The family of a premature baby who showed signs of life after doctors had declared it dead accused doctors at the Holy Family Hospital in Nazareth of medical malpractice yesterday.

The hospital's director, Dr. Ibrahim Harbaji, said the case was a miscarriage of twins in the 21st week of pregnancy. "The fetus was not viable," Harbaji said.

The two preemies had been released to the Habishi family of Iksal for burial. As family members washed them, they realized that one, a girl, was moving. She was rushed to Haemek Hospital in Afula, but doctors could not save her life, and she was pronounced dead a second time.

Niha Habashi and her husband Akram have been married for 11 years. "We have been trying to have children for 11 years. Six months ago we were very happy when we learned Niha was pregnant with twins," said Akram.

But then the Habishis ran into problems.

"For the past two weeks my wife was not feeling well," Akram said. Niha was hospitalized. Two days ago, she lost the first fetus, a boy, in the bathroom at the hospital.

"I screamed and asked them to save the other one. They took me to the operating room and I asked them to explain what was going on, but they didn't explain," she said yesterday.

Harbaji said doctors, including a pediatrician, examined the fetuses and saw they were not viable. Each weighed less than 400 grams.

"Usually fetuses are sent to pathology but the family asked to take them for burial. Two hours later, after the fetuses were examined again, they were released to the family. I cannot explain what happened later," said Harbaji.

Once family members saw the girl was moving, they went running to the house of their neighbor Dr. Aziz Darawsha, head of the emergency room at Haemek Hospital in Afula. He called an ambulance, and she was then rushed to the hospital's preemie ward, as the as the other preemie, a boy, was buried.

Harbaji said Haemek was accidentally told the preemie was in the 25th week, when it may be viable.

"We begin trying to save preemies in the 23rd week. But in this case the child was not breathing and it was black, with no pulse. This was a miscarriage, and nothing else can be done. The hospital was not negligent."

The Health Ministry said that the case was reported, and that it was waiting for the hospital's report.

The last time a preemie "came back to life" in Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, it was revealed that there is no uniform procedure for declaring a preemie dead.

Prof. Ehud Zmora, chairman of the forum of neonatal intensive care units in Israel and head of the neonatal ICU at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, says a neonatologist should be present to declare a premature infant dead in the delivery room, although several hospitals allow an obstetrician to make the determination.

Health Ministry directives define birth before the 22nd week as miscarriage. However, because the week of pregnancy is not precise, especially in multiple pregnancies, the margin of vitality is blurry.

Neonatologists in Israel have opposed setting a minimum week for treating preemies due to this imprecision. Israel's laws on treating dying patients purposely been left vague on this point, in order to leave the decision up to the doctors and the parents. In most Western countries there are no clear laws on when to treat a very premature birth for the same reason.