humanitarian need or family reunification. There is no entry. Osama, the father, born in Nablus and a resident of Beit Omar, does not want to move from here. Here he has some sort of livelihood; he has worked for years in the Palestinian Authority and this is where his life is.

A few months ago, their third child, a son named Omar, was born in Amman. Sonia, alone with her three small children in a rented studio apartment in Amman, without any family support nearby (her parents and siblings live in Rafah, and her husband in Beit Omar ), fell into a postpartum depression. Since then, she has been unable to care for all the children - her paralyzed daughter, the newborn baby and the oldest child, a little boy who just started school. And so Osama was forced to take Dalal to his home, hoping perhaps to also be able to bring to the West Bank - not to Israel - his wife and his other two children.

Is there any point in mentioning that this is a refugee family from Faluja that has already experienced the hardships of the occupation? The Rasras family, a Palestinian family, versus the policy of the Israeli Civil Administration.

Dalal and her father, Osama Rasras
Nir Kafri

I first visited this family two years ago, at the behest of Musa Abu Hashhash, a B'Tselem investigator in the Hebron area. At the time, the mother and her children were stuck in Rafah and the father in the town of Dura south of Hebron. Shortly afterward, in wake of the report on their plight, the problem was solved and Israel said that Sonia and the children would be permitted to move from Rafah to Dura. They almost made it. But then Operation Cast Lead began and the gates of Gaza were completely shut to the Rasras family members there. (Before that, Sonia and her children had lived happily in Dura together with Osama, but then Sonia's father became very ill and she decided to visit him in Rafah with her two children. This was her fateful mistake - the hastily arranged family visit to Gaza turned out to be a one-way trip. )

When the war ended, Sonia bid her parents farewell and hastened to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing to Egypt, for which she received permission only because of Dalal's deteriorating health. From there she made her way to Jordan, wishing to be as close as possible to her husband, even if the Jordan River and a huge abyss still separated them. She hoped that one day she could be reunited with him and they could care for their children together.

Sonia and Osama are cousins who married in 2003 in Rafah. From there they moved to Nablus, when that was still permitted, and they lived in Osama's family's home. After a few months, they moved to Dura, where they lived for several years. Ahmed was born and then Dalal, who was not diagnosed with brain damage until four months after her birth. And so their life together continued until Sonia and the children traveled to Gaza. After the urgent phone call they received in the middle of the night late in 2007, informing them that Sonia's father was gravely ill, the family was torn apart.

Even an urgent appointment for Dalal at the St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem, addressed to "Menachem" at the Erez checkpoint, which Osama shows us now, did not convince the authorities at the checkpoint to let her out of Gaza. It wasn't enough of a "humanitarian case," apparently. Once, Sonia thought of going to the Erez checkpoint without any permit and trying to show Dalal to the border clerks in the hope they would be moved to help her. For eight hours she sat there with Dalal in her arms before turning around and heading back to Rafah. And so, for close to two years, Sonia and Osama did not meet at all; she was in Gaza and he was in the West Bank, just a two-hour drive away.

When the mother and her children arrived in Jordan, Dalal was treated at the private Ibn al-Haytham Hospital. She underwent brain surgery in January of last year, but the post-surgery rehabilitation treatments were too expensive for the family. The girl needs physical therapy, speech therapy and other types of therapy. She was born in a small private hospital in Hebron, Al-Mizan, and has suffered ever since from brain damage due to prenatal anoxia. Once a month, Osama would join his wife and children in Jordan for a few days and then return to his job in Bethlehem. A few months ago, their son Omar was born in Jordan.

On August 7, nearly a month ago, Osama was called to Jordan to take Dalal to his home, after his wife was no longer able to care for all her children on her own. He managed to obtain permission to bring Dalal here, and the little girl was transported by ambulance to the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge. Since then, the father and daughter have been here, and the mother and the other two children there.

Osama is desperate, and doesn't know what to do. When we met the first time, two years ago, he thought about appealing to Defense Minister Ehud Barak to request permission for his wife to enter the West Bank. This week, with the peace talks beginning in Washington, he thought about appealing to Mahmoud Abbas: "How can you have peace talks if even a humanitarian case like this one doesn't get solved?" he asked this week.

Dalal sometimes loses consciousness; her muscles tend to shrivel up; she has seizures. And Osama is all alone in his meager apartment in Beit Omar with the girl, desperate for medical assistance for his daughter and desperate for his wife's presence. He says he has no chance of obtaining funding from the Palestinian Authority for his daughter to be treated at a rehabilitation hospital in Israel. One can only imagine what kinds of wonders could be done for the girl here, in a place like Alyn Hospital for children in Jerusalem, if only someone could be found to pay for her transfer there.

Meanwhile, a picture of Ahmed, the eldest child, is tacked on the wall in the tiny apartment, a sad reminder for his father, who is cut off from him this week too, when he went to school for the first time. A picture of the newborn baby, Omar, can be seen on Osama's cell phone. He displays it proudly, while Dalal stares from the worn-out sofa that is her bed and her whole world, blowing kisses everywhere. Her spine is becoming more curved, her vision is fading, but she is still doing better than the doctors in Jordan - who thought she would live only a few more months - had predicted. Six months to a year, they said. But now Dalal is playing with her cheap doll, a Barbie for the poor, that hasn't even been removed from its cellophane wrapper. It's her only plaything. Every day she listens to her mother's voice on the phone from Jordan. Her father says she smiles whenever she hears her voice.

No response had been received from the Civil Administration by press time.